My mom and dad had eight children in a time span of 10 years, something I didnt fully appreciate until I had children of my own. Mom worked full-time as a registered nurse (third shift) and my dad was a state trooper. These are well-paying jobs when supporting two children, but squeaky tight for a big family (my grandma also lived with us). So, in total, we had 11 living under one roof.
Mom grew up on a farm near Beal City so a lot of her solutions to our money problems had to do with killing animals and canning vegetables. Other solutions were more creative. We did have excellent health and dental insurance, so at least that wasnt a worry.
Mom bought clothes from rummage sales, Goodwill, and the Goody Barn in Flint, which I loved to visit. If memory serves me right, the aisles were packed with lots of new clothes and linens, but the inventory came from stores that had nearly burned down. Clothes, sheets and towels from there had a certain smoky fragrance to them.
We bought enormous bags of flour and I made 12 loaves of bread a week (my five brothers ate unbelievable amounts of food). Potatoes and pasta were staples. Oddly, none of us eight kids suffered a weight problem.
In the morning, my brother Steven made dozens of pancakes with a sourdough concoction. It looked disgusting, a whitish goo bubbling over in the refrigerator, but the pancakes were excellent. Speaking of pancakes, we made our own syrup by boiling sugar, water and a splash of maple flavoring. Sometimes we used Karo syrup, if thats all we had.
We bought chickens at the chicken farm and butchered them ourselves. I wouldnt recommend this one. We had to watch our dad chop off their heads with an ax (and they do walk around afterward). We scraped out the guts with our hands and dipped them by their legs into boiling water to get the feathers off. Oh, the smell! We also bought our eggs from the chicken farm.
Store milk was too expensive, so we drank powdered milk three times a day. We hated it so much that we were forced to line up and down the glass under the watchful eye of mom. Abuse!
Instead of buying vitamins, mom made us take a tablespoon of molasses every morning. She also gave us tetanus shots (again we lined up) from her well-stocked medical kit.
Nearly everything was bought in bulk. Huge jars of peanut butter, cold cereal, oatmeal, Aspirin, Crisco shortening, and sugar. My dad and brothers hunted, so we also had lots of venison, pheasants, and even a bear (not tasty).
We canned food, although I have no idea how expensive that is to do now. I remember driving up north and buying bushels of tomatoes and never enough peaches and apples. We were so little that when we peeled the scalded tomatoes, the juice would drip down our arms and into our mosquito bites, stinging like crazy. At 12 years old, I became the family cook. I used two quarts of tomatoes for dishes that mainly consisted of hamburger, tomatoes, onion, and different kinds of pasta -- spaghetti, rice, macaroni -- just to mix it up. I remember the pure joy I felt after getting a job of my own and being able to buy tomatoes ALREADY canned.
We thought store bread was a big treat, so we went to the discount bakery when bread was on sale and froze them.
We ate a lot of soup made from slightly old vegetables, beans and a ham hock, which cost almost nothing.
We hardly ever threw food away (we were forced to clean our plates).
We bought a cow from the slaughter house each year and cut it up ourselves on our chopping block. Cuts of meat included tongue, heart and liver. Most of us went hungry on those nights, as I prepared these delicacies and had no idea what I was doing.
We NEVER ate out in restaurants, which proved a tad embarrassing in later years. I remember effusing about those cute little jelly packets to a boyfriend who could just not believe I had never seen one. Also, working as a waitress to earn my tuition money was a challenge, as I had no clue that salad or soup was served before the entrée. And what is an entrée anyway?
Mom clipped coupons and sent my brothers driving around town to the different grocery stores for the best deals. When canned vegetables were on sale, wed stock up for the year.
Christmas was always fun with eight kids, but painful when vacation was over and the rich kids strutted in with their long list of presents and tales of going somewhere for break, the spoiled brats. I remember one year we were so broke that we just pulled over to the side of the road and cut down an attractive looking pine.
We never drank pop except maybe once a year.
We saved on hot water by never having enough. Enjoying a hot shower required getting up at 5:30 in the morning. We washed most of our clothes in cold water. The house was so chilly, I sat in front of the register while I did my homework.
For fun, we explored the woods, picked wild berries for tarts that our grandma helped us bake, ice skated on our creek and sometimes in the backyard (it was low-lying, so it flooded nearly every year in the early spring), and we sledded next door. All free. We also liked traipsing to the dump in back of Williams Gun Sight Company, a gun range next door to us, and fingering through the used targets and boxes of office paper.
When I got older, I began to appreciate that there was a safety net of sorts for families like ours. My grandma received Social Security and lived in a subsidized apartment in her later years; the government paid for her new false teeth and the removal of her cataracts. My brother got a free education for serving time in the Air Force just as the Vietnam War was winding up. My sister, abandoned temporarily by her husband traumatized from that war, was able to get welfare for herself and her infant son. I depended on student loans for both of my degrees. In fact, most all of us relied on student loans for college. We went on to get good jobs and bought houses with enough hot water.
Back then, just because you grew up poor didnt mean you had to stay poor. Its what made our country great.