My parents raised a large family on next to nothing. The list of what we lacked while I was growing up is long, so here’s a shortened version:
A dishwasher. When I was three years old, our family of five moved into a small house that had been built before dishwashers became standard household amenities. When I left for college fifteen years later, a dishwasher was still at the top of our “most wanted” list.
Square footage. My parents aimed high, so our numbers grew at a staggering rate. After Mom had her seventh child, she contended that nine people living in 1,250 square feet officially exceeded capacity. And that Dad would be wise to do something about it (the “or else” was more or less implied). Dad took the hint.
Funds were scarce, so he hired a college student to assist him and my brother in converting our garage and back porch into living space. The resulting 1,950 square feet felt palatial. So large, in fact, that my parents figured there was room enough to add my baby sister to the family. Ten is a nice, even number.
Regular milk. Normal people buy liquid milk in gallon jugs; my mom bought powdered milk in 50 pound bags. We used spoons to scoop the froth and chunks off the top, but masking the dreadful aftertaste was more problematic. Our only hope was holding our breath while swallowing, and then being extra careful not to inhale until after we had taken a bite of solid food. Breathing too soon spelled disaster (from a taste bud perspective).
Superfluous, expensive stuff. We never locked our doors, and I remember once how worried my brother was about getting robbed. I remember Dad’s strangely reassuring reply, “Anyone who comes here to steal our stuff will leave disappointed — and probably empty-handed.”
My parents sold that house and moved away years ago, so I rarely find myself in my hometown. But just a few weeks ago, two of my sisters and I traveled there for the funeral of a dear family friend. Afterwards, we decided to check out our childhood digs.
As we pulled up in front of the old, small, run-down house, I didn’t think of a single thing we didn’t have while growing up. Instead, the long list of what we did have came to mind. Here’s a shortened version:
Character building opportunities. Mom’s response to our incessant begging for a dishwasher was always the same, “We already have eight dishwashers! Why do we need another one?” Earnings from paper routes, babysitting, and dozens of other odd jobs were deposited into our very own bank accounts. So we had to think very carefully before spending that same money on movies, new clothes, or junk food (since we never had any in the pantry).
A sense of humor. Seriously, anyone who grows up eating pork and beans over toast and sharing underwear is destined to one of two things: 1) therapy, or 2) developing an appreciation for the slightly bizarre, ironic, and sometimes just plain weird. Since my parents couldn’t afford therapy, we settled on laughter. Humor has helped our family through heartaches, and makes hanging out together simply awesome.
Love. Imperfections run in our family (I suspect we’re not alone). But as a child. the peace and security that came from knowing that I was loved — absolutely, completely, no matter what — pretty much trumped everything else. Even frothy, chunky powdered milk.
My sisters and I stood on the front lawn by the tree that my brothers had once tied my sister to (only to get her out of their hair for awhile, and only until Mom pulled into the driveway). While we were laughing, I recognized why our small house had seemed plenty big: we never lacked anything of true value. You could never have convinced me of this when I was 13, but we had it all.
Late that night, I walked into my house that boasts generous square footage, a fair amount of superfluous stuff, regular milk, and a dishwasher. Only then did it dawn on me (about four decades late) that my parents could probably have afforded a dishwasher.
My sister — always the smart one — said it best when she commented, “Sometimes we try so hard to give our kids what we didn’t have, that we forget to give them what we did have.”
Susie Boyce is a mom, writer and public speaker based in Highland Village. Read her column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette, visit her website at www.seriousmomsense.com or her Facebook page, Writer Susie Boyce, or follow her on Twitter @Susie_Boyce.