Wednesday, January 17, 2007

where I started

Recently I've been thinking about where I started out. What got me moving in that direction was my son. I look at his life now, and invariably I think about my own childhood. It is so very very different. I wonder what that will mean for him in the future. He has everything he needs, and virtually everything he wants. He is happy most of the time.

My childhood was different. The house I lived in when I was small had two bedrooms and 1 bathroom, for 5 people. I remember having to go to the bathroom and trying desperately to hold it while someone was showering or bathing. I remember taking a bath once a week, with my sister, because a)water wasn't free and b) it tied up the bathroom. My sister and I shared a room until I was 10. We were luckier than my brother, who didn't have a room. He slept in the family room; his bed was tucked into one corner of the room. He didn't have a door, but we did put up a bead curtain to separate that room from the living room.

We had to hang our wash up to dry -- we didn't have a dryer. When it rained, I had to run out and pull the wash from the line and bring it in. I hated doing that because the wet laundry was so heavy, and because I had to stand on tip-toe to reach the line.

We always had enough food, but we were constrained by our budget. I remember being told not to drink milk, and just put enough on my cereal to wet it. And don't add milk if you had a second bowl of cereal. At dinner, there was enough for someone to have seconds, but not everyone. Whoever was fastest got it. I am still a very rapid eater. We did not eat out. I had virtually no experience with restaurants until I went to college.

We went to the beach once a year. We would get a tent from the Navy (always some old Army surplus thing that was moldy) and camp about an hour outside ocean city. Later we bought a third hand pop-up camper and pulled it behind the car. It was also moldy, but we loved it. It was so much more comfortable than a tent.

My sister and I went to public school. The schools were fine. We didn't have kindergarden, so we just started with day one of first grade. We didn't know our alphabet, didn't know how to read, but we could count to ten. No one ever read to us. We didn't have any books. Later we had the BookMobile, which was a godsend. It came to our neighborhood once a month to spread literature to the poor folks. You could check out 4 books. I would finish them the first day.

It wasn't grim. We had a lot of fun. Our neighborhood had parades and holiday parties. We had easter egg hunts and visits from Santa. We had a community dock. It used to be possible for working class and struggling folks to live near the water, and we did for a while. We ice skated on the creek, went sledding. My folks went heavily into debt and put in an above ground pool; so we swam a lot.

There were things I hated. I always had second-hand clothes from friends or neighbors or had to shop at 2 Guys. For those who have never experienced this, 2 Guys was the kind of store that didn't have dressing rooms. And the clothes weren't on hangers, they were in big bins, you just sort of rooted through. My mom would make us try things on in the aisle.

I had a sled (from Goodwill, with someone else's name on it). I had a bike, from a friend of a friend. It was so much too big for me that my dad strapped pieces of two x fours to the pedals so I could reach them. I had skates (from the Goodwill, two sizes too big). I coveted anything brand new. I wanted stuff from a good store, where they waited on you (or so I had heard).

I never really valued what we had, although in looking back, we had enough. My parents valued money above all things, and I knew we didn't have that. It was their measure of success, and so we were failures. I was raised to feel LACK and to strive for material success.

I am struggling now to fight my upbringing, and to use a different yardstick for my life. I HOPE I am passing on to my child that material stuff has little meaning. I hope he is getting value lessons, not just having his basic needs met.

I really want to do better by him.

1 comment:

Kitten Herder said...

Congratulations on fighting the good fight against 'want'.

Growing up in a single-parent working-class household, I definitely identify with the childhood you described. I remember how careful my mom was at the grocery store. We usually had hamburger once a week, and a chicken on sundays. Any other meat was a treat. As a poor college student, the frugal grocery buying behavior was second nature to me.

Now, as an adult, I pretty much buy what I'm in the mood for in the grocery store. Part of me is horrified by my extravagence.

In other areas of my life, I have learned to readopt some of the financial lessons of my youth. If I don't 'need' something, I don't buy it most of the time. That mindset took a long time to arrive at.

Hopefully, we can pass on our hard earned sense of equanimity to our offspring.