Bee Stung Butts, Freeze Dried Diapers and Other Hilarious Happenings of Poverty

iStock_000014456872SmallDo you ever have days where everything seems to go wrong and you are deep down in the dumps? I do. Sometimes when I have one of those days, I hop in the shower and turn up the hot water and just revel in the wonder and luxury of all that hot steamy running water. I try to remind myself of the luxury all around me to lift my mood.

Recently I finished reading Dolly My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton. It is her autobiography. In it she reminisces about growing up poor in the Great Smokey mountains in East Tennessee.

Poverty is relative.

She says “ I have found that poverty is something that you don’t realize while you are in it”.

That was true for me as well, but I also think that poverty is a very relative concept. Today a poor person in America probably has access to electricity, telephones, food, indoor plumbing, central heat and public transportation. In my Grandparents time, none of the neighbors had electricity, indoor plumbing or central heat. We would feel very poor if we couldn’t jump in that hot steamy shower. Grandma never had the chance until she was in her seventies.

My Mom grew up in St. Louis. Her homes had coal furnaces with radiator heating, electricity and indoor plumbing. Dad grew up on his parent’s farm with a wood stove, an outhouse and kerosene lamps. In their first home together, built out in the new suburbs (then it was country), Mom endured well water and an outhouse. Until, that is, she went out to the ‘library’ with her book one day, sat on the outdoor privy and got stung on the bottom by a bee! It sure wasn’t long after that Dad installed an indoor bathroom! Something tells me there were some harsh words between the two events.

Poverty is subjective.

My entire neighborhood was relatively poor. The family behind us, for instance, lived for years in their basement with their brood of kids (they ended up with around 15 I remember). They were building their house and did it as they could afford to add on. They did end up with three stories.

But I never felt poor growing up. Mom and Dad always pointed out how much better off we were than our neighbors, because we were saving money and building up assets.

Grandma put us kids to bed in the south bedroom when we stayed over at the farm. It was unheated. The walls were not insulated, the windows were single pane. In the winter, it was fricken cold in there! In the morning, you raced into the living room to warm first your backside and then your front-side by the stove.

We had a coal stove at home, but my brother and my shared bedroom was just a few feet from the stove. It stayed warm, but we still stood by the stove in the morning to warm our front and backsides up.

Poverty aids the imagination.

Mom had a vegetable garden and grew sweet corn. When the ears were full and ripe she would pull one down and let me make a doll – using the cob for the body, the silk for the hair and the husk for the clothing. Since I never knew that it wasn’t normal to play with corn cob dolls (by the way, Dolly did that too!), it was A-OK with me. Of course, later on I did get some really nice real dolls from my St Louis Aunts.

When Dad bought a house and had it moved to our lot next door, they thought nothing of loading up our belongings into our little red wagon to move them next door – making trip after trip after trip. That was the first time I had ever moved, how was I to know it wasn’t normal?

Dolly, in her book, talked about her childhood entertainment. There is a plant called poke that the mountain folks used for greens, but the kids had another use for that plant. They used the berries to make a purple die and painted their own and each others bodies with it!

She made June bug strings, I made clover flower necklaces.

Sometimes the adults got in on things too, according to Dolly. All the kids (there were 12 in the family) wanted a pony, but knew they cost a lot. One of their uncles played a joke on them and told them that they could ‘grow’ a pony. All they had to do was find some pony poop and plant it! The kids fell for it hook, line and sinker.

Poverty is inconvenient.

When you feel less favored than those around you, it can hurt. Plus, it can be really inconvenient to “make do or do without!” as the old saying goes.

When my first child was born, we lived in the country – a few miles from the army base at which my hubby was stationed at the time. Our son was born in October, so I carried him all summer. Poor me, it was very hot and we just had a little tiny window air conditioner. I felt bad for myself until my Grandma from the farm told me about the time she and Grandpa got so hot at night in their house (which of course had no electricity and thus no AC OR fans) that they picked up their bed and moved it outside! Inconvenient!

In winter, here in the Midwest, it is hard to line dry your clothes. Since we didn’t have a clothes dryer, I had to find some way to get the kid’s cloth diapers dry. I ended up freeze drying them in the garage! Trust me, that takes awhile. Man, you really have to plan ahead and be on top of things to make sure you can cover the baby’s rear with clean diaps in that situation! Inconvenient!

Up through my teen years, stays at Grandma’s house always involved a chamber pot for night time pees, a water bucket with a ladle to drink from and a wash stand with used soapy water to wash in. Inconvenient!

I know some of you have probably been through some tight times, maybe even in the past few years. It isn’t fun, but somehow you get through it.

On the whole, I’m happy to have enough financial backing now to avoid the inconvenience of poverty, but, if I had to start over with nothing – I think I could.

As Saird (a character in Conrad Richter’s The Town book) says:

“If it took all she had, she’d have to spit on her hands and take a fresh holt”

Do you have a funny story about making do?


Bee Stung Butts, Freeze Dried Diapers and Other Hilarious Happenings of Poverty — 8 Comments

  1. I adore your Grandparents, I can’t really help but to imagine how did the past people survived to live without electricity and now here we are still complaining about what we have? I can’t forget my mom’s story about how poor they are, she has 8 siblings and her parents was a farmer. Sometimes they only had 1 fish for their dinner for the 10 of them including her parents. 🙂

  2. My Dear Dad, who is 83, kept sharing stories about his family’s adventures and how they went “camping” a lot and traveled “extensively” when he was very young. I spoke to his mother, my grandmother, about this and wanted to know how they could afford to go camping and traveling. I’ll never forget how she replied…..Camping???…We weren’t camping….we were homeless for goodness sake!!! She went on to share that they moved around quite a bit during the Great Depression trying to find work and they weren’t alone. As she put it……”the Country was a mess”. And things did not improve until WWII when my G-father found work in ship building. Poverty IS relative…

  3. I was fortunate enough to never live in poverty, though my mom did, but I don’t think she thought anything of it. That was her life as she knew it. Until of course she realized the American dream and became a big deal 😉

  4. I grew up right at the poverty line, but didn’t know we were poor until well into adulthood. There was always food on the table and we always had clothes to wear.

    New toys were rare, so I picked up a paper route when I was 6. It was that or wait until Christmas/birthday time. Since I was born just after Christmas, that made for a year-long wait otherwise. That’s about the extent of my hardship. Dad fixed anything that broke. We didn’t get a microwave until my aunt moved across country and didn’t want to bring it with. Poor me.

    And in the process, I learned the value of money and how to take care of my stuff. I learned that having money takes work, and working hard pays off.

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