Let’s re-define poverty

There are many people who believe living without all the amenities available to us to own today are deprived.  But Kate of Enuff Stuff reminded me that people used to sacrifice for a better life.  Kate shared a few interesting details I hadn’t known about the sacrifices many made to pay for World War II.  I decided it was time to share a family story about the Great Depression.

My grandfather was born to a mother who had been set financially for life by her father.  See her father was a builder who in the 1800s built a great many homes in my hometown. At that time, when you built a home, it belonged to you and you rented it out for income.

My grandparents shortly after their marriage in 1941

When my great-great grandfather died he had two daughters and split the properties equally between them so they would never have to worry about money.  For my great-grandmother (Caroline) she was fortunate to have these properties and the income they brought in as it soon turned out her husband would  never be one to support their large family, he was what you would call a drunk dead-beat.

When the Great Depression hit, Caroline saw the fears in her tenants eyes.  They were afraid because they could barely put food on the table for their families and knew they could be put out on the street at any time to be homeless.

Caroline felt such empathy with her tenants that one day she pulled out all the deeds for her properties (keeping only the one she and her family lived in) and went door-to-door signing over each and every house to the tenants telling them it was her way to make sure they had one less thing to worry about.

Now she could have just waived the rent until they could pay, but she wanted to give them a piece of security she had always felt, knowing they had a roof over their heads that belonged to them.

having access to your own food was a symbol of security

My great-grandfather (Daniel) was furious.  He refused to get a job, meaning the boys all left school to work and support the family.  Caroline for her part sold all her material possessions, even the family silver.  She sold the silver holding on to only a single knife and a spoon each family member to use.

Caroline, raised a garden that would surprise many people with the small-sized yard she had. My grandfather talked lovingly of the chickens, the grape arbors, the vegetables and fruits they would pick and help their mother store.  Of how they traded her canned foods and eggs for meat to be salted down and preserved.

Caroline was as content as any could possibly be.  She raised her children by telling them they were rich.  She said they had plenty of food on the table, mended clothes, a roof that would always be  over their heads, and her love.  That there was nothing more anyone needed to be happy and rich.

Would you say this would fit Caroline’s definition of rich?

Caroline’s sister never spoke to Caroline again.  She said Caroline was a fool to have given away her properties.  Caroline never saw it that way and  neither did her children, (my grandfather and aunts and uncles).  Caroline’s sister was so angry that she forbid her children from speaking to Caroline or Caroline’s children.  My grandfather would only point from time to time at the lawyer who was a cousin, but when asked if he wished that could have been him, he would respond quickly with “No”.

My grandfather never had the opportunity to eat off a fork in his own home until after he was married in 1941 and cherished the luxury of eating from a fork till he passed away. Can you imagine what it must be like to hold a fork and be thankful because you could afford to own it?  But never did he regret the decision his mother made during the Depression.  He called his mother a saint, and honestly believed that, as did his siblings.  he talked with pride about his mother’s act of signing over all the houses she owned.  He would tell us that it took a special person to give up all security for herself and her family to give security to another.

How many of us would give up,  happily, everything we owned to give another family some peace of mind?  How many of us would give up everything to be left in the same boat as others, unsure of what tomorrow would bring? How many would do this if they knew they would never again speak to their only sibling?

Caroline died before I was born, but I always felt as if I knew her from my grandfather’s stories.  Each one was filled with such love and respect it, from a man who held his emotions close, it would bring me near to tears. My grandfather told me that after the Depression the families who had been Caroline’s tenants became her best friends and when she died it seemed as if the President had died.  The outpouring of love for her was that overwhelming.

Yes, I have let go of a lot of things in the past 2 years to move myself into a simpler way of life.  But I didn’t give up everything for someone else.  I didn’t give up something that was precious to me, I only gave up what no longer meant any thing to me.


Recently, I guess it’s because of the election coming up, I’ve begun to hear stories of  how families are so poor they can’t afford a television, or a computer, or a car and need to rely on public transportation.  When did these things become necessary to live. Don’t get me wrong I love my computer and would hate to give it up, but again, we don’t need these things do we?  Instead, tell me how many children went to bed hungry, or how many children are living in homes without heat, or worse yet, without love. Remembering Caroline’s description of richness: food, shelter, mended clothes (notice she didn’t say new), and love of a mother.  Using those terms how many of us are really poor?

