20 Nov

We were so poor

Sometimes a friend sends you an unintentional writing prompt (as part of a longer message). In this case, “We were so poor that we thought new clothes meant someone had died.”

I read his mail on the bus ride to work this morning. It left me with two choices: follow the links that trailed his opener or take the “we were so poor” challenge. But, I suck at one liners (a timeless crazy smart skill now making careers in social media), so I wrote something that ended with a silent “and…” (sorry kid, no drumbeat–you better explain yourself). So here you go, written on a phone while riding the 30 minute AM express from Beaverton to downtown PDX, with helpful suggestions from autocorrect fixed from the original:

We were so poor that when we learned someone had died the first thing we thought was new clothes. Depending on how closely the deceased was to our sizes, the limits of our mother’s tailoring, and if our father could sneak into the loved one’s home before most of the neighborhood went on alert. Especially Mrs. Mosby, who supplemented her income with a permanent table at the flea market. Where our parents often bought our clothes when we bought clothes. I once heard them whisper that the pockets in flea market clothing were always empty.

One year, when my father’s Local went on strike for all of October and no one had died locally for several months (busting the National Average, mom said) a wind storm took down a big fir tree in our back yard. My brother and I had just gone through one of those all knees and elbows growth spurts, and nothing fit except our briefs which mom could stretch three sizes before busting a seam. She went down to the library and found a book on Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, then showed us photos of natives in bark clothing and how they made it pliable by chewing it.

We were so poor I know what bark tastes like. But that wasn’t as bad as my best friend Lee who had to wear socks made from old cats.

Honestly, our town was so poor that year (almost everyone who had jobs worked through the Local) there were kids coming to school who shared clothes, taking turns huddling in the locker room while their sibs were in class. On the schoolbus everyone gave everyone else eyeball privacy.

Our town was so poor we had standards.