I grew up poor. For much of my early childhood we were at poverty level. My parents split when I was four, so my mother – age 22 at the time – was left with three young kids and a mortgage on a house she had borrowed money to get in the first place. She hadn’t graduated high school – instead she took the California high school equivalency exam – so she worked at a gas station where, on two separate occasions, she was robbed at gunpoint. After the second time she went to find a filing job with the county court system, where she eventually (when I was a teen) worked her way up to middle class wages.
Our family relied on my maternal grandmother for support, in spite of the fact that she was on disability and was only making it thanks to a man who couldn’t say no. My grandmother took this man for everything he had in order to care for us – his car, his money, his house. If it wasn’t for this man who was used, abused, and driven into bankruptcy, there is no way our family would have survived.
My grandmother was always very focused on money. She herself was born in Oklahoma at the tail end of the Great Depression; I can only guess her parents passed on their experiences from that time to her. My grandmother carried the idea that women didn’t get ahead by working – they had to use their bodies. In her mind, all actresses slept their way to the top. And she often said that she “should have married a rich old man” so that he’d die and leave her his money. One of my clearest memories is when I told my grandma I wanted to be an artist and she said, “Artists don’t make any money until after they’re dead.”
Pursuing a career in something you liked to do was a luxury that my family didn’t even acknowledge as being a possibility – unless, of course, it was obtained in some disreputable manner.
At my grandma’s co-opted house, floor to ceiling cabinets held more canned goods than we could eat. There were two refrigerators and a deep freezer. An extra pantry was added to the hallway and I remember gazing up at the shelves full of cereal boxes each morning. There were at least twenty boxes in there at a time – more than enough to feed three children under the age of five.
Our dinners came in tiny portions, of which included over-cooked meat (we couldn’t afford food poisoning!) and things from a can. I was a teenager before I learned that canned soup should have water or milk added to it; somewhere along the way my grandma must have internalized conservation of those precious liquids. On more than one occasion we used powdered milk with our cereal (which is more like milky water), and I never had a fresh vegetable unless I went to a friend’s house for dinner. My friend’s parents marveled at how much I ate when I visited – I was tiny, after all, and didn’t hit 100 lbs until I was a teen.
Some of our food came from public assistance. My family stood in line at a local church once a month for “government cheese,” a gigantic block of bright orange American cheese, along with a few other staples through a program subsidized by the government. I had subsidized lunches at school and the only baked things we got were the “end of life” goods on clearance at the Hostess bakery.
Even with all of this, I knew I had it pretty good – better than many (especially those kids in the Sally Struthers commercials). I had a house, even if I shared a room. I had clothes, even if they were bought on credit cards and my cheap shoes melted on the blacktop at school in the Sacramento heat. We had television (a second-hand working one on top of a dead one, naturally) and eventually we were able to get things like Nintendo, even if we weren’t early adopters. I’ve never been to Disneyland, but we had plenty of fun at our local Fairytale Town.
I focus on money a lot as an adult, in no small part due to my upbringing. The only money-related thing I’ve inherited is worry over finances. It eats me up when I owe money – financial stress takes me right back to my childhood and that desperate feeling of having to rely on others to get by.
I often have to remind myself that I have a great job, a two-income household, and a beautiful (yet affordable – for this area) home. I can pay my bills, even if it will take me longer than I’d like and I’ll have to pay interest. I can cancel cable if I need to, or offload a bunch of unnecessary stuff that I’ve got lying around. If I need money, I can easily get it. In fact, if it comes down to it – I know exactly what to do to survive on a tiny fraction of what I am surviving on now.
Still, that feeling of being right on the edge of disaster is ever near and less than comfortable. I can’t shake the lessons I learned from growing up poor.