Saturday, March 24, 2018

Post 8--Poverty and Wealth--What Happened Later

"When the time is right, the suffering ends."
--Sheila Walsh (paraphrased)

Life in our home got somewhat easier when my older brothers moved out.  Mom didn't have to pack lunches every morning. There were fewer vehicles to break down. There were no longer arguments in which the boys tried to get Dad to change his inefficient ways of farming. We didn't need as much food. And of course I didn't have to worry about making my brothers angry.

My grandma died soon after my brother Marcus got married.

When the boys left, we girls did a lot more of the farm work. I would sometimes take off of school to disk fields or load pigs. We picked rocks and baled hay and watered calves and mowed the yard and much more. 

We had been in the process of building a new house for a number of years. The idea was to build it as we could afford it, but we could never afford much, so we still lived in the basement when there were 9 of us, including Grandma. As more of us left, more of the house got completed, little by little, which is a backwards way to do things but typical of how we operated.

My best memories are of those short years when we girls were all at home, and Rebecca and I were finishing high school and old enough to drive. There was still poverty and frustration and inefficiency, but somehow the three of us had a little more power to set the tone for our home, and we laughed a lot and had fun.

The summer I left home, about 8 years after we started building, we finally moved into the main part of the house, and Mom finally had a nice kitchen.

Rebecca left for college at about the same time that I left to teach school, so Margaret ended up doing a man's work on the farm in addition to going to school and then working at a nursing home. She was a lot younger than us, so this continued for years. 

"What made Dad finally decide to sell the farm?" I asked her.  She says that farms were starting to fail, as the farm crisis of the early 80s gained momentum, and Dad realized that the only thing that had kept him afloat that long was all the free help from his children, since he never paid any of us anything except for $50 he gave Margaret that last summer. So he sold the farm in 1984, the summer we got married. In the middle of all that, Mom and Margaret raised and butchered hundreds of chickens so they could afford to come to our wedding in Oregon.

On our wedding day, the local auctioneer in Minnesota put in a bid on Dad's behalf on a neighbor's 10-acre farm, and got it for $15,000.

So that was probably Dad's best financial move, selling the farm before the farm crisis reached us. The sad thing was that Mom had to give up her "new" house and nice kitchen for a very old and rundown farmhouse.

It wasn't the end of poverty, though, and the scratching and scrimping continued.  But something happened in the process of that move that changed a lot.

They needed boxes to pack up to move, so they went to the local grocery store and asked for some. The manager told them they can go out back and get boxes out of the dumpster.  

So they drove around and started digging. And—what was this?? Full boxes of detergent! What in the world?! Oranges! Lunch meat! Granola bars! Gleefully, they piled this bonanza in the car, along with the empty boxes.

They had discovered dumpster diving.

For years, when we came home for visits, Mom would happily pull out processed foods of every description—little herby cream cheese packets. Fruity yogurts. Fig newtons. And much more.

"Ooooh, mir essa so gut!" she would exclaim.  (Oh, we eat so good!) And she would relate everything she had found in her latest expedition behind Red Owl or Cash Wise. "And one orange juice bottle had cracked and they threw away the whole box! I washed up the others and there was nothing wrong with them!"

Often she added, "If only we could have discovered this when you children were little. It would have made such a difference."

They had a grocery budget of $20 a month, Margaret says, because Mom still needed a few things like denture tablets and oatmeal and sugar.

They suffered a terrible setback when the house burned down in 1987. They were gone to a funeral and lost almost everything. A church family who was in Arizona for the winter let them live in their house. Margaret says the local Catholics, Lutherans, and Baptists actually gave more money and household items than their Beachy-Amish church did, which goes to show that rural Minnesota people know how to do community, or certainly did back then.

Fortunately, the house was insured through a church program, and they rebuilt the following summer. The new house wasn't big or fancy, but Mom had a nice kitchen again. Rebecca and I used to go home to visit with our babies, and we would ooh and aah at Mom's lovely oak kitchen cupboards, and handy utility room with a washer and dryer, and THREE bathrooms, and a finished basement, and so much more. At long long last, Mom had the nice things.

This little farm turned out to be just the right scale for Dad, with a barn and just a few acres. He would get runt pigs from the local farmers and fatten them up on leftover food that the café in town saved for him in 5-gallon buckets. He had a few goats and sold the milk, and also raised calves, and a few sheep, and guineas that squawked in the early morning with a terrible cry, and chickens that befriended the cats.

Margaret eventually left home, and Mom and Dad settled into a contented routine that lasted for many years—gardening, quilting, raising animals, baking, reading, writing letters, hosting Christmas gatherings, and going to church. Mom with her endless creativity made quilts and rugs and pot holders and jams and jellies and breads and cakes, and once a year she sold them at a local open-air market, which gave her some spending money for herself.

Their cash flow was still microscopic, but the terrible stress was gone, and so was most of the anger and conflict. 

