Growing up Poor

Perhaps I should clarify this provocative intro. My early childhood was well taken care of. Late 60’s, Sunnyvale California, father worked at a defense contractor (and made a good salary). I was too young to know that this made us solidly middle class. There weren’t many worries about money, and the essentials. Then, when I was in 1st grade, my mother decided that she wanted out. Divorce, sudden drop in income, and a pretty big change in life situations.

While my mother kept the house, and my father was diligent about paying child support, it was a noticeable shift in stature. Again, I was pretty young, but I didn’t know better. My mother went through a string of men, finally marrying one that was probably the worst of the bunch. A sometimes working auto mechanic, he was an alcoholic, and abusive. The fights they would have. Wow. Anyhow, there were a lot of dodgy things during this time. My mother worked as a stenographer, a typist, and even as a hair stylist. My now stepfather worked maybe 2-3 days a week, and was pretty drunk the rest of the time.

I remember all this with more than a little bit of the haze of time, but I do recall some things that affected me gravely, and affect me to this day.

When I say “poor” I am don’t mean “Appalachian” poor. But, regardless of our neighborhood, and our appearances, we had a serious downgrade in our day to day existence.

Some examples:

  • If you can’t afford the $6 a month to rent a band instrument, so you have to drop out of band.
  • If you qualify for the subsidized lunch program (and we certainly did, but pride and stubbornness prevented my parents from applying for it).
  • If most of your groceries come from the Dented Can warehouse. If you are there on Wednesday afternoon, when they got the new shipment. Nothing like label-less surprise for dinner. Will it be beans? or Chili?
  • If Tuna Casserole was a splurge. And not solid white, but the light chunk tuna.
  • If you used reconstituted powered milk for your cereal
  • If you ate a lot of bologna sandwiches on bread from the day old Hostess outlet.
  • You know what “government cheese” is.
  • If your vacation was illegal camping on private land.

There were some things that were not skimped on. There was always money for cigarettes (2-3 cartons a week). There was money for whiskey.

By the time I was in the 3rd grade, I began to realize that this wasn’t how everybody lived. I was what was called “gifted” in school, and pulled into special programs to allow me to grow at a faster pace. But it was here where I realized how different my family situation was than my new “peers”. Instead of thriving on the programs, I was almost resentful, as it laid bare how our opportunities were limited because of my mother’s fateful decision to seek a divorce.

I had pretty much forgotten about all this, putting it far behind me until a few years ago. I was at a leadership offsite, with the 12 or so leaders of our organization. Part of the exercise was to do a brief biography of our lives. We shared many attributes, almost all of us delivered newspapers for instance, but there was one thing that stood out to me. Of the 12 people there, I was the only one who had parents who divorced. Biography after biography was a story of a charmed life, with a “normal” family. At that point, I realized that something was taken away from me without my knowing it.

My mother has passed away, my abusive step father died very young, but to this day I am scarred by what happened in my formative years.

I am not sure why after all this time, I need to share this, but I do. If  you read this far, thanks. Perhaps later posts will be the other joy of broken families, the political battle between the ex’s about custody and visitation, game playing where my siblings and I were the cards.