Shoes and Crêpes

We weren’t always making do; we used to have regular holidays at hotels, with
fancy meals and lots of activities. It was fun. It was easy. As a kid, I never
thought twice about it. But then one thing changed – my parents divorced.

For a while we had to live with my Nan and Pop, which wasn’t really a bad thing from
the point of view of my brother and I since we’d always lived interstate so
we’d never spent much time with them and now we had the chance to do so. But
for Mum it may well have been an expression of failure and need and she would
probably have imagined that everyone around her could plainly see it.

But it didn’t take long for Mum to find a place of our own. The first home was a tiny unit and I think that’s when I realized we’d become poor. It was the kind of poor that people don’t really notice when they see you, not at first glance anyway. My brother
and I were always showered, we always had clean clothes and we’d always had
breakfast before we went to school – that hadn’t changed – but after the
divorce, pretty much everything else had changed and, I think out of an
unspoken agreement, Mum, my brother and I agreed to try and hide how broke we
were.

We ended up living in a ‘cheap’ suburb that marked us as poor. We drove an old
unreliable car and my clothes were often hand-me-downs and home made and I had
very few of them. At school, I could almost get away with none of this
mattering since I rode my bike there and I didn’t invite many friends home. But
it was shoes that were the give away for the more observant: scuffed and
coloured with age. We were reluctant to tell Mum when our toes were hitting the
end of our sneakers or when the soles were almost worn through because we knew
we lived from pay to pay.

It must have been for my twelfth birthday that my cousin took me shopping for a pair of ‘good shoes’. We only ever had one pair of good shoes at any given time and they had to multi-task for any occasion. In fact, they often had to multi-task across
seasons, which was particularly troublesome for me as a girl: a pair of sandals
bought in spring were embarrassing to wear the following winter in the cold and
the rain. To me they were like a flashing light at a dollar shop telling
everyone that we didn’t have much money.

Instinctively, even children know that not having much money makes you vulnerable. Not just because you might struggle to pay the power bill, but because people will avoid you if they sense you’re not doing well. You won’t get invitations because
people think you won’t be able to afford it – or perhaps because they think
your attire will embarrass them.

School friends won’t want to come to your house because you don’t have a trampoline, or a gaming device, or a computer, or a sound system, or tasty treats – not one of these things. You don’t have anything to admire. And whether it’s true that your school friends would look down on you because of this, your behaviour changes because you believe yourself to be less than them. Your own family is an embarrassment. Like the weakest wolf in the pack, you’re on the outer, scrounging to make do. Maybe you overcompensate for your perceived deficiency by being outrageous. Or maybe, like me, you closed yourself off behind an invisible wall, never completely accessible to anyone else – lonely but safe.

We never had holidays in that time, more than a decade of my life. Mum would keep
the Datsun 120Y going – thanks to a mechanic friend who used spare parts when
bits wore out and took little money for his trouble – and we’d drive to Nan and
Pop’s in Ardrossan. In summer it was a hot trip. When other friends’ families
were starting to get air-conditioned cars as the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, we
still had our legs stuck to vinyl seats, the hot summer air gushing in the open
windows. As I got older, I realized our car was another sign of our low status.
It really was a shitbox, but we loved it because it got us from A to B and it
got Mum to work each day, just.

For my brother and I the highlight of our trips to our grandparents was taking turns to choose which of Nan’s preserved fruit we’d have with vanilla ice-cream for dessert – I always chose plums – rich, dark and spicy. Nanna’s vast rambling garden, her chooks,
ducks, and mouse-hunting cats, were a welcome reprieve from our own simple home
in Morphett Vale. We would play cribbage on the front verandah with Poppa and
watch the world go by. Even the parching vicious monster that was the northerly
in summer couldn’t blow away the simple peace of being with Nan and Pop and
forgetting the daily sense of struggle that marked our normal life.

Mum was a budgeting queen. She taught me to add up the shopping as we placed it in
the trolley as we went around the supermarket, rounding the cents up or down to
the nearest dollar to make sure we didn’t get caught out at the checkout with
more than we could pay for; forced to put something back.

She only got the basic maintenance payment from Dad. He never paid a cent for anything more: not for school camps, books, sneakers, clothes, toiletries, haircuts – not even food or vet care for the dog he gave my brother.

But Mum barely said a word about it. She just got on with budgeting and giving us
the best life she could afford. She worked until she dropped. Literally. And
each pay was methodically divided up: food and other household needs, petrol,
car service, phone bill, water bill, mortgage, rates, public school fees,
clothes and so on. I still remember the look she’d get on her face when
something extra came up that she hadn’t counted on – a school excursion or the
inevitable next pair of sneakers for growing feet – an expression of shocked
stillness, like when you round a corner on a bush track and a roo is startled
into a freeze by your sudden presence – it’s fight or flight time. Mum never
flew.