30 thoughts on “Let’s re-define poverty

  1. This is an amazing story. Have you ever thought of writing your great grandmother’s biography? I would love to read more about her. My own grandmother was born to the daughter of a wealthy vet and an Irish bookie(a very up and down financial tale, mainly down).She told stories of having to pawn family belongings to buy food. Her father died when she was eleven. She had to leave school and work in a cardboard box factory to support her mother and two younger brothers. I think many of us today in western society often don’t have much idea about true poverty. Your great grandmother was an amazingly compassionate woman and I really think her story deserves exposure. We could all learn a lot from it.

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    • Maybe we should compile a book of stories of our grandparents. A vet and bookie that’s quite a combination :-) We could learn so much from past generations. My family physician came from originally a very poor family. My family and hers go way back. Her father (Ron) was younger than my grandparents, who feel age-wise between him and his parents.

      Ron’s parent were so poor they couldn’t afford to see a doctor when their kids were sick. When their son (Ron) became a doctor he established a practice in memory of his parents. By the reception desk is a small metal placard which explains that in his parents memory anyone who needs medical attention will be seen even if they don’t have money. This wasn’t taken well by other physicians in the area.

      Ron refused to charge his medicare patients over what medicare paid him. Other doctors in the area were upset and took him to court. Ron lost and as a consequence had to charge his patients the rest of the amount. Over years this amounted to thousands per person. My grandmother went to see him to say she couldn’t come up with that amount immediately. His answer: I may have to bill you, doesn’t mean I have to collect, forget it.

      The lessons the children of that generation learned were about compassion and gratitude and to be happy for what they had and to give when they could. If only we could share that message in a way that would benefit today’s society.

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  2. It’s really true that our standard of how we judge poverty seems to keep shifting. I’ve lived in many places all over the world and they’d absolutely laugh at America’s definition of the poverty line.

    Your great-grandmother sounded like an amazing woman. Thanks for sharing.

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    • I haven’t lived all over the world, but I’ve lived all over the United States. It’s amazing to me the differences just within one country. For example if you want to live in NYC you may end up in a very tiny space, much smaller than mine and pay way more than I do. There is an amazing book I had years ago that I used when homeschooling my boys. It is by Peter Menzel called Material World. If you haven’t seen it, the author traveled around the world and asked families to carry everything they owned outside to be photographed. The people with the least seemed, to me, to have the most genuine smiles.

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  3. I read this post a couple of hours ago and have thought about it so much, I felt compelled to come back and comment. That is an amazing story, enough to eat, mended clothes and a roof over their head, things we should all be thankful for. Lovely story, lovely voice telling it.

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  4. Thank you so much for sharing this family story with us readers! Many people sacrificed many things during hard times and I’ve heard many stories of how my family members got through the depression. I think we should take a lesson from the people who lived through it. It taught them valuable lessons that can’t be learned by someone who has everything they need. I’ve always found that having everything you want vs. having everything you need are two very different things. I think that many people in today’s society think they need many things, which in reality are wants

    Caroline was a good woman and it’s sad that some of her family turned away from her and her children. If anything, they should have been proud of her and her giving nature. I guess it comes down to what we hold important in this life, doesn’t it?

    This post was very touching and I thank you again for sharing!

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    • Thank you for your kind words. Caroline’s children were very proud of their mother and spoke with pride of her gift to her tenants. For her sister, I am told that money and status was the most important things to her, but I never met her and only have relative’s words to that effect, but if she stopped talking to her sister for the rest of their lives it must be pretty close.

      Wants and needs are so different. I was bored and wanted to watch a movie last night while I was crocheting. I found a documentary on Netflix called Happy. It was amazing to see how happy some people were with very little. There was a definite line between what truly makes us happy and what doesn’t. Their research showed being connected to others made people much more happy than any thing else, including material goods.

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      • It is because we are given the ability to have so much credit…. gone are the days of lay-by. I remember gran and mum putting things by in a shop and making weekly payments and then got the item once all paid off. Now it would have gone out of fashion or been upgraded before people did that!

