There’s no such thing as a happy poor kid. At least, that’s how it always seems in the stories.
As someone from a low-income family, I naturally like reading about people who grew up like me. But in more instances than not, it’s hard for me to relate to their stories.
Maybe it’s because for a long time, it never occurred to me that I was poor.
Or I was lucky and the kids in my school were a little nicer.
Either way, I didn’t have lots of the same kinds of heartbreaking experiences others did. Or I didn’t interpret them the same way.
No one cared about the knit pants my mom had whipped up for me from scraps at her factory job. The pair my friend side-eyed and asked, “Did anyone make fun of you for those?”
I didn’t mind that my sister and I got exactly one present to share for Christmas.
How my birthday would come and go every year without fanfare.
Or that I sat home watching trash TV while my friends were off at swim lessons or summer camp.
Deciding to stay behind on field trips without bothering to ask my parents first.
I didn’t give a damn about having any of that stuff. I’ve never felt ashamed of my background, and I see so much beauty in how I was raised. And as an adult, I’m about as well-adjusted as they come.
Wearing homemade or secondhand clothes taught me that you don’t need to spend a lot to be stylish. Saying no to field trips was practice for making financial decisions–deciding what’s worth the money and what’s not. Those unstructured summer days turned me into someone who’s never been bored her entire life.
Even on this blog, all those same virtues are echoed throughout–you’re capable of doing things on your own, you’re more than your circumstances, it’s possible to rise above them. I could have chosen to feel sore about my childhood, to let it hold me back, but focusing on the positive has made me feel so much better. I guess that’s what they call resilience.
But while I was a happy kid and knew I was loved, it doesn’t mean there were never any moments of sadness. Or that I never missed out.
It’s just that the thing I felt sad about didn’t have much to do with money.
The one thing missing from my childhood that has stayed with me the most, what I wanted more than anything, is so simple, most people don’t think twice about it.
It was a packed lunch. In elementary school, we called it “cold lunch.” At lunchtime kids would stream into the cafeteria and diverge paths based on what kind of lunch they had. The kids with the packed lunches would get first dibs at the best seats at the lunch tables. Kids like me stood in line with wooden tokens in our hands–the words ‘FREE’ written on them in red Sharpie.
When you’re an adult, bringing a packed lunch is considered a good thing. It means you’re frugal.
When you’re a kid, a packed lunch means you had someone at home who cared about you.
And the lunch couldn’t come in any old bag, either.
It had to be the right bag.
The perfectly-sized brown paper bags that you could buy in a pack, like this:
Or even better, the insulated reusable ones with cheerful prints on them, like flowers or smiley faces. Prints to suit the recipient’s personality to a T, carefully selected by a loving parent. The kids who had those kinds of bags were the luckiest of them all. At least in my eyes.
When I was at the grocery store with my dad, I’d run my fingers along the merchandise on the shelves, pausing a little longer at those plastic-wrapped bags stacked neatly like brown layered crepes. Noting how they never made it into our cart. Considering we reused margarine tubs as tupperware, the idea of purchasing bags was laughable. Bags you buy just to throw away after just one use? That’s for rich people!
So my cold lunches came not in a crisp, tidy bag. But in a barrel sack. That same paper sack your groceries come in.
Worn and wrinkled and four times too big. Discarded by most people, but kept by my parents. They kept everything.
Since no one thought to pack a lunch for me, I’d pack my own. I’d place a single slice of honey ham in between two pieces of Wonder bread. If I was feeling fancy, I’d add another slice–the ultimate luxury. Then I’d cut the sandwich into 16 perfect little squares and wrap them in tinfoil. And into the barrel sack it went.
You should have seen me. I was a small kid and the bag was a third of the size of my entire body. So I’d roll the top down as far as I could. Anything to make the bag look less comically oversized and completely inappropriate.
When I arrived at school, I’d try to hide the bag behind my back, ashamed, throwing it into my tote as fast as I could so no one could see.
While my classmates never said or anything, and I doubt they noticed, it didn’t matter. Because for me it was a constant reminder: that my parents worked too much. While I was always stubbornly independent and proud, and I was perfectly capable of making my own lunch, sometimes it would have been nice to not do everything myself. To have a thoughtful flourish, just for me, that I could show off. To feel taken care of.
Maybe packed lunches would have made me feel a little less alone. Like when it was Thanksgiving, and every kid had a parent come in to eat lunch with them that day. Except for me. My parents didn’t have the kind of jobs where you could take time off in the daytime to do things for your kids. So I sat sandwiched in between my classmates and their parents, but I never felt more alone. I didn’t dare look up from my lunch tray the entire time.
Sometimes you don’t need money to feel right in the world. You don’t need to wear the clothes that all the cool kids have. Or go on family vacations to exotic places. Or even have a bedroom of your own.
But you need the thing that doesn’t have to cost much at all: a little extra reminder that you are loved.
What’s something simple or unexpected you always wished you had growing up?
Feature Image: Unsplash