My daughter, Elizabeth, is sixteen years old, but I still make her lunch before school every morning. I have this theory, that if eating homemade, minimally processed food becomes a habit, by the time she leaves home, she won’t like fast food. In a few more years, I can tell you if my theory was correct. There are a few rules I have to follow though, like, “no mayo, it just gets gross in my locker,” “no liquids that aren’t clear; they always leak,” and “just put my lunch in a brown bag; no cute lunch bags.” Yesterday, I ran out of brown paper lunch bags and had to resort to putting a chicken sandwich, an apple and clear Gatorade in a Ziploc bag. Since I wasn’t sure how the Ziploc bag would go over, I decided to warn Elizabeth in advance. The warning came with a predictable anecdote about my own lunch bag dilemmas. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “When I was in school, if we ran out of lunch bags, my mom put my lunch in an empty bread bag. The funny thing is that those bread bags could also be used as boots. In the winter, when it snowed we had to wear boots to school or we got in trouble. If we didn’t have boots, we had to put bread bags over our shoes and hold them up with rubber bands.”
Elizabeth: “Wow, Mom, you were poor.”
Me: “No, I don’t think we were poor. I mean, we didn’t have a lot of stuff, because we had a big family, but I never felt poor, and nobody treated us like we were poor.”
That little conversation got my head spinning. Were we poor and I just didn’t know it, or has the definition of “poor” changed since I was a little girl? I wasn’t the only person wearing “bread bag” boots. Most people wore the clunky rubber boots that looked like they were made from used tires, and some “rich” kids wore boots that looked like shoes. It seemed like there were a few people who we all knew were rich, an even smaller number of people who we knew were poor because they never had a lunch and had to eat with the nuns, and then the rest of us.
I grew up in the Midwest, which I remember having a distinct set of values. Midwesterners always took care of their families first and always helped out their neighbors. Everyone did it and it was no big deal, which is probably why my family of seven was able to survive with only one car until I was in high school. My dad was an electrical engineer and did research for the federal government. It was a very prestigious job with great benefits, but his actual salary was modest. His lab was about 20 minutes from our house, so he drove the family station wagon to work in the morning. At lunchtime, he came home, ate lunch and had my mom drive him back to work, so that she would have the car in the afternoon to go grocery shopping and take my brothers to little league practice. After work, my dad got a ride home from a neighbor. There was no carpooling, no reciprocation, just a neighbor who gave my dad a ride because he could. If one of us got sick at school and needed to come home, a neighbor would let my mom borrow their car to pick us up; again no payback required; it was just what neighbors did. My brothers and sisters and I took the bus to and from school, which meant we got home from school about an hour later than our friends, but that was part of the package that came with living a few miles outside of town so that we could have a big backyard.
We never owned a house when I was growing up. We rented what seemed like the best house in the world. It was surrounded by acres of oak trees that we called “the woods”. We weren’t involved in very many afterschool activities. We were too busy playing in the woods. My best friends were my sisters and brothers and the other kids in our little circle of five houses. I remember going to Open Houses with my parents who dreamed of owning their own home, but the down payment was always the deal buster. I always wondered why my parents wanted to spend that much money for a house when it wasn’t anywhere near as nice as the house we lived in.
During this time, my family also experienced the usual bumps in the road of life. My mom broke her leg trying to wash the ceiling, my brother broke his arm riding his bike over a homemade ramp, and I was hospitalized for pneumonia. I remember that medical bills meant that I couldn’t go to pom pom camp one summer, but by this time I was used to the idea that because we were a family, we all had to make sacrifices for each other. My dad got a part-time job teaching on the weekends at a university a couple of hours from our home. He worked out a payment plan with the doctors and hospitals, and after a few years paid everyone off. I remember how happy he was his debt was cleared.
I got a job working at a pizza place when I was sixteen, and was still able to participate in school activities and get grades good enough to get me into college. Many of my friends also worked after school, including the people who had the boots that looked like shoes. I think that meant that working in high school didn’t mean you were poor. It meant you had parents who knew the value of work. My parents paid for my first year of college and half of my second year, but after that I was on my own. I was 30 years old when I finished paying off my school loans. I never felt sorry for myself; instead I felt a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment.
I live a cushy life now. I own a beautiful home with redwood trees in the backyard. We have two cars. And Elizabeth wears boots that look like shoes, which is probably why I felt the need to tell her about the bread bags that could also be used as lunch bags and boots in a pinch. I never felt poor when I was little, in fact I always felt extremely grateful for the life I had. My parents did a good job of teaching me not to waste time comparing myself to everyone else, but to make the most with whatever I had. I hope Elizabeth has learned this too. She didn’t complain about the Ziploc bag.
“He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.”