Poverty alters minds, creates in those immobile beneath its weight a focus on minutiae, wasting not while still wanting, discovering through trial and error some means to obtain a little more use for a little longer time. Poverty bemoans loss but eventually it acquiesces to the limitations imposed on it. It scrapes out the tiniest bit of peanut butter, rinses the dregs out of a can of beans and pours that also in the soup. When one is impoverished, after each meal leftovers are transferred from one container to a smaller and smaller one until what remains become inedible or devoured. Hand-basting patches on jeans before sewing, my mother taught was a skill to be envied, like embroidering a pillowcase so the designs on both sides were indistinguishable.
Most impoverished become immune to desire. There are levels of course, levels based on age and duration, on experiences or lack of them, on family cultures, on propaganda that the suffering of the impoverished induces a kind of holiness similar to Christ on the cross. But one thing to be sure, those who are not impoverished would not change their positions with those impoverished, and those impoverished, not with the destitute, the ones with packs on their backs and minds unable to filter nonsense from sense, the ones sleeping in alleys or curled in laundromats for anything in the world. Poverty is a curse to most, even to those who fight the devil faithfully to the end of the month.
I didn’t realize until late that we were that poor, certainly not as poor as a of few high-school classmates. The sparseness of their homes echoed: patched crazy quilts covered beds that sagged in the middle, army blankets peeked out from underneath, but most all were immaculate, even the cracked porcelain squeaky clean. Everything was in its place, for if not, once undone, that facade would tumble down what remains. I remember feeling so sorry for one of my high-school classmates as she expressed her shame at the poverty of her family. The bleak gray interior with the wallpaper torn in places, the railings up the staircase wobbly, the lack of warmth in the home. It was the first time I compared what our family had to those who had less.
Commodity peanut butter and flour I thought were leftovers that all could have, but Mom was lucky enough to be there first when they were handed out. Flour sacks became dishtowels, and old chenille bedspreads became dishcloths. In fact, the white or peach or lavender chenille desired more for they brought a little color into the kitchen.
When chenille bedspreads became worn enough, the edges tearing away from the hem, Mom would cut them into foot squares, finger-press them to whip-stitch the edges so that they would not fray, to look somewhat like store bought. If the folks visited, a handful of them cut would be in her tiny suitcase. While watching television, Mom would take a needle and some white thread and hem a few. Once in a while I even joined in. Sometimes neighbors and relatives would give Mom old chenille bedspreads. Mom would stitch and give them some in exchange. And we children were never without them in our home, until many years after her death.