When You Grow Up Poor

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YLI is My Story
Fluffy (my forever friend and loyal steed) and I

When I was a kid, almost eight years old, I wondered about what I should ask for for my birthday. “What’s a good present? Eight feels like it should be important.” I wondered and mulled it over for weeks before finally settling on a unicorn pillow pet. I had seen it on tv for around twenty five dollars. I’d never been able to buy a toy I’d seen on the tv before, but maybe for my birthday it would be different!

My birthday came, and my dad asked me what I wanted. Cautiously, I told him what I decided. He nodded without looking at me and then I headed off to school. When I returned, he was standing in the kitchen with a plastic bag on the counter. Inside was the gift I had asked for! A purple unicorn pillow pet, exactly like I had seen on tv. 

I was ecstatic, over the moon to have this lifelong companion; I named him Fluffy. I still have him to this day, and I sleep with him every night. He’s never gotten a tear, or rip, and he still has both of his eyes!

The more I look back on this memory, the more things I notice about what happened the rest of the day. Mostly, the thing that made me upset at the end of the night: I didn’t get a birthday cake. We ate dinner at my grandparents house, and we had popsicles and sang happy birthday before opening the sparse presents I received. 

The more time goes on, and the more I remember that birthday, the more I examine the idea that I had money for either a birthday cake or a present. My family couldn’t afford to get me both. When I came to this realization, I started thinking about other things that might have pointed to this truth. 

During Christmas, I would always receive a few less presents than my sister. My birthday was only a few weeks earlier than the holiday, so my parents had to dip into that money to buy me a birthday gift.

During Thanksgiving, we would get ingredients for family dinner at food drives held at churches. Pre-stuffed turkeys and canned food that only needed to be heated up were commonly what we ate. When we first went to the grocery store for thanksgiving ingredients, haphazardly written and printed out recipes sprawled across the table at home, it was a momentous occasion for my parents.

When I was in elementary school, none of my friends had heard of apple-grape juice. My mom got it from Women, Infants and Children – a government nutrition program for low-income women – and none of their parents went there. None of them even knew what that was, while I’d visited on many occasions to pick out what cereal I wanted. 

My entire family had library cards, and we tended to rent movies from there rather than Redbox or Blockbusters. We never got to buy books either, always renting them and ensuring they were renewed before any fee could be charged.

Over the years, my family reached a point of higher financial stability and comfort. I don’t have to worry about receiving a cake or a present, or where our next meal is going to come from. But when I look at my life, I’ve realized the effects my childhood has had on me. 

Fluffy has been with me every night since I received him on my eighth birthday, but over the years he’s gained many friends. At nearly eighteen years old, I sleep with more stuffed animals than I can count. All of them have names and if someone tried to take one away from me, I don’t think I’d be able to sleep comfortably. 

Hoarding is a light word for what I struggle with in the present day. I always have a desire for more things, and I have a need to get them immediately. Ordering things online is difficult for me, because it takes so long to arrive. Buying things in a store means I can hold it as soon as I buy it. 

My hoarding and inability to let things go is an ongoing struggle in my life, but I’m grateful I struggle with having too many things instead of too little. I feel privileged to have the problems I do, even as I continue to work through them.