Doing Without in the Land of Plenty

Money is a funny thing. the people who have been raised without money don’t seem to worry about it, but for the people who are used to having the stuff, it becomes a major concern. My fiance and myself are two very different people when it comes to money. She was raised in an environment where money was always there. She never wanted for anything, and her parents, business owners, always had plenty of the stuff. Her dad ran a soft drink distributing business, which took him away from his family for long periods of time. She often speaks of times when she was a little girl, and all she wanted was some attention from her dad. This attention was diverted of course, to the business. She said that her dad sat up for long hours at night, worrying where the next dollar would come from to run the business. When the business flourished, the family did quite well, purchasing such conveniences as motor homes, new cars and trucks, and the latest in household appliances and electronics. They also did a fair bit of traveling, mostly in the RV. She recalls a time in her childhood where her parents were considered the upper class in the small island community in which they lived.

She also spoke of the bad times, when the business failed, her dad forced to lay off his employees and sell the things he bought. She tells of her parents worry, and how their young lives were sacrificed for the business, and how her dad aged so quickly, mostly from the stress put upon him by the business and his struggle for success. She tells of how her parents worried about losing the very home in which they had raised the family, and about how they had to leave the province, and work in a world that they were not used to.  She explains that despite the fact that her parents have been married for over 25 years, they now live  and work in the camps in Alberta, residing in separate camps, sleeping and living their lives apart. She goes on to say how they come home every other month, with more money than they ever dreamed, but how they are even more unhappy and worried than ever before.

It’s funny how this works. For the first few years of this lifestyle, everything looked pretty positive for her parents. They bought a new motor home, the finest in the land. They bought new vehicles, five in total, and they even bought a new car for her. On weekends, they would entertain friends, either in the newly renovated home, or in the gigantic motor home they recently purchased. Lavish parties with all the liquor you could imagine, and the finest foods laid on the counters, free for the taking for the chosen few that were invited to the party. Conversations arose concerning money and success and happiness, with their friends envying their success. And then it came crashing down, at least for a short time. With layoffs in the oil fields, thanks to a country-wide recession and lower oil prices, her parents began to worry once more. Her mother was laid off from her job, a job that she worked many hours to achieve,  often stepping on the toes of others, giving people living in desperate conditions their layoff notices, working to please managers and bosses that she hadn’t even met. She got her layoff too, but not in person like honorable companies do. She was at home when it happened. They had just returned home from an RV trip to a nearby park. They had partied it up, fired up the BBQ, cooked the fine steaks and meats that most people could not afford, and they looked for a rest before heading back to the camps. Her mother decided to check her email, and there it was. What a way to let one of the most loyal employees go. No job when you return. No use coming back, we replaced you with your subordinate. The person you took under your wing, trained, explained the goings on, warned of the things not to do. The person who now did the same job you did each and every day, but for less money, now has your old job. You have become expendable, an expense rather than an asset for the company. Its nothing personal, it’s just business. Suck it up, This is Alberta. Things will get better.

Things got better, in time, but not right away. Not until plans to sell the RV, the cars and trucks, the expensive furniture and up-to date electronics. You see, these things are never really yours. It is like renting the stuff until things go bad, then selling them at a much lower price than you originally paid for them.

She managed to get another job, some six months or more after losing her previous position. She moved to another camp, this time the one with her husband, and now they work, but not with the courage and inspiration they once had. This is due, mostly, because they discovered that nothing is forever when money is concerned. They discovered that you could go to sleep with everything, and wake with nothing. “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched”, “Don’t put the cart before the horse”. People learn, mostly at great expense.

I grew up in a very different world than my fiance. In fact, we are from two different universes when it comes to money. I think that is why we look at things so differently. She worries about not having enough money to go clothes shopping. She stays awake for long hours at night, thinking about how she is going to put money into a savings account, so that people will not judge her as being poor.

I on the other hand, sleep sound while she ponders away. As long as my bills are paid, we have food, and enough gas in the car to travel to and from work, I am fine. I guess I got this way from living many years without even change jingling in my pockets. Of course, I come about this honestly.

Mom used to tell me stories of her dad, who worked on hard jobs like the Newfoundland railroad and the building of the highway. She said that her dad used to carry felt tins in his pockets so that the jingle gave the illusion that he had money. That’s how badly he wanted money.Not riches to splurge on the finer things, but money to give his family the things they so badly needed. Instead of doing without, they learned to make the best of the things they had.

