Monday, April 10, 2006

Poor Days

When I was a child, we were poor. Poverty, fear, and a mysterious something called "de shult" (the debt) hung over us like an ominous cloud, affecting everything we did. It seemed everything good "out there" was a No--"We can't afford it."

Some people have rosy memories of being poor but I am not one of them.

Paul and I refer to an era in our lives together as our "poor days." It includes when we were first married and Paul was teaching in a church school, the eight missionary/voluntary service years, and the first few years back in Oregon. Like most missionaries, we returned with few material things--no house, vehicle, or furniture. We did, however, have 4 children.

It's bad enough when you're on the mission field and everyone else is poor as well, but when you're surrounded by families who have been staying put and earning money for years, it's much harder. Your kids get invited to birthday parties and you can't afford a gift. They need shoes and even Goodwill is too expensive. Every trip to the grocery store is an agony of coupons and prioritizing and number-crunching.

Our fortunes began to change when Paul bought his dad's warehouse. We are not rich by any stretch but if one of the children needs shoes, I actually have the option of walking into PayLess Shoes and buying what they need. I hope I never forget what a privilege this is.

In spite of our lack of money, I have one shining success from those days: my children say they didn't feel poor. Life felt full of Yes's rather than No's, they say. Apparently they never caught on how much we struggled, and as I recall they were always grateful for the garage-sale clothes and gifts. When they reminisce about those years, they talk about playing by the lake in Canada, hunting for tadpoles in ditches here in Oregon, making mud pies, and setting "traps" for rabbits with a carrot, box, and a string to pull at the right time.

I guess there's one exception to this: Emily says she will someday bring up in therapy how badly she wanted an American Girl doll and we never bought her one.

Quote of the Day:
"Emily is the only person I've ever known who could make a full-length film and play every character by herself."


  1. Thanks for the insight. Naomi and I have been married for on 7 years, and we have been "poor" the whole time. I have been a carpenter, a CDS teacher/principal, an agricultural parts counterman, and, most recently, sales manager at a Mennonite bakery. It's only in the last position at the bakery that I am finally making enough to just make ends meet. Not that we have always been as financially responsible as we should have been, we have made mistakes. But we have also faced financial struggles that were out of our control. It always bugged me when I would hear preachers with well-padded pockets preach against the evils of credit card debt, and reaping what you sow, and "Biblical" financial responsibility, when that credit card is what paid for the food and gas we needed when our first daughter was born 11 weeks premature, and we spent 6 weeks going to the hospital every day. I must admit, the brotherhood helped some, but most of the help came from those who really had to sacrifice, because they were poor, too. We are STILL trying to pay off that debt.

    Seems to me, "Biblical" financial responsibility is being faithful with God's blessings to us, and distributing those blessings to the needs we see around us, not just keeping ourselves debt-free.

    My grandmother is non-Mennonite, and a Psych Nurse, to boot. I tend to take everything she says with a grain of salt, and sometimes a shaker-full! But one thing she told us that struck me as true was this: Financial struggles can do the most damage to marriages. She is right, because it has taken a deliberate effort on Naomi's and my parts to not let our "poverty" disrupt our relationship.

    Admittedly, on the national average, we have little consumer debt. But $1 is too much, IMHO. So I hope to defeat this debt soon. I hope to eventually look back at my "poor days". But I don't want to forget the hopelessness of trying to pay bills and never seeming to get ahead. I don't want to forget the bruised emotions resulting from "financially responsible" brethren totally oblivious to my struggle. I want to be grateful for the "riches" I do have: a loving wife, wonderful children, Godly friends, and a good job.

    And then, when I am able to make a decision without having to worry about whether I can afford it, I want to remember to reach out to those who can't afford it, rather that "tearing down my barns, and building bigger ones."
    Sorry about the overly-long comment, but your post struck a chord in me.