It's hard to explain what a relief it was to see them reach a more comfortable plane. 

They ended up living in that house for over 25 years. 

There is still so much I don't understand about their story, but in the last few years of her life I was able to talk to Mom about my memories of the worst years. It's never easy to hear these memories from your child, but Mom was very gracious. She divulged what was actually happening in her own life and in her marriage and the church at the same time as my most painful times, and it gave me a clarity and understanding I had never had before. She felt terrible that I hadn't known if she and Dad loved me or not when I was little, and assured me they actually did, and I assured her of my forgiveness.

Despite counseling and processing and long hard slogs of growth and much progress, we children still haven't achieved the level of health and recovery we would like. But if you want empathy and compassion, come talk to us. We are rich in empathy and compassion. 

This is one thing I've learned: poverty is very complicated, and it can stir up a soup of stresses that brings the worst things out of our deepest places.

And I've also learned that when the time is right, the suffering ends.

Tomorrow: we end this series with a look at comments and questions it generated.


  1. This series has been excellent, Dorcas! I notice a lot of comments are from those who share your experience with poverty. I wonder if there is anyone else here who has had the opposite experience? I grew up in a family culture where money was a tool; it was rarely discussed but was just there when we needed it. I do remember the stigma of being the "rich family" in our Mennonite community, along with the assumption that if you were not struggling together for every penny, you could not possibly appreciate each other and have strong family relationships. (An unjust assumption, in my experience.) When I got married, I was very eager and willing to learn about frugality and living with less. This was never a hardship for me, but nothing prepared me for the pain and brokenness of the poverty spirit I encountered. Even after twenty-plus years, I am still trying to find my way through the effects of the struggle I see in my spouse, extended family, and even in my children. Sharing your experiences here with so much grace and wisdom has clarified a lot of things for me. Thank you!

  2. I’ve so enjoyed this series. I did not myself grow up in quite the level of poverty. We were poor but dad was a carpenter and we did alright.
    I do feel that our children could relate better to this level of poverty. For some years we struggled oh so much.....and yes it resulted in many emotional problems.
    We don’t come from a anabaptist background although we have and still do sometimes, fellowship with Mennonite type churches.

    I’ll be sorry to see this series end. So interesting and relevant to me in many ways.

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  4. So glad to hear there has been grace and healing in your family. Parents do the best they can in the circumstances and with the resources they have. Children don't usually understand that until they become parents themselves. And no matter what a parent does, the children usually want to do things differently, and then their children complain about something else! As long as there is not malicious intent, as long as communication is open and loving, families can overcome a lot of hurt. I'm so grateful for you sharing your experiences because it is helpful to know that I am not alone in experiencing trials. God bless you!

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  6. I have really enjoyed this series, and the thoughtful words put on these things that can be felt but hard to define. I can relate to so many things you mentioned. When we got married, my husband tithed more than 10%, a terrifying amount actually. :) We bought a house, a fixer-upper, and rented it to someone from church in exchange for around 20 hours of labor a month, while we went to Mexico in mission work for several years. We didn't have enough money for our trip to Mexico, and bought gas with our credit card, knowing that we would get a paycheck by the next month. Our housing in Mexico was provided, and we made house payments on our house at home during those years. And ate beans. And made lots of friends. Now we have been married for 10 years and are back "at home," our house is paid for (and much nicer than we left it), and we just made the last payment on our third adoption. This isn't actually possible, except for miracles by a generous God and also our extreme wealth of People. (We had many financial gifts for our adoptions as well as an interest free loan from church folks, as well as an enormous love gift from the churches in Mexico that we served) Since our tithe amount is on an increasing scale, we now give more than we did 10 years ago, but it's no longer terrifying. It's good. We have an incredible abundance, and feel happy and blessed. That's your free Sunday afternoon story. :)

  7. I prayed this morning that God would give me the wisdom of Dorcas. And I was totally serious.

  8. I am blessed by the way you told your story in this series, with honesty and courage as well as kindness and the willingness to be wrong. You write from a place of hope and stability that gives weight to your words. <3

  9. About 10 years ago I heard Donna Beegle from Portland speak on poverty, and generational poverty in particular. As "average" Americans it is hard for us to understand what children of poverty "learn" growing up. This was brought to mind a few months ago when a friend was sharing about the refugee population that has recently joined their church. Many of these people have never really lived outside of a refugee camp, and therefore have no idea about things like running a household and all that can entail. When their hand is out to receive something, it is not laziness, it is a lack of experience with our world. That woman with the smart phone using a SNAP card should not be judged for not having something more economical. It could be that someone in her family pays for it so she can communicate with them and vice versa. If you have ever had someone you love go of the radar, you know how frightening that is. We can never truly walk a mile in their shoes, because we have a community that holds us up, and a Father who carries us through it all.
    So glad you wrote this. It is something that has been on my heart for years, and this was a good reminder that we need to see Jesus in them and do more than say, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled."