If you haven’t seen this meme floating around social media, you should soon enough. This is one of those things I’m just not quite sure about. Does having grown up poor convey something special upon an adult? Children, after all, are kind of trapped in their families. They aren’t responsible for the socioeconomic condition of their families. They’re just there, and their parents by and large do the best job they can within their means to raise their children. So if that means that cheap processed white bread substitutes for all sorts of different kinds of bread products – and trust me, this was true for my childhood – that means little compared to the love and effort and worry that parents in such marginal conditions experience. I’m quite sure, in fact, that there are moments that parents wish they could buy regular rolls and Italian bread for special occasions. That they can’t is just another reminder to the parents of their precarious position.
Yet, still I wonder. I suppose like all social media posts, it’s about attracting attention. “Look at me! Look how poor I was!” It isn’t as if that was a unique experience. Beside, if your family can afford processed white bread, you and they are far better off than many who scrounge through dumpsters for food, or just steal off shelves in order to feed their families. In all honestly, this isn’t as much a sign of “poverty” as it is the kind of petit bourgeois that is far less about poverty than it is envy: My friends’ families could afford hot dog rolls and mine couldn’t; they thought they were better than I was. Except, of course, this kind of nonsense misses the point that, on the scale of goods, multipurposing processed white bread hardly compares with, I don’t know, being evicted from a home, say. Parents probably used mass-produced tasteless bread for all these different varieties of breads just so they wouldn’t be evicted.
Still I’m back to the whole Why? question. Lisa and I often talk about the life we have, all the stuff we have that is not only meaningless but can be cumbersome. We talk about the family trips and vacations we’ve taken. Three trips to Disney World with a fourth in the works before Miriam graduates high school, for example. How many trips did my family make to Disney World? How many to Myrtle Beach, SC, a popular destination spot for folks where I grew up? How often did my parents decide to take off for a week for a trek to places they’d never visited? My kids take for granted things and events that weren’t even on my horizon as a child. And I’m not thinking my kids are spoiled, or soft, or anything else. On the contrary, the whole point of growing up, being educated, and working hard is to live well. Lisa and I have been both fortunate and well-compensated in our lives, and so we are comfortable in ways my childhood family couldn’t have imagined. Isn’t that “the American Dream?”
We weren’t really “poor” in the most important senses of the word. Sure, we used processed white bread for hamburger rolls. That didn’t really mean we were poor. Real poverty was always close by, but my family managed to dodge it – sometimes with luck, sometimes not – and, really, using white bread to eat a hot dog hardly counts as a hardship in the long run. Which doesn’t mean now we don’t buy better bread, and different kinds of bread because we can. Sure we do.
Do people post this because they believe it conveys some kind of moral authority upon them? That a childhood spent using white bread makes one a better person? In all honesty, it just made me clear that at the very least I wanted my family to be able to afford hamburger rolls. And I certainly don’t cherish those memories because, honestly, it wasn’t until I was an adult – really – that I understood what it meant that we didn’t buy that fancy garlic bread, or Italian bread, or even something as wonderful as the occasional loaf of pumpernickel (hmm . . . pumpernickel . . .). Once that became clear enough, it certainly made other things in my childhood stand out in clearer focus. It also only reinforced a desire to live differently.
And, again – isn’t that the American dream? That our parents will raise us to live better and more successfully than they were? Our successes are their successes, the reward for the sacrifice of a few hot dog rolls for summer cookout. To be honest, I hope my kids do even better! Instead of Disney World trips, I hope they get to take their families to Europe on family vacations. I hope they live with things I can’t even imagine – and, really, growing up in the 1970’s I had no thought about anything like personal computers, cell phones, the Internet, movies and television on demand, hybrid cars, shopping without leaving the home, the list is endless – and take them for granted as much as I do WiFi service, Netflix, and increasingly fuel-efficient automobiles.
I just hope they don’t post a meme with a photo of a flip-phone that reads “Growing Up Poor”.