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  3. Amen Paul! Donna and I have been married for 21 years, and we too remember our "poor days". Our posessions consisted of one rocking chair, one bookshelf and a single bed. We lived across the alley from Salvation army in an apartment in a building that technically was condemned, but it was what we could afford.
    One thing we have found over the years is that God has given us seasons of more and seasons of "want", through them all those who are somewhat self-satisfied have preached the same tired cliche's.
    Donna has just had her knee replaced. We are in more debt than we have ever imagined...but I would not trade her comfort and her ability to walk...nor do I believe God would want me have remained out of debt. Thanks for a great comment brother!

  4. I enjoyed your post--I know the struggles of wishing the dollar stretched just a wee bit farther and even though people have looked in and assumed there was always enough I have learned to thank God for the little things and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God provides even things we don't need at times just because He can!I always want to remember Gods faithfulness in supplying our needs when it seemed impossible!
    P.S.Tell Emily that my girls will join her in therapy!!!:)

  5. It's always good to see life in perspective. I agree, Sharon, that we need to find little things to be thankful for. We have a lot of blessings. That's where I'm at right now, when the dollar is dropping in exchange rate and the finances are stretching thinnner and expenses loom in the future.

  6. Were potlucks a challenge back in those days, too?

    When no gift was available, rather than stay home, I had to humble myself and go anyway realizing that my presence was my presents.

  7. To anonymous--potlucks weren't as challenging as those church dinners where every lady was handed a recipe beforehand and asked to make and bring this. I remember completely blowing the budget on fudge sauce, peanuts, Oreos, and Cool Whip to make this fancy ice cream dessert. Now I look back and think, why couldn't I just say, "Sorry, I can't afford this?"

  8. Another reader thanking you for a great post...struck a chord with me ,too.I remember coupons and trying to figure out which things were not "bare necessities"(i still do coupons,habits die hard ,i guess)i had to laugh at Emily! My youngest dreams of an American doll,and even though we could afford it...i just cant seem to feel $100 plus for 1 doll will bring her that much happiness!those "poor days" leave an impact for life i guess

  9. If by being poor we can teach our children contentment, especially by example, i believe them to be wealthy in character. It is extremely hard to be poor, and have the ability to admit we can't buy the contents to a mere recipe!!
    Been there.

  10. I understand as well about being poor at one point in my life. Things are not always great now, but I remember not knowing how I was going to have money for my sons formula, which was a special kind since he was allergic to most and back in the 70's 89 cents was a lot of money for baby formula and then even later still not having enough money to make ends meet and try to stretch what little food we had at the time as far a it could be stretched. I never was able to give my son a birthday party like a lot of other chldren had but did try to make that day special some other ways and now that he is an adult with children of his own he says he has fond memories of gifts that he received and and the imagination we used to make that day special. God is good to us even tho at time to us things seem to be a little rough but with His help we struggle thru.

  11. We are all wealthy by most of the worlds standards regardless... on the other hand... many of us from the same generation grew up "poor.. but few of us realized it at the time.. we were blessed with the wealth of family and parents that loved us...and that made us wealthy beyond compare. Today many of us have abundantly more than even our parents ever achieved...does that make us wealthy? Regardless of financial wealth or the lack of it.. I feel blessed to have a beautiful wife and three wonderful children and friends that closer than a brother. So call it poor or call it rich.. life is good and God is great.

  12. We grew up poor and we are now poor as our family, but I feel like it taught me to be more thankful when I did receive things. I learned instead how to work and get the things we needed or wanted instead of being handed them. My mom didn't often say no, we can't afford that, she said instead "Okay, how can we earn the money to get it" We had new bikes when we needed them, shoes we worked for, I got myself a new desk, cedar chest etc all before I was 16 by working together with my family to earn the money. We worked as a family to live.
    I do no think of it as romantic, because I do and did still feel a twinge , but instead I look at what it is has taught me. In whatever state I am to be content, to work hard and be thankful for each day brings. Martha