“Are you poor or something?”
I still remember when a kid asked me that at lunch in the fifth grade as I unwrapped my bologna sandwich, which he looked at with disgust. In front of him was a yellow school lunch tray with a little square pizza and a carton of milk he’d bought with lunch money. I only had a brown paper bag holding the sandwich Mama had made, and a thermos of milk from home. As he ate his school lunch brownie, I pulled out a little plastic bag holding my six vanilla wafers.
He repeated, “I don’t eat bologna because I’m not poor. Are you poor?”
“No. I have five black cows!” I said. I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I was the one who’d said it.
I don’t remember ever having another conversation with that kid, but I do remember that’s when I began to wonder if I might be poor. I’d never thought about it. We did have five black cows in the pasture at home and maybe I thought since no one else I knew had five black cows, everyone else must be poor. We practically had a herd. We must be rich.
But as I thought about it, other kids at school did talk a lot about new clothes from the mall. My sisters and I had a lot of shirts and pajamas that Nannie had made for us. She’d walk from her farmhouse down the path and under the walnut tree to our house with fabric hanging over her arm and a measuring tape in her hand. She’d talk to Mama a while about whether the butter beans were ready to be picked, then they’d call us into the kitchen so Nannie could measure our arms or legs. Later on, for Christmas or a birthday, we’d open a present from Nannie to find something made from the cloth she’d had over her arm in Mama’s kitchen that day. I guessed I was poor then, after all.
And I couldn’t forget the trips my classmates talked about making to ice cream shops on the weekends. Their parents would buy them ice cream cones with sprinkles, or banana splits in little blue plastic dishes. My family made ice cream over at Nannie’s. We all sat on the edge of the well by the ice cream freezer while Nannie made a creamy magic potion in the kitchen, then came outside and dumped it into the freezer. Daddy and uncles would crank it until it got going good, then we kids would all get a turn cranking until our arms were tired. If we weren’t actually cranking the ice cream then we were standing by watching, barefoot in the melting ice and rock salt that ran from the bottom of the ice cream freezer. Barefoot. I was poor.
Then there were the kids at school who talked about catching fireflies. One girl, I remembered, said that her father bought her a little clear plastic box with a handle and she filled it with fireflies at night to make a lantern. I didn’t know about fireflies so much, but I knew that at home when we kids noticed a lightning bug, we’d get old mayonnaise jars out of Nannie’s rooting bed by the chicken house to hold the bugs as we caught them. No lids, so we used our hands to cover the top. I wasn’t sure if my lightning bugs were as good as that girl’s fireflies, but I knew we used old jars and not new plastic boxes with handles. Clearly, I was poor.
With that issue settled in my head, I resigned myself to – well, whatever it was that poor people resigned themselves to. I would just have to wait and see what that was.
But as time passed, months and years, I had many conversations with friends about the way I grew up. They usually commented on how lucky I was to have grown up with my extended family nearby, and to have lived just across the field from a grandmother who spent her time making and doing things for us. Some were envious that my family had gathered often “just because” to sit and laugh while home-made ice cream was cranked by the well. I’d long since learned that fireflies and lightning bugs were the same, but I’d also learned that keeping them in a little plastic box from the store was nowhere near as memorable as the way we kids raced to Nannie’s rooting bed to hunt for old mayonnaise jars together.
Many memories flooded back with each conversation about growing up with my huge family all around. I even once told friends about the kid in school who asked if I was poor simply because I was eating a bologna sandwich and six vanilla wafers. Looking back, I really was the rich one, not him. But somewhere inside I had known that all along.
After all, I had five black cows.
Stuart M. Perkins