Mom grew up in a small farming community on the west coast of the province. Her nearest neighbor lived several miles away, so her siblings were her best friends. Mom tells me of times like Christmas, where they received but an apple or an orange, sometimes a few grapes in a stocking, and no gifts. She remembers how they treasured the little things,  mostly due to the fact that they were so poor. Toys consisted of recycled items from around the house or the barn, such as a wheel from a cart, that they chased through the fields that surrounded their tiny home.

My dad grew up under similar circumstances, so when they met, they had already lived their lives without money, so why would this be any different? Mom and Dad struggled, like most did during the early 60’s in Newfoundland. When they got married, Dad and his father built a small three room house, complete with an outhouse. Running water was a convenience not known by any of the residents in our tiny community, so Dad carried water from the river that ran  some three miles from the back of the house. The house consisted of a kitchen and two bedrooms, with a small area sectioned off to be used as the bathroom when the weather was too cold to go outside. In the kitchen, was a wood stove that served as an oven as well, and since there was no running water, the cabinets simply consisted of a counter top where a basin could be placed, and a small storage area underneath.  On the table, there was always a kerosene lamp, because in addition to the lack of running water, we didn’t have electricity either. There was always a huge selection of comic books and novels to read, because without electricity, television was just a dream.

Dad picked up a job driving cab. At the time, the Americans had an Air Force base in our town, so there was always a high demand for taxis. Dad made so little that all he could afford was a few cans of tomato soup and maybe some crackers. They ate a lot of soup and crackers back then, Mom says that she hates tomato soup, and this is why.

I was the first-born, so I got all the ‘good stuff’. I remember one Christmas, I got a metal spin top, the one with the wooden handle on top. To operate this toy, you had to push the handle down very hard, and the big top would spin across the floor. This toy provided many hours of amusement for both me and my parents. Most kids would laugh at this, but when you have so little, you learn to appreciate the things you are given. I also had access to all the comic books I could read. My dad taught himself to read using those comics. He especially enjoyed the ‘Classics Illustrated’, a series of comics devoted to classics such as “Treasure Island” and “The Three Musketeers”. Mom also read western novels to dad in the evenings. This was our entertainment, similar to watching TV, but much better.

I remember how excited we were when we got running water. My grandfather had a little stream flowing through one of his hay fields, so he and his sons got together and built a dam. The next step was to dig trenches throughout the entire community, which consisted of over 15 homes. Pipe was laid in those trenches, and eventually, water flowed through the tiny community.

Dad had been lucky enough to get a job as janitor with a new company that came into town. With this new money, he was able to purchase everything required to build a bathroom in the house. He also bought a kitchen sink and a tap. Most people would laugh at this, but when he installed the toilet, I was not sure how to sit on it. I still remember mounting the thing like one would ride a motor cycle, sitting on the seat and facing the flush box. I wondered how others used this wonderful thing, did they get bored staring at the wall behind the toilet, or did they use the base of the toilet as a counter to read their comics like I did.

Mom especially enjoyed the new kitchen sink. She said that cooking became so much easier with the convenience of running water. Washing clothes was also much easier, for both mom and dad. I can still see mom crouched over the galvanized wash tub, scrubbing our precious clothes over the old washboard, this time with the convenience of running water. We had it made.

Before mom got married to dad, she taught school. Back then, if you had anything higher than grade 10, you could be a teacher. Mom joked that dad was the stubbornest student she ever taught, and that he used to hide his books under the school and run home without any homework. I guess that is why he dropped out of school in grade 8.

Seeing how we lacked many of the conveniences most had, Mom made up for it by teaching me school at home. Before I was to begin school in the nearby town, Mom made sure that I could read, write, and do my arithmetic. When I started school with my friends, I was quickly moved to a higher grade than most kids, because I already knew what they were teaching the kids. I could read as well as any grade two, even in kindergarten, and math was a breeze as well. Because of this, I was moved from kindergarten to grade two in one year. I was glad, because school was boring for me, having to listen to other kids get stuck on simple words, when I could correctly pronounce and even spell those words with ease.

1970 was a year that brought many changes in our household. The first new convenience was the coming of electricity to our community. Each day, me and my friends would gather and watch anxiously as the workers planted the large poles into the ground, and how they strung wires from one pole to another. We were excited to see the many things that would come from this new convenience. Dad was working at another job now, and he managed to buy a television. This was the coolest thing I ever seen, and I can still recall it in my mind. A small rectangular box, what we would call a 12″ tv, was brought into the house by my parents, who proudly purchased this after saving their money for several years.  When dad turned the TV on,  we watched anxiously as the CBC test pattern filled the screen. An image consisting of 7 columns, all different hues of either black, grey or white stood before us, and we watched in anticipation as the first broadcast for the day was about to happen. We were entertained by the National Anthem of Canada, with images of our soldiers, the queen, and other important figures we had never seen, graced the screen. Soon, we were entertained by the likes of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, I Spy, and of course, Star Trek; programs that both amazed and addicted us to the world of television.