Lucky for us, she never gambled or drank more than a glass of cask wine with dinner. She never took drugs, never committed a crime, never got into serious debt – though she did end up cutting up her credit card so purchases didn’t get ahead of her meagre
income. She never fell for cons or scams or anything that seemed too good to be
true because it probably was.

When I needed a ‘good outfit’ for work experience at Flinders Medical Centre she bought the fabric and made me a skirt, which I paired with tops I already had. It was an unbudgeted for expense and I looked as professional as any 16 year old could
hope to appear in the midst of high-earning doctors and specialists. My work
experience supervisor marked me down for one thing only – my attire. The world
is full of people who think that how you look, is how you are.

There were things we missed out on, absences of stuff and experiences. We didn’t have
a video recorder for years so my brother and I missed out on recording the TV
shows that it was cool to watch. We tried to keep that embarrassing situation
quiet – no VHS was social suicide! My brother and I regularly took deposit
bottles to the local shop on Elizabeth Road, where we could exchange them for
cash to buy milk and bread. That kept us going on many an occasion.

We didn’t get expensive presents for our birthdays and Christmas like many of our friends. I remember cringing if anyone asked me what I’d got and going to great lengths to try and change the subject so I didn’t have to report on my few simple, but very welcome, presents. Special food at Christmas was a great gift in itself.

There was one day when we had nothing to prepare for dinner. Nothing. Like the
nursery rhyme, the cupboard was bare. I must have been around 16 or 17 years
old by then and on this particular day Mum realized there was nothing left in
the house for dinner and there was no money to buy more food. There were no
backup funds on which to draw and no pay until the next day.

But by then, spurred on by Mum’s seemingly indefatigable budgeting over the years, I knew there must be a solution. I searched through our cookbooks – thank goodness Mum had bought a range of reference books in the years she was married – and I found something we could make. We had flour, we had spinach in the garden, we had a lemon, we had some milk. That night we ate crêpes with a spinach and lemon béchamel sauce. And it was delicious.

It wasn’t apparent to me then, but what was happening was that life was making us
rich with experience. We probably would have laughed cynically then if anyone
had suggested that it was a time to be grateful for, but now, that’s just how I
see it. We grew together, my brother, Mum and I. It was often a struggle and
often it was anything but fun, but we learnt things about life and ourselves
that many people haven’t. Sometimes I fear for the peace of mind of those who
are untouched by struggle, if one day they are unfortunate enough to find
themselves where we found ourselves through no fault of our own. How will they
cope?

We were lucky just to have been born in Australia – the Lucky Country because we have systems in place to support everyone when luck runs out. I worked hard all through high school. I had an after-school job and studied hard to get the best grades I could. I went to uni to study teaching and, although I still have the HECS debt to prove it, I couldn’t have studied without that financial support and I’ll be forever grateful for this social trampoline.

After a year at uni, things didn’t go quite according to plan – which my ’71 Corolla would attest to if it hadn’t been written off by a young man with deficient eyesight driving a big 4WD. I never became a teacher and over the course of a year of recovery my future looked grim. Then as I was getting better Mum’s muscles finally called it a day and the spectre of poverty rose again. Eventually she was diagnosed with
Fibromyalgia Syndrome and she learned how to manage the chronic pain and other
symptoms.

Through all this, we didn’t quit. We worked through it and we looked at our options as broadly as we could. I changed course, got a degree and then an Honours degree in English and then a job, where I became very interested in food and wine and built on my emerging cooking skills. Mum and I pooled resources and together we were able to get a small loan from HomeStart. It was only to buy a very decrepit shack in Aldinga,
but it was our place and we could afford it on our minimum incomes, so it was
wonderful! With effort, imagination, thrift, and love, it became a welcoming
home – and then it even increased in value!

Life changed, repeatedly, and luck seemed to swing my way and then not, to lift me
up and then throw me down. But my early experiences gave me resilience and I’ve
persevered. With shoes on our feet, food on the table, and a roof over our
heads, we were never really poor. I know now that I’m more than what I looked
like to many people when I was the child of a single-parent household, in an
ex-housing trust home, in one of the cheapest suburbs in Adelaide. I always was
more than what they saw, more than the label they gave me. Our poverty was, in
a sense, in their minds.

Now I’m in my 40s and, like my brother, living the suburban dream! I’m married with
a teenager, and Mum lives with us in the Granny Flat on our leafy block. I
still budget the way Mum taught me: this much for that, this much for the
other, but now there’s a small safety net; a little equity for small emergencies and some luxuries in the food budget.

I still grow spinach and I think I always will. You just never know when it will save the day, when it will make you feel wealthy and self-sufficient and remind you of the tremendous value and flavour of the simple things, the things that really matter. You never know when spinach will reignite your hope.

There’s nothing like home-grown vegies to help you feel hopeful – and to keep your belly full!

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