counting sheep

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What is dirt poor anyway?

I heard it said a lot when I was little, "we are dirt poor."  Well, I knew we didn't have much. We lived in a 3 room house. Momma and Daddy, Aunt Berthy and Grandpa, my brother Bobby and then me all stuffed into those little rooms. I know we had a couple of dogs and always an old cat or two. Sometimes we had a car and sometimes we didn't. You could walk to town if you had to but it was a good long walk for sure and a real burden if you had to carry a sack of groceries or a bag of "commodities."  Wondering what the heck commodities were?  Poor folk food, gritty peanut butter, powdered eggs and milk and good old government cheese. I stood in line with my Daddy many times to get a bag of that stuff and we were glad to get it.

My Mother was known for always being able to make something out of nothing, she was like a legend for that.  She could take a can of mackerel and make a gravy that went with it that not only made it go farther but tasted like a million dollars.  She made biscuits three times a day, store bought bread was called lite bread for some reason and Daddy hated the stuff. When you got cake or some other sweet for a meal it was usually on Sunday and not every Sunday either.  Any scraps went to the dogs and cats, I remember the cats were fed on top of an old lean too shed right on the tin roof. Their little nails made a weird little sound on the roof while they were chowing down. Momma did this so the dogs would not run them off their food I guess.  I remember her making corn bread for the dogs when scraps were pretty lean, they called it dog bread. I always had to have me a piece of that dog bread.  Now that I am grown I make dog gravy for my dogs and our youngest grandbaby always wants to know if she can have some  dog gravy too...

The Avon lady still came around even though I am sure she knew my Mother couldn't afford much. I remember seeing all her goods in the trunk of her pretty car. Somehow Momma would manage to buy a dollar tube of lipstick every once in awhile. Then there was the little sample lipsticks that came in tiny metal tubes, the Avon lady never left without giving me one. I called them little girl lipsticks.

The garden was huge and had to be. She canned everything she could get her hands on so her family would have enough to eat during the lean Tennessee winter time, if there was no work on the farm to do Daddy didn't get paid. I remember those times and they were tough. In the fall Daddy and me would go pick up pecans and sell them in the next town, I always thought that was fun. He would carry them to a big office building and sell them to the secretaries there.  Other ways were thought of to make money too. My Daddy was the original picker, he would scrap year round. He also knew where a furniture company dumped its wood scraps and with this he would make lawn chairs and sell them in the summer.  I helped some too, I had a fishing worm business and we sold them down at the mailbox at the end of our lane to passing fishermen. They would toot their car horns and out I would run to get their order.  On one side of my playhouse Daddy had built a worm bed and he fed them coffee grounds and other trimmings. I would use an old coffee can and scoop out a nice worm box full and run them back to their car.  One of the customers would always slip me a tootsie roll and ask me where did you get head of hair girl, I always said I got it from Daddy, the man would laugh... (Daddy was about bald)

I also had a friend in the sky, a crop duster man.  This is going to make you cringe but nobody knew how bad that dust was back then, I would run along side the plane and could feel the wet dust hit my skin. One time he came in the fall and landed his plane in the field, he brought me a bushel of apples from his orchard. I will never forget that. There were a lot of older folks that were good to me too. Our neighbors across the road would always bring me something every time they did their grocery shopping. They pumped water from our well because theirs didn't taste good  and when I would see Mr. Elmer coming with his water bucket I just knew he had a big Zero candy bar in his shirt pocket with my name on it.  That was back when candy bars were big and they were only a nickel....

