Thankful for what I once didn’t have

These days, I live pretty comfortably.

I only ever have empty cupboards because my wife and I sometimes get too busy to make it to the store.

I take regular trips, including annual traditions like our recent venture to the Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth.

I have a working vehicle and so does my wife.

It wasn’t always that way.

In my youngest days, we were poor.

I mean poor. Sometimes, a couple days a month, when the food stamps ran out and before they renewed, we only had white bread, butter, and sugar to eat. I made sugar sandwiches.

Almost everyone I knew was poor. Once, when we lived in the apartment above my Aunt Judy’s house in Battle Creek, someone broke in and burglarized us.

All they stole was our cereal.

They were hungry, too.

See, my mom had me young. She was 17 when she got pregnant for me, still in high school. She was just 18 when she had me. She graduated high school on time, but it’s hard to find a place to make a good living when you’re 18 and can’t afford daycare.

Then, when I was 6 or so, Mom had a botched surgery and ended up bedridden for several months and couldn’t work. Things got real lean then.

I still had a happy home. We played outside, played card games and board games. We had toys from Christmas and birthdays to play with. We watched “Rescue 911” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” and, when she could afford it, Mom rented movies from the video store.

And we always had something to eat, even if it was sugar sandwiches or what Mom called “dough gods,” which were fried dough served with butter and jelly or butter and sugar.

But it was a rough time. Mom worried a lot about making rent or being able to pay a utility bill. There was a lot of stress and anxiety. And I didn’t have things that some of the other kids at my school had or the things I saw in the commercials on TV.

Still, as we continue to digest our Thanksgiving meals this weekend and head into the extended season of thankfulness, I have to admit I’m grateful for that poor time in my life.

I’m sure glad to be out of it, but I’m glad I had to spend some of my life in it.

That’s how I really learned the value of a dollar — and how to make those dollars stretch. I learned how to buy what you can when you can, but not a penny more.

I learned about generosity.

Poor people loan other poor people $20 when they have it, because they know you’ll do the same when they need it — and they know they’ll need it.

They’ll fix your car for you or loan you their car or help you move or help you replace that window, because they know you’ll return the favor. When you’re poor, a favor owed is almost as good as cash in hand.

And I learned about family.

Real family.

When I got older and my immediate family got a little bit better off and I had more middle-class friends, I was surprised to find that many of them only saw their cousins at Thanksgiving and Christmas and almost none of them even knew their second or third cousins.

I not only knew my distant cousins, many of them lived with me off and on and were as close and important to me as siblings.

See, when you’re poor, you need your extended family. They’re the first to spot you that $20 or put a roof over your head when you need one. They’re willing to move in with you to help you split the rent and the food and the utilities so both of you can have a little more than if you went it alone.

So you grow close to aunts and uncles and cousins and cousins by marriage and the live-in boyfriends of your second cousin’s niece by marriage.

And those relationships, while many were certainly rocky over the years, meant a lot to me, and still do. And I now teach my son that blood is thicker than water, as Mom always said.

Every Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the roof over my head and the food on my big table and the cars in my driveway and the lawn and the lawnmower and my dog and my cat and all those possessions I never could have possessed when I was younger.

But I also say thanks for those lean times, too, because I think they help me appreciate the things I have even more.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.


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