‘The joys of a Welfare Christmas’
“I hate those people who love to tell you
Money is the root of all that kills
They have never been poor
They have never had the joy of a Welfare Christmas”
— from “I Will Buy You a New Life,” by Everclear
I was 7 when my mother remarried and we began a slow climb into solid middle class.
But, until then, we were poor.
I’d never wish poverty on anyone. Plenty of things came harder because of it.
But poverty also meant simplicity and easy joys out of little things, because you kept your expectations low. It meant keeping close to extended family, because you needed lots of people around you to get by: cousins who could fix your car and second cousins who could float you 20 bucks and aunts and uncles you could live with when you couldn’t make rent on your own.
You needed neighbors who could watch over you.
When I was in kindergarten, we lived in an apartment above my aunt’s mother-in-law’s house. It had a slanted floor and one night someone broke in while we slept, but they only stole two boxes of cereal.
Later, we lived in the neighborhood C.W. Post built decades prior for the workers at his cereal factory, which remained a working-class neighborhood in my boyhood. I woke up every morning and walked home from school every afternoon to the smell of Fruity Pebbles baking.
My favorite childhood memory happened there, one sweltering summer day when Mom started a water balloon fight with our neighbors. Before long, all the neighborhood kids had joined the fight. I remember Mom running through the house to refill an oversized metal mixing bowl in the kitchen sink, spilling water through the halls as she carried it back out to dump over us.
As I prowled that neighborhood with my friends, thinking I could hide from my mother, no shortage of neighborhood moms watched over me. When my friends and I thought it funny to loudly recite an obscene limerick we’d picked up somewhere, a woman resting on her porch — a woman I’d never met — did not hesitate to bawl us out and remind us how gentlemen should behave. Another time, my friends and I got a bit too mouthy with a group of much older kids and they came after us, but another woman working in her front-yard garden — who didn’t personally know any of us — intervened and sent those teenagers home, scolded.
I worked before and after school as a crossing guard in that neighborhood until I walked to my corner one morning and saw a chalk outline, blood stains, and police tape.
It wasn’t all good.
Later still, we lived in a trailer park just outside of Battle Creek. At the back of the park, residents had taken to tossing trash — furniture, bikes, car parts, etc. — into a woody ravine. We kids used to try to sneak down to pick among the bags for treasures or sneak through the ravine to the train tracks beyond, where we’d lay pennies for trains to flatten (I don’t think that ever worked).
A man who lived at the edge of the ravine — a Vietnam War veteran with a prosthetic leg beneath his right knee — wiled most of his time away smoking on his porch. He’d snap at us if he caught us sneaking by and send us running home. He scared us, but he also used to tell us stories about the war and his time in the service, and he once let me hold his prosthetic leg.
An older girl, mid-teens, babysat many of the children in the park and all of us kids looked up to her. She used to tell us stories and read to us. She died in a trailer fire when she went back inside and pushed somebody else out but couldn’t make it out herself.
When I grew older and Mom remarried a man with a good job and she got better jobs, herself, we moved into nicer neighborhoods.
I had nice enough neighbors, then, but none ever watched over me the way those neighbors in the Post Addition and the trailer park did.
I think that’s because impoverished people instinctively know to they need each other. That those poor neighborhoods are villages, and it takes the whole village to raise the kids growing up there.
Otherwise, no one has any hope.
I’m grateful my son has never known poverty, but I’m grateful, in some ways, that I did, that I had a mom on every porch and cousins helping raise and support me.
It taught me something.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.