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          • Credit is one thing I played with at one time because credit scores are so all-important in the world today, but I don’t like the feelings I get from using it. It’s too easy to buy something and tell yourself you will pay for it tomorrow. It’s like playing Monopoly, you can spend money buying properties because you get used to knowing the money will be there as soon as you pass Go. But then a layoff comes and there is no Go in real life. I cut up my card, and live with cash because it just feels more secure and real to me.

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        • I used to use Layaway as well for things. You are so right, I was raised to believe credit cards were going to ruin families. The double speak we get every day is crazy. While I owned my car I had to pay a higher rate of insurance because I have no credit, my son had to open at least 3 lines of credit and pay on them for a year before he could qualify for a home mortgage (though the VA), etc. Then we are told how far in debt we are and need to learn to budget. Heck, some employers won’t hire you if you don’t have a good credit score!

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  5. I love Depression era stories. They always remind me of what is truly important.
    I know what you mean about what it really means to be in poverty, and today’s culture. The tragedy is those living in true poverty get overlooked by the media, in favor of stories about how families have to cut back on cable TV, or “have” to have a stay-cation, or have had to go back to work after their early retirements. We all need to appreciate just how well we’ve been blessed. Thank you for sharing your family story.

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    • So true, so true. Vacations were stay-cations for the majority of us when I was growing up. Or we traveled to visit relatives and stayed at their homes. In my view cutting back on cable tv is a good thing. Cable television is one of those things that bug me. Why should we pay for something we used to get free? As cable expanded the signal from the local channels seemed to dim and we could no longer receive the channels with our rabbit ears (do you remember those?) or the metal roof antenna.

      You know when I was writing the story, I wanted so to mention that during WWII, there was no welfare to rely on. When families were torn apart there was no safety net besides finding work or hoping you could move back in with your parents. Can you even imagine society today if they didn’t have that? Hmm, something to think about.

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  6. I really enjoyed this story! What a great legacy she gave you! I’m not sure I could be as great as that. It takes a special person to be that way.
    As for do we have too much? Probably. No doubt! I couldn’t go without my computer! Well I could, but I wouldn’t like it and I’d make sure I got another. As for TV? Oh I know I could go without that and I did after my divorce for 7 years! Never had a tv for that long. Didn’t bother me either. I kept busy doing things. Even now I don’t watch that much tv. But other things, yeah I need them to be happy. Or maybe not. Don’t know I guess unless I was in that situation.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s a story that my grandfather passed to his children, me and then my children. I hope to keep that part of his life and who he was alive even longer.

      I gave up the TV, there was so much junk on it, but then again, we didn’t watch much tv when I was growing up, then I was always working. When I sat down to watch it, I found there wasn’t much worth my time. Let’s not even talk about reality tv!

      I’ve given up my computer when one died, telling myself I didn’t need it. I went nearly 4 years without one when my son offered me a free one he built with me in mind. I jumped at it realizing how much I missed it. Just don’t take my access to books away, I’d be more than depressed.

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  7. Signing over the deeds when I knew that I was going to be the only support for my children was something that I don’t think I could do. Caroline was a very courageous as well as a compassionate woman.

    My parents definitely didn’t have much. My mother moved place to place as a child because her family had no money (another deadbeat father). They lived with whoever would take them in. My father’s family had no money (yet another deadbeat alcoholic father), but they lived on a farm and never wanted for food like my mother did. I am very lucky that my parents were bound and determined not carry on the legacy of their parents. I always had food, shelter, and a stable environment which gave me a good childhood.

    It is a very complicated issue of what makes people consider certain things necessary and others consider them extras. The psychologists have been working on this issue for decades. However, in its simplest form, most of us in this country can do with a lot less than we have. Just travel to any third world country and this becomes evident.

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    • I have to agree with you. Growing up hearing my grandmother’s wonderful gift to her tenants I don’t think that I could have put my family’s security at risk like she did. But I try to remember what she did when I think I want something I don’t really need.

      Your are so lucky your parents tried hard to break the cycle, I think that is the problem in this country with the welfare situation, they just keep repeating the patterns they see before them.

      I don’t know if they will ever solve the question of why some people need things others don’t and I think that it’s a different reason for each person.

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    • She did, for generations after her as well. My grandfather used to point to a house and tell me the children of so and so lived there now and it had been given to them by his mother. I think he kept his connection to his mother through these little detours during his errands.

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