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For my remarkable parents, who were much smarter and possibly a tiny bit wealthier than their kids ever gave them credit for.
DALLAS — My parents raised a large family on next to nothing. The list of what we lacked while I was growing up is long, so here’s a shortened version:
A dishwasher. When I was 3 years old, our family of five moved into a small house that had been built before dishwashers became standard household amenities. When I left for college 15 years later, a dishwasher was still at the top of our “most wanted” list.
Square footage. My parents aimed high, and our numbers grew at a staggering rate. After Mom had her seventh child, she contended that nine people living in 1,250 square feet officially exceeded capacity. And that Dad would be wise to do something about it (the “or else” was more or less implied). Dad took the hint.
Because funds were scarce, Dad hired a college student to assist him and my brother in converting our garage and back porch into living space. The resulting 1,950 square feet felt palatial. So large, in fact, that my parents figured there was room enough to add one more. My baby sister rounded our numbers up to a nice, even 10.
A garage. See above.
Regular milk. Normal people buy milk in gallon jugs; Mom bought ours in 50-pound bags. We used spoons to scoop the froth and chunks off the top of the reconstituted powdered milk, but masking its dreadful aftertaste was more problematic. Our only hope was holding our breath while swallowing, and then being extra careful not to inhale until after taking a bite of food. Breathing too soon spelled taste bud disaster.
Superfluous, expensive stuff. We hardly ever locked our doors, and I remember once how worried my brother was about being robbed. Dad’s reply was strangely reassuring, “Any thief who walks into our house will leave disappointed — and probably empty-handed.” My parents sold that house and moved away years ago, so I rarely find myself in my hometown. But just a few weeks ago, two of my sisters and I traveled there for the funeral of a dear family friend. Afterwards, we decided to check out our childhood digs.
As we pulled up in front of the house (which had shrunk dramatically), nothing we didn’t have while growing up came readily to mind. Instead, I considered everything we did have. The list is long, so here’s a shortened version:
“Character building” opportunities. Mom’s response to our incessant begging for a dishwasher was always the same, “We already have eight dishwashers! Why do we need another one? Plus, we can’t afford it.” Money from paper routes and other odd jobs went into our very own bank accounts. So we thought carefully — but often not carefully enough — before spending it on movies, clothes or junk food (since our pantry never provided any).
Faith. Strong and deep.
A sense of humor. Seriously, anyone who grows up eating beans and cheese over toast and sharing underwear is destined to one of two things: 1) therapy, or 2) developing an appreciation for the slightly odd, unexpected, and sometimes just plain weird. Since my parents couldn’t afford therapy, we settled on laughter (or shouting or skulking, depending on the situation). Humor has helped our family through heartaches, and makes hanging out together simply awesome.
Friends. Our house was often chock-full; no one (except for us kids, usually at the onset of puberty) seemed to mind our lack of junk food or space.
A few days after our trip, my sister commented, "Sometimes we try so hard to give our kids what we didn't have that we forget to give them what we did have." My sister always was pretty smart; I suspect she got that from my parents.
Love. Imperfections run in our family (I’m guessing we’re not alone). But as a kid, the peace and security that came from knowing I was loved — absolutely, completely, no matter what — pretty much trumped anything else. Even frothy, chunky powdered milk. My sisters and I stood on the front lawn by the tree my brothers had once tied my sister to (only to get her out of their hair, and only until Mom pulled into the driveway minutes later). While we were laughing, I knew why our small house had been plenty big: we never lacked anything of true value.
Although convincing me of this at 13 would have proved near impossible, we were incredibly lucky. We had it all.
While driving home late that night, it occurred to me that my parents — had it been a true priority — could probably have afforded a dishwasher.
A few days after our trip, my sister commented, “Sometimes we try so hard to give our kids what we didn’t have that we forget to give them what we did have.”
My sister always was pretty smart; I suspect she got that from my parents.
Susie Boyce is a mom, writer and public speaker. Her column, "Momsensical," is featured in North Dallas-area newspapers and posts bimonthly on ksl.com. Visit her website at www.seriousmomsense.com or Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @Susie_Boyce.*