Growing up poor has left me, even in confident adulthood, with echoes of envy. We’d all like to believe that whatever experiences shaped us as children, somehow evaporate in maturity. That might be the story of someone else, but I am reminded with infrequent pangs that I cannot intellectualize my way out of baser feelings. I can, however, work to lessen their power over me.
Yesterday my husband baked an acorn squash. It reminded me of the days when, as a child, we lived wholly off squash and green beans and homemade applesauce. We ate “johnny cakes” (pancakes of corn meal, water, and salt) and blocks of government cheese and butter. This was American poverty, which through international translation, is not true poverty. We had food, shelter, clothing, and school.
Our family of 6 lived in a two bedroom apartment on Main Street in a small town in Iowa. We had a parent, sometimes parents, who was concerned with our grades, our upkeep, our behavior. While our home was rife with alcoholism and domestic abuse, we were clean, fed, and polite kids.
And then there was true wealth.
If I went down the rickety back stairs to the alley and walked north half a block, I was at the public library, a square three story building with small lions on each side of the stairs. My memory is faulty. Maybe there were no lions, but I always imagined there were. I looked for pictures online, but the old building is gone, replaced by a nondescript brick building – as if to disguise its riches in mediocrity. I spent most of my childhood there, creaking across uneven, waxed wood floors for the next book and the next one and the next one.
In my own family circle, no one had nice stuff unless it was stolen or donated, but going to school opened the doors to want. Pretty dresses, new shoes, superhero lunchboxes. These always seemed to be accompanied by pretty people with sparkly personalities and friends. I watched from afar through thick glasses wearing my second or third-hand clothes, shy and envious.
This laid the groundwork for advertising vulnerability, as the inextricable bond between happiness/perfection and stuff was created. It is a mental connection that I must talk myself out of continually. My Amazon account would indicate that I’m not a particularly good at it.
My body also did not escape this want, having struggled with weight most of my life. Hell, I’m an American woman through and through. Even when my weight is fine, I still struggle. But my body remembers hunger. My brother and I would get up in the night and “steal” food and my mother would lose her ever-loving mind to discover only half a loaf of bread was left in the morning. There was only so much to go around.
I over-buy. Our cupboards reflect that. Two of everything. I tell myself that since we’ll use it, it’s not a waste to buy two instead of one. If it were not for my compulsive organizational habits, our house would groan with the weight of my wants. Fortunately, living in small spaces all my life has been useful. My wants are constrained by my desire for space and neatness.
In the more tumultuous years we moved a lot. I learned to know exactly what I had in my possession. I know what I need to grab on the go. My stint in the Army reinforced this habit. This is where the weight of my want can entangle me, make me lose time. I have to straighten and inventory often. Everything has its place. My family doesn’t have this compulsion. I’ve stopped fighting their entropy and maintain my own spaces.
It is frustrating, at 51, to recognize the source of my behaviors and to still frequently feel at their beck and call. I can only walk myself through it, slow my actions, and try to remember that it is pointless to try and satisfy this gaping maw of want. This kind of hunger has no end, only a beginning, its imprint indelible, but not unmanageable.
Today, my daughter and I volunteer at our local food shelf. She has never known want. She will likely never stockpile, covet, or look longingly at others who have more. I’m very glad of that and in exchange, I have taught her the value of civic service – an awareness of the many people who are not so fortunate and our responsibility, as fellow humans, to ease their burdens. This is the gift of my want – empathy. It is a hopeful reminder that no matter how we started, we can decide who we become.
Lately, I feel like I’ve been moralizing a lot. I think I do this as a way of combating the anger I feel when I see and hear the many people in our society who believe in the bootstrap bullshit, even as they blame everyone else for their woes. None of us advance without the assistance of others and our society is defined by how we treat the least among us. Herein ends the sermon.
On a lighter note, I met Walt’s challenge of writing a creepy story under 899 words. Get some heebie-jeebs over at Waltbox.