Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Growing up Poor...Can Life Change?

this blog got me to thinking...


The major question -- if you grow up poor, are you stuck being poor the rest of your life?

I know the answer to that from experience...

Grandpa and Grandma Cumings were the children of farmers -- and farmers themselves. They both worked second jobs because of the Great Depression -- he was the local mailman, and she had a booth at the local farmers market. (Which took her all morning to drive to -- after she'd already been up, fed the chickens, took care of the babies, and walked a quarter-mile up the road to take care of her in-laws.)

They had 8 children: "2 and a half-dozen," as Grandpa used to joke. None of the kids had any money for college, so they took jobs and loans. And they all went. My uncles and aunt ran an equipment company, built swimming pools and homes for the community. They were teachers, counselors, pastors, missionaries, nurses. (Ironically enough, none became farmers -- though Mom married one, and they ended up buying the family homestead.)

Not long after Grandma's youngest child (my mom) left, Grandpa had a stroke. He lived for months as an invalid before dying and leaving Grandma socked in with debt. She didn't whine or give up or demand money from her children. Instead, she worked as a housekeeper, and her skills were so valued that her employers even took her to Florida on their winter months there. Grandma sold things during tight spots. She pinched her available pennies until they screamed, partly by having a garden, partly by careful purchases. Not only that, but she taught her daughters (and daughters-in-law, and grandchildren) to knit and darn and mend and can and hook rugs and embroider and make bread.

And yet she was one of the most generous women I ever knew. She opened her home to every out-of-town relative, traveler and missionary that came through town, and her table was famous for its homemade goodies (especially her apple pie). Her children visited frequently, and her youngest daughter checked on her every few days, kids in tow. (Who frequently made a pitstop at Grandma's cookie jar for hermits.)

My parents were farmers -- my dad from a long line of DeVries fieldsmen that began their work by the dikes of Holland, and emigrated to South Dakota for the land. Dad never went to school past the 8th grade. (Mom had a year of college, plus some nursing school under her belt.)

By scrimping every way they could, including living in Grandma's house while she was in Florida, Dad and Mom managed to save enough for a downpayment on the old Cumings farm. The price: a hefty $10,000. It may not sound like much now, but the mortgage payment took anywhere from 25-50% of their income then. (My dad, like many other farmers, took another full-time job to help pay the bills. He did it for the next 20 or so years.)

They had two kids, who outgrew clothes and haircuts and piano lessons, musical instruments and sports. The family only had a television while Grandma was in Florida...and they could borrow her set. (It stayed this way until the daughter was in 4th grade.) They had no savings of account, and their vacations were spent camping or visiting relatives across the country. (Gas was cheap then.)

Both kids wore hand-me-downs, and worked all through high school to save for college. (She worked at the hardware store, him at the same tractor business his dad was service manager for.) Both wore the clothes Mom, a fine seamstress who did professional tailoring, made for them. Christmas and birthdays brought some presents, homemade cake -- and going out to eat! (A rare luxury until high school years for the kids.)

Both went on to college -- both graduated, and one went on to graduate school. (Breaking the 'fine' tradition of my cousins that only the boys finished college -- the girls would go for a 'year or two to meet a nice boy.' And God forbid even thinking about a Master's!) Both kids took multiple jobs and scraped and skimped...and the folks helped with the tuition, as well.

So what did my parents (and grandparents) teach me? To save and scrimp, and find the best bargains. That a good reputation and name were a rare and valuable thing. That there was no price high enough to pay for your honesty. They believed in education -- that books from the library were free, and no one could make you stop learning. (This came especially from my dad, a voracious reader even today, who was bound and determined that both his children were going to college, no matter what.)

They also believed in self-reliance, in being able to bake your own cake -- and clean a house. (Well, I don't do this as often as I should...:) Change your own oil. Build what you need to. Grow your own vegetables, and put them up for the winter. Pay your bills on time, even if it means you live on beans to do it. They taught me the value of faith in my Creator. They taught me love and patience and believing in people.

And of course, how to pinch my available pennies until they screamed!

The outcome of this? My brother and his wife started a business, and bought two more. Built their own house. All in extremely frugal fashion.

And Dave and me? A full pantry, plenty of clothes. No debts, not even for an auto loan. House completely paid for. A business started, and paid for. Girls in college -- and helped with that too (even though they also have had jobs and loans to get by).

And this on an income that, for the past six years or so, has been EXTREMELY modest. (Think going from an engineer's income to a bus driver's -- at 2/3 to 3/4 cut in pay.)
It's a God thing. And a great deal of gratitude to the ancestors that taught me to stretch a pot roast into 4 or 5 meals...to give freely from an open and loving heart.

I feel like the richest girl in town.

1 comment:

Allison Ann Aller said...

A brilliant and beautiful essay...you've been wealthy all along in the things that count!

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