How Poor Were You?

I spent last weekend in the company of Elysha's 94 year-old grandmother. We call her Nana, and I always love speaking to her. In the midst of our chat, I was reminded of a conversation Nana and I had a couple of years ago. 

Nana told me about a game that she had played with friends called "How Poor Were You?" Players were challenged to provide evidence as to the extent of their poverty at some previous point in their life, and accolades were given to those who could prove themselves to have been the most poverty-stricken.

The game wouldn't have gone well during our visit, as I suspect that Nana (who grew up during the Great Depression) and I were the only people present to ever feel the sting of real poverty, but it sounded like a fun game just the same.

But I also recall that Nana said something to me in the midst of this discussion that I understood fully, and something that I do not think those who have not experienced poverty could ever truly understand. She said, “We were poor, but there were times when it was fun to be poor. You had to be really creative to survive, and to even eat, and there’s a certain joy in that.”

I couldn’t agree more. There have been times in my life when I was barely able to feed myself, but it was often fun trying to do so. 

So in the spirit of "How Poor Were You?" I thought I’d offer some of my poorest moments here.

From kindergarten through high school, I was eligible to receive free breakfast and free lunch from our school system, and during the summers, I also received free lunch from the park service. I can recall enormous blocks of WIC (Women, Infants and Children) cheese being delivered free-of-charge to my home for much of my childhood, and there were days, and perhaps weeks, when this cheese made up a good portion of my diet.

I received my first pair of snow boots at the age of nine after many New England winters spent in tennis shoes wrapped in bread bags.

After high school my roommate and I were so poor that we could not afford to turn on the heat in the winter. We would eat boxes of elbow macaroni (5 for $1) and sit under blankets together on the couch, huddled to keep one another warm while we watched The Simpsons on an ancient black-and-white television set atop an old baby-changing table. The apartment was so cold that the pipes burst in the bathroom and we could routinely see our own breath.

After being homeless and living in my car, I was taken in by a family of Jehovah Witnesses who allowed me to share a converted pantry off the kitchen with a guy named Rick (who spoke in tongues in his sleep) and their indoor pet goat. I did this for almost two years.

I like to think that these challenging times in my life helped to make me the person and the writer that I am today. The constant, almost daily struggle, the need for persistence and perseverance, and the opportunity to experience a varied range of the human condition, from hunger and near homelessness to enormous success and accomplishment, have equipped me with a vast storehouse of memories, experience and understanding from which I can draw.

Sometimes I feel sorry for the people who were born into relative comfort and ease.

Nana was right: Being poor can be fun.

Anyone else experience poverty in their lifetime?

If so, want to play "How Poor Were You"?