The Greatest Gift

One of the greatest gifts I received from my parents was to be raised poor and, further, to be completely unaware of that fact.

We ate like kings. Eggs and fat slabs of bacon for breakfast. Big sandwiches for lunch with cold glasses of milk. Dinners that verged on a bacchanal. Fried chicken. Beef steaks. Green beans fresh from the garden. Ears of corn with silk still clinging to the kernels. Butterscotch pies with a soft cloud of meringue. Cat head biscuits, so called because they were as big as a cat’s head.

We raised the chickens and the beef. We hoed the garden to banish the weeds and picked the green beans and the corn. We milked the cows and carefully poured the thick cream off the top of the crocks to make butter and buttermilk.

There was no violence in our lives. No fear. Only work, love, acceptance and the challenge to be our best. Even when the animals were harvested for their meat it was done with care and respect … for them and for ourselves. We were stewards of the land. Putting back the nutrients we took out. Mending the fences.

It was all a gift. The gift of knowing how to hoe to the end of your row. The gift of carefully tending to animals and to treat them with dignity and respect. Bowing our heads in thanks for the bounty around us. To this day, when I open a can of beans or corn, I can’t leave a single kernel clinging to the can. It horrifies me to think that kernel made that long journey only to be wasted in haste at the end of the line. This, too, is a gift.

Cash money was in short supply. We didn’t notice much until we got around other people. It bred a certain stoicism in us. An unfortunate “I don’t give a damn” attitude toward what other people had. We weren’t victims. We were just a little bit different. Better we thought. Tougher. Frugal. Thankful. More able to take care of ourselves. Undaunted by a challenge or the hard work that precedes a reward.

Later I learned my mother and father went months or even years without health insurance because if they paid those premiums they wouldn’t have been able to dole out $20 to us for band trips, buy us trumpets, or to provide us with shoes and clothing to wear to school. Can you even imagine how it feels to realize that someone made such a sacrifice in silence? They weren’t victims either. They made a choice. It was their choice to make and they made it. I remain in awe of their quiet strength.

Today I am grateful for that upbringing. Still thankful. Still tough. Still frugal.

I miss those days. My brothers and sisters with me in the garden. Hoeing to the end of our rows. My mother standing in the kitchen door announcing the creation of another beautiful meal. My father gathering the handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his eyes so he could look at his watch and calculate how much sleep he could get before he climbed in his trusty Chevy truck to go spend eight hours standing on concrete in a plant to make books in return for a few dollars at the end of the month.

Good days. Gone but not forgotten. Appreciated daily. Remembered.