Thursday, September 13, 2007


When I was a girl, my mother used to fix our lunches every morning before school, as mothers often do the world over. A lunch sack was beyond our financial capabilities, so she wrapped them in old newspapers and tied them with a string. So, off we went to class, this bundle tucked under our arms.

Our lunch usually consisted of a fried biscuit smeared with butter that had been sprinkled with sugar. Then we would have a sugar cookie or an apple for dessert. The condition of the apples depended upon the state of the fruit from the old apple trees in the orchard. If they were too gnarled and wormy, Mom would cut the bad parts out. At other times, she would find a few that were still in pretty good shape.

I can remember sitting at my desk, eating my cold biscuit with its smear of butter and sugar, watching the kids beside me eating chocolate cupcakes, oranges and other goodies. I never had my brother Hjalmar's ability to handle a tough situation.

One day, he was at his desk with his lunch spread out in front of him, when the student at the desk across from him pointed at the biscuit and said, "What's that?"

Hjalmar, who always had a quick intelligence and a knack for getting out of a tight spot, replied, "That? Oh, it's a Clem Biscuit!"

"Clem Biscuit?" queried the other student. "I never heard of it. Is it good?"

"It's real good," said Hjalmar. "You can't get 'em everywhere, but my Mom makes them."

"Can I have a piece?" The boy was staring at the biscuit.

"Give you my Clem Biscuit? No way!"

The student then picked up the chocolate cupcake, sprinkled with nuts, and held it out to Hjalmar.

"I'll trade you. This cupcake for your Clem Biscuit!"

Hjalmar reluctantly agreed and the trade was made. Donald Trump could not have perfected the Art of the Deal any better than Hjalmar in trading that cold, dry biscuit for a plump, iced cupcake! This story became one of those often repeated in our family.

When you are young and poor, you learn to adjust, but we never knew we were poor. For a long while, we thought all people lived as we did, huddling around the woodstove at night, wind whistling through the cracks in the windows, buckets placed throughout the house to catch the leaks from the roof, cardboard covering missing window panes, and an outhouse out in back guarded by a bantam rooster. Our lives were full and happy, and it took many years before we started comparing our home to other homes, our outhouse to a convenient bathroom, the galvanized tub in which we took our baths to the shining porcelain of other tubs.

I suppose we should have suspected we were not financially solvent when fear entered our lives. We worried constantly about the dogcatcher, who was the equivilent of Adolph Hitler and Genghis Khan in our minds. We knew it would take two dollars to get our dog out of the pound or they would put her in a gas chamber and she'd be gone forever. We knew, too, that Mom didn't have that two dollars. So, when my sister Helen gave us the little miniature poodle, Fluffy, our carefree days were gone forever. Dogcatchers, back then, drove around in little trucks, asking people if they had dogs, gathering up these unlicensed animals, loading them into the trucks and driving away.

So, a strange vehicle coming down our driveway was a sight that sent us into a panic. Helma and I would take the dog under the bed, trembling with fear and holding dogs mouth closed, trying to discourage her high-pitched little bark, and praying to whatever God would listen that he would spare our dog.

Later, we learned that our being poor was an irrefutable fact, published for all of the world to see. Just before Christmas one year, a car drove into our yard, and a big basket of fruit and other good stuff was given to Mom when she answered the door. For a few days, we were in a wonderland, with round and juicy oranges, apples without a single wormhole, sweet candy and various other holiday treats.

When Helma and I walked back to school, after Christmas, we saw a big sheet of paper on the door of a church, so we walked up the steps to read it. It was concerning the Christmas Program, which consisted of Baskets for the Poor. Every recipient of a Basket was listed on that paper and Helma and I quickly located our father's name! "And family," it said, and with our eyes round with surprise, we stared at each other. We were considered poor! We were recipients of the largesse of others in order to have a merry Christmas!

We walked down those steps, humiliated and despairing. We had never before considered ourselves to be poor. At that moment, we became people who are different than others, deprived, strange, objects of pity and charity. Suddenly, the memory of those round, red, worm-free apples became bitter fruit. Suddenly the world that had seemed so warm and sunny turned shadowed and dark. When we entered the school building, it was as though every eye turned our way, every thought there was "Look at them! They are poor!"

I have lived enough years by now to realize that being poor is a state of mind. Were we poor compared to the well-to-do townsfolk who never had to worry about the cost of bread? Yes. Were we poor compared to the Third World children who waste away for lack of milk, who exist on a handful of rice or a breadfruit plucked from a tree? No. We always had a roof over our heads, even though it might leak. We always had food on the table, even though it might be a lowly Clem Biscuit instead of a chocolate cupcake.

We had something else, something valuable, something other people lacked and needed. We had family, and when there is family, there is never a chance of being poor. There is always laughter to chase away pain, there is always a feeling of belonging. This need explains why people join clubs and get together in groups, the need for companionship, support, togetherness and warmth. Looking back, I wouldn't trade one morning carrying that newspaper-wrapped lunch, walking that trek to school along those icy roads, wearing flimsy, home-made coats, to an evening at a Parisian restaurant eating the finest food offered by a famous chef. I wouldn't trade a childhood in that ramshackle farm, roaming the orchard, exploring the swamp, to one spent dawdling around the sculptured grounds of an elaborate mansion where every bush is clipped, every blade of grass is manicured.

Being poor, even if it a matter of relativity, gives one strength. For the rest of a lifetime, one isn't afraid of the wolf howling at the door. One can stand up in the face of adversity, realize that money isn't a cure for restlessness and depression, and find some balance in life. Rest assured, I do not want to exist on a diet of beans and biscuits, but I know I can do it. I can not only do it, but I can do it happily. This, my friends, is the secret of life. Acceptance, peace and family. Nothing else will do it, not fame, not fortune, nor any quest for goals. If you have loved ones around you, despite their failings and faults, you are rich.