1970 was also the year my brother came into this world. Since I was born, I was alone, and only child, but now, I got to be a big brother. Mom explains now that between the time I was born, and my brother’s birth, she had 4 miscarriages, but did not give up hope in having a family. Two sisters followed, each three years apart from my brother.

Things changed when my brother came into the world. He ate my storybooks, claimed my teddy bears, and wrecked my toys; but I couldn’t have been more happy with it all. I guess that is what happens when you have so little, you appreciate everything you are given, even a drooling, attention-getting, keep you up late, little brother. I still remember holding him in my arms, so proud. Still proud to this day. He has gone on to great things, further than I will ever go, even so, I am not envious, just proud and grateful for all the things I have been given in my life.

The seventies were especially good to me and my family. With a new paper mill starting up in the area, our community flourished greatly. The wood surrounding the community was said to have been the richest supply of pulpwood in the province, and this new industry brought jobs to each and every resident in the community. Dad got a job at the mill, doing labor work that made his hands blister and bleed, but that also gave him money to buy the things he always wanted. Soon, he had redone the house, adding new rooms and a nice deck in front. He also bought a nice car. It was a Ford Cortina, and import from England. The little car was the nicest color of sky blue, and he washed and cared for the car like it was gold. On Sundays, we would travel over the often bumpy road, and out around the peninsula, me and my little brother in the back, playing games like “buggy free punch” and other games that drove my parents crazy.

I believe it may have been the new car that got mom started on a project. Her project was to write the premier of the province, and ask for the road in our community to be paved. Of course, small communities like ours didn’t deserve all the government money, so they turned her down. With the coming of the paper mill, large pulp trucks drove through our small community, and with the badly graded gravel roads, dust was a common thing, and something that filled our lungs as the day went on. Mom organized everyone in the community to block the road, stopping traffic from the huge pulp trucks that brought newly cut timber to the paper mill. This action got the attention of everyone. CBC news, our newspapers, our radio, and of course, of the paper mill.

Community members were horrified at the sight of several police cars, as they were gathered and brought to the local court-house like common criminals. I remember mom asking a neighbor to stay with us kids, and how we worried that we would never see our parents again. It worked though, in no time, we saw trucks and other equipment arrive in our community, and many workers digging and running large machines on our little road, and we seen the new pavement cover our once bumpy road. I remember running on the pavement, barefoot, until the soles of my feet turned black, and how mom scolded me for doing this, warning me that my feet would blister and hurt if I continued. Soon, the probation that community members were given was over, and the community could enjoy the new pavement.

Mom later wrote the government asking that they build a detour for the mill trucks, so that the trucks no longer travel through our community. I guess my mom gained a reputation with these government officials, as they were quick to begin work on the detour. She later used this newly acquired power to obtain mailboxes for community members, and to bring telephone service to our homes as well.  It is amazing what a strong drive to do what is needed can do.

Still in the seventies, two more siblings were added to the family. Just three years after the birth of my brother, mom gave birth to the first sister. My brother and I loved our little sister, often teasing her until she either bit us, or until mom scolded us or sent us to our rooms. Three years after that, another sister. My brother and I worried that if this continued, we guys would be outnumbered, and seeing how sisters always got their own way, or screamed too loud when you teased them, this would not be a good thing. Mom stopped having children then.

Us four kids and Mom and Dad had quite a life. We didn’t worry about money, it seemed that we always had enough. Dad never ever had a new car, we lived in the same house all our lives, and if we went camping, it was not in an RV, but in a family tent my dad bought and we all treasured.

The lessons that I learned through growing up in this atmosphere taught me well. I have managed to acquire a beautiful home, a car that I can depend on, and guess what? I have running water, electricity, a TV, a bathroom with a toilet that flushes, and a bathtub. Who could ask for any more?

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One thought on “Doing Without in the Land of Plenty

  1. Well said…funny how people worry about these things. My hubby constantly worries about where the next dollar is coming from and it’s just a big waste of energy. Our major disagreements come from my lack of enthusiasm in wanting the luxuries…I feel if the kids are happy and healthy, you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, you’re good to go!

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