About this time of year, back in 1998, I found myself living in an old house on Old St. Louis Road here in Jefferson City. The house, originally a chicken coupe, had been renovated to accommodate a small family back in perhaps the 1930s or 1940s, but no one remembers.
The little house on the huge lot was where my father grew up, with uncomfortable darned socks, and patched blue jeans. Jeans were embarrassing to wear back then when people with money wore slacks and didn't have turned-out collars. He had a real pony and plastic army men and a BB gun and wooded acres behind the house to explore. After he left home in his Firebird and married my mother, I was born. The year was 1977, and my parents would drop me off at my grandmother's house, plaid bell-bottoms and all, so that Dad could go to work at the police station and mom could finish her RN degree at Lincoln University while she worked at St. Marys for $2.35 an hour.
I spent long happy days on Old St. Louis Road growing up. Grandma had a huge Concord grape vine, cherry, peach and walnut trees, berry bushes, flowers, birds, watercolors, turtles, and every kind of vegetable in her garden anyone would want to eat.
Grandma didn't have air conditioning or cable, so when it became too hot in the summer, she would fill up a spray bottle, and I would sit in front of the box fan in my underwear and one of Grandpa's big T-shirts. She would mist me as we watched "The Price is Right." We sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Jesus Loves Me" on the porch swing and snapped green beans in the evening. The mosquitoes were almost big enough to carry me away if they ever would have organized themselves. We dressed "doll-babies," walked to Daisy Delight for ice cream, and played wiffle ball. She would always save the cardboard that came under frozen pizzas for us to play Frisbee with, and she saved all her bread bags to braid into floor rugs or to put over my shoes if it rained. In the winter we drew pictures and read books in the kitchen by the old wood stove that heated the 5 livable rooms of the house. She taught me how to write my name in cursive when I was 3 years old. I didn't know we were poor. I was too young.
I did know I was poor the year I turned 21. I had moved back into the old house while I worked as a delivery driver for Sub Shop and went to school full-time at Lincoln University. We had to move grandma to a nursing home because of her failing health, so, in time, I inherited the modest rent-free dwelling. It had been vacant long enough for all the potatoes to rot, and for a family of raccoons to move into the attic.
There were several special features that came with the house: independence, spiders, plenty of things in need of repair, mice, more spiders, and fond memories. I was thrilled to try to make my way in the world and welcomed the challenge of self-sufficiency. I slept on the fold-out "Devan" with a kitten that I adopted. I shared my nightly ramen noodles with Sketch the gray cat, and let him sleep with me until I ended up with fleas in the bed. I remember I was reading "Angela's Ashes" at the time. Thanks to Frank McCourt's book, I never felt sorry for myself. Not often anyway.
The old bathtub came without a shower spout, so I found a hand-held attachment that went over the faucet like an external catheter. On one such sitting-to-spray-off occasion, as I was listening to the family of raccoons wrestling in the attic and eyeing a large wolf spider in the corner of the room, the water turned off. Hair fully lathered, no water. I sat there naked in the tub for awhile, trying to devise a solution, remembering that I had paid the bill, and that class started in an hour. I wasn't sure if I could bring myself to rinse my hair in the back of the toilet, but did I have any other options?
Just in time, the sound of rushing water, barely audible, distracted me from my plan. I grabbed a robe and stuffed my soapy feet into my Keds and followed the noise around the house to the back. There, below the bathroom window, the main water pipe had burst and the pressure had blown a hole
clear through the newspaper-insulated, exterior wall. "So now what?" I pondered as I stared at the fire-hose gush spewing through the wall. The old adage, "Poor folks is got poor ways," came to my mind that day as I stood in my soaking-wet robe and squishy tennis shoes rinsing my hair in the sunny back yard. But I had realized something else about being poor as I waved to my puzzled neighbors from across the large yard.
There is a big difference between having next to no money and being poor.
That house has since been torn down. Apparently houses being partially held up by 1950's car jacks, which boast of black-garden-hose plumbing, aren't worth salvaging. It still makes me smile, however, that in a "worthless" old house, I learned something priceless. I learned about being resourceful, turning hardship into funny memories, being grateful, and the value of family and friends. We were rich back then with our fried baloney sandwiches and snow ice cream... we just didn't have a whole lot of money. We knew all our neighbors. Us kids ran around in unsupervised packs from sun up until the streetlights came on. People fed whatever kids happened to sit at their table in the summer as long as you asked permission and didn't expect anything fancy. If someone had something that your family didn't, it was always shared without hesitation. We didn't buy fancy Popsicles, we bought enough for the whole neighborhood.
I remember how proud my dad was, when after years of push mowing my Grandma's acre of yard, she bought him a red, riding-lawnmower. I remember how proud I was of my dad for having the only one on our street at the time, and using it to mow not only her yard, but ours and three of the neighbor's on both sides. He used to mow that stretch of grass like a farmer on a combine. I'm so glad years later that now his younger neighbors mow his yard for him. That's how it should work. I think that's the kind of wealth people should work to accrue.