From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

My Mother’s Riches

There must be something pretty special about a mother who can raise a daughter oblivious to the poverty she lived in. I didn’t even know I was poor until I was in the second grade. I had everything I needed; nine brothers and sisters to play with, books to read, a friend in a handmade Raggedy Ann, and clean clothing my mother skillfully mended or often made herself. My hair was washed and braided by my mother each evening for school the next day, my brown shoes polished and shined. I was blissfully happy at school, loving the smell of the new crayons and the thick art paper the teacher handed out for projects. I soaked up knowledge like a sponge, earning the coveted privilege of taking messages to the principal’s office one week.

I still remember the feeling of pride as I went by myself up the stairs of the school to deliver that day’s lunch count. As I returned to my classroom, I met two older girls going back up the stairway. “Look, it’s the poor girl,” one whispered to the other, and they giggled. Face flaming red and choking back tears, the rest of the day was a blur.

Walking home that day, I tried to sort out the conflicting feelings that the girl’s comments had wrought. I wondered why the girls thought I was poor. I looked down critically at my dress and for the first time noticed how faded it was, a crease at the hem visibly announcing that the dress was a hand-me-down. Despite the fact that the heavy boy’s shoes were the only kind with enough support to keep me from walking on the sides of my feet, I was suddenly embarrassed that I wore ugly brown shoes.

By the time I got home, I felt sorry for myself. I felt as if I were entering a stranger’s house, looking critically at everything. I saw the torn linoleum in the kitchen, smudged fingerprints on the old paint in the doorways. Dejected, I didn’t respond to my mother’s cheery greeting in the kitchen, where she prepared oatmeal cookies and powdered milk for a snack. I was sure the other girls in school didn’t have to have powdered milk. I brooded in my room until suppertime, wondering how to approach the topic of poverty with my mother. Why hadn’t she told me, I wondered. Why did I have to find out from someone else?

When I had worked up enough courage, I went out to the kitchen. “Are we poor?” I blurted out, somewhat defiantly. I expected her to deny it, defend it, or at least explain it away, so I wouldn’t feel so bad about it. My mother looked at me contemplatively, not saying anything for a minute. “Poor?” she repeated, as she set down the paring knife she’d been peeling potatoes with. “No, we’re not poor. Just look at all we have,” she said, as she gestured toward my brothers and sisters playing in the next room.

Through her eyes I saw the wood stove that filled the house with warmth, the colorful curtains and homemade rag rugs that decorated the house, the plate full of oatmeal cookies on the counter. Outside the kitchen window I could see the wide open space of country that offered so much fun and adventure for 10 children. She continued, “Maybe some people would think we are poor in terms of money, but we have so much.” And with a smile of contentment, my mother turned back to preparing a meal for her family, not realizing she had fed far more than an empty stomach that evening. She had fed my heart and soul.

Mary Kenyon

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