When my dad was a kid, his family was desperately poor, so poor that my grandmother secretly changed his birth certificate so he could work a year early. He found a job as a delivery boy for a small drugstore and every morning (in the summer) that middle-schooler peddled his bike down gravel roads for six miles into downtown Memphis and hustled back in the evenings only to hand over his paycheck when he walked in the door. On the weekends, he’d slosh in the labyrinth of sewers with my grandfather, panning for the pocket change that had been washed down from the city streets. They’d collect more in a weekend than my granddad brought home in a week and they’d take that change and scrub it with silver polish to guard from embarrassment at the meat market.
Times were tough.
But there was couple of lessons that stood out in those events, lessons of relationships and resourcefulness that forever changed my dad.
His blue eyes gleamed whenever he talked of my granddaddy, always referencing him as a “great man,” a man had no more than a 4th grade education and a diploma from the “School of Hard Knocks.” They forged their relationship while venturing together through those pipes or floating on lakes and tramping in deep woods so they could scrounge, catch, and hunt, “making do” in every situation. Those lessons carried on into his adult life, even when he wasn’t in dire straits. He skipped around like a little kid when he could take junk bolts and nuts and scraps of metal from his workshop and fashion a contraption that made life easier. Heck, our little aluminum jon-boat had all the features of one of your modern day Nitros, and Dad did it with leftover wiring, electric sockets, and PVC pipe. The crazy thing is, when I was a kid, we probably had the money to get something fancy, but Dad’s passion was to take junk and “Rube Goldberg-it” into a fine oiled machine—a passion that grew out of a childhood where dirty, unclaimed pieces of metal determined the amount of meat they dined on that week.
For many of us, those lessons of relationship and resourcefulness are still needed.
I’m a teacher and I tend to be gifted at jobs that don’t make six figures. Not to mention, we’re a family of six and we’re forced to pinch every penny. Nevertheless, when you’re plagued with major home repairs (burst pipes, air conditioner, and water heater) or sicknesses and surgeries and medicine costs, it really doesn’t matter how accustomed you are with frugality.
I’ve caught myself seething, gritting my teeth, and barking at the family under the weight of need, robbing my relationship with my wife and kids. Yes, the bills must get paid, and yes, food must be on the table, but I have a son graduating and off to college soon and his last days in the house can’t be of Dad obsessing and grumbling over tough times.
So I’ve turned over a new leaf, and I’ve started listening to those ramblings from Dad’s childhood. I can’t prevent drought, but I can make an adventure out of it. So the kids and I grab the fishing poles and head to a number of nearby lakes and ponds and we fish (and there ain’t catch-and-release). We really caused a stir when I finally ended a long-standing feud with squirrels that have been destroying my soffits. They never knew what hit’em, and like any good Tennessee boy, they ended up in a pot of dumplings. The funny thing is, amidst the “gross” and “poor little things” comments, you wouldn’t believe the calls I’ve gotten from people who need the similar problem “taken care of.”
My point is we’ve had fun and made the best of our situation and I pray I’ll continue to listen to those voices in the past; those tales of a father and son doing all they could to make it in the world, and maybe, one day, when things are easier, we’ll look back and add our own chapter so generations in similar tough times can laugh, cry, and be inspired.
By Blue Ribbon News special contributor Scott Gill of Rockwall. He’s a teacher, coach and author of the young adult adventure novel, Goliath Catfish. His writings have appeared in Dallas Child, Teachers of Vision and Chicken Soup for the Soul.
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No easy answers