In the summer I hardly every played with other children. There weren't any around. So I filled my days with dogs and cats and my imaginary friend, Begal.  Begal came to me in the field. There was an ancient homestead way behind our house at the edge of the "bottom." They called it that because it was kind of a wetland and when the Mississippi overflowed it would hit there first. Anyway me and Daddy went back to that homestead to poke around, he was always looking for arrowheads and such. I guess there had been a large Indian encampment back there way back in time. The homestead had been burnt to the ground by them. I just remember Begal being with me from that day, she was quiet and big eyed and I led her around by the hand. I watch a lot of Ghost Hunters on TV and sometimes I wonder if Begal was imaginary? Our first grandbaby was about two and I gave her a little soft doll and it reminded me of Begal, we named her that. She carried that baby doll everywhere and one day she was lost for good. I went home and cried my eyes out. Not sure why, it just seemed so very sad to me. I think my daughter in law thought I had truly lost my mind.

As I said earlier my Aunt Berthy and my Grandpa Em lived with us.  Berthy was feeble and Grandpa was blind. I was either tying a shoe or cutting up some body's meat! lol I loved them both. When we eventually moved it was very traumatic for me to leave Berthy behind but she was very sick and needed to be in a nursing home. Grandpa went to live with his other daughter because he didn't want to go north...

We used to visit my Momma's older sister Vetra, she lived in Memphis in a big old Victorian with three stories. She was the most precious person. Her husband was Uncle Elbert, he always wore a neck brace and was going somewhere for treatments.  He liked to play cards and so did my Daddy. Uncle Elbert had a sister name Ethel. She was a little person, I loved her to pieces. All her clothes and shoes fit me and I was only about eight years old. She lived on the third floor. They would all play cards together and I would fly up the three floors, fling her bedroom door open and head for her closet. I would try on everything the poor woman had but I was always careful to hang it back up and put the shoes away. It was like fashion heaven! lol Aunt Vetra had a son who lived with them and he was a peddler, he had a pack he would carry on his back around town and sell from. I remember he sold a lot of little sewing items like pin cushions and needle cards, thimbles and thread. I think that may be one of the reasons I deal in domestics, he let me go through his pack on a regular basis. He was a dear, dear man. He taught me how to play the game of Solitaire...

At school I guess I was one of the poorest kids there but I withstood it and kept to myself. I actually was relieved when we moved north but I know there is a lot of the south that I miss and that I missed... I was lucky because I did have a benefactor not only for clothes but for church going and Bible learning, thank you Mrs Cannon, someday when we all get up to heaven I am going to run over to you and hug your neck and thank you for being Jesus with the skin on... you have no idea...  I always tell people at church that no matter the struggle of dragging somebody else's little kid along to church its so worth it, you have no idea really what you will be doing for that child.  When I hear the education phrase "no child left behind" I always think of that in another way, a Mrs. Cannon kind of way.

So I filled my days with raising worms, fishing, going to school, kicking up clods of dirt looking for arrow heads and laying in the grass looking for tiny little frogs under the Tiger Lillie's that grew in a circle around the tree. Momma was always afraid I would get bit by a snake but I never did.

I guess growing up dirt poor can mean many things, if it just means the house I lived in or the clothes I wore or the food I ate I guess you could say that I truly was dirt poor but not in my soul. My soul was rich with what the next day held...


  1. What a very heart warming story. It is nice to remember how you saw things through a child's eye.

  2. there is poverty measured in dollars and then there is poverty of spirit. you are a rich woman now for sure! I love your stories, please keep writing!

  3. Hi! I found your blog last night through - strangely enough - eBay! I really enjoyed reading this story and knew right away I wanted to follow you. I can't wait to have the chance to go and read your past posts.... I think we may have a lot in common! :o)

    Have a blessed day!



  4. Oh wow!~I loved reading this! I recently closed my blog. I found you through searching "antique quilts...." but now see Dear CYNDI at Bluebirdswing.... small world.
    Love your blog, keep on doing what you are doing! XO

  5. I loved reading this story! It's so fascinating to hear how things were in a different time and place and really puts the modern situation in perspective. Thank you for putting pen to paper (er, fingers to keyboard) and sharing this with us. I've only just discovered your blog so I hope there's more tales like this hidden away in the archives!

    - Rain