“A long time ago, in a little mill town on a mountain side,” my mother began, “your grandparents and their five children survived many years awash in the muted pigments of poor. Everything they owned was indelibly stained with a relentless poor that blurred your grandmother’s vision and left a bitter taste in her mouth.”
“They were much poorer than us,” my mother insisted, lest I think this was a cautionary tale. “Poor as black dirt, or red Georgia clay, or scorched earth on that North Carolina mountainside.”
My mother leaned in to whisper these dark secrets, despite our living all alone. Even as a child, I knew that poor colored everything it touched in dreadful shades of contempt and could leak out of buckets as slowly as spoilt molasses, swallowing up whatever was in its path like unbaked gingerbread with a craving for flesh: “Nibble, nibble, little mouse, who is nibbling at my house?”
“All those years ago,” my mother continued, “your grandmother became exasperated with her half-empty glass of poor and your grandfather’s perpetually empty aluminum cans of cheap beer. She held up her glass and looked through the putrid contents at the bed she had made but tired of lying in. Your grandmother laid out a trail of moldy breadcrumbs and accused her husband of beastly behavior.”
My mother recited in barely audible tones, causing me to lean in uncomfortably as I perched precariously on the arm of a too small chair. Her breath had been hot on my face, reeking of onion and mayonnaise sandwiches. It was the smell I knew as poor, but not so poor as them.
“Your grandfather was locked up in a prison cage. The family then had to survive on the dregs of welfare, whose poor offerings were never enough to last the whole month so that your grandmother found no relief from poor despite her escape from a shabby marriage. She longed to be free from the little piece of bottom land where they sweltered in the summer sun and froze in the cold air of winter. She was tired of breadcrumbs.”
“As the September sun was bearing down,” my mother said, “on the small, muddy creek of bullfrogs, the children stood on the porch of the tiny house and waved as their mother left to buy groceries. And while poor was a happy enough color to mix with muddied creeks and splash into children’s half-full glasses, poor made the woman’s half-empty glass ugly and bitter.” She sped away from the ache of poor in a cloud of dust and never looked back.
Her abandoned children survived two weeks alone by luring a neighbor’s chicken into their yard. Chickens were not easy to catch, especially not after they’d been beheaded on the old stump. “The headless chicken leapt up in a dead sprint and left a bloody trail across the dirt yard and under the cinder-blocked house where it hid. Your father had to drag it out and hang it upside-down from the clothesline to finish dying,” my mother covered me in emphatic spittle as her tale progressed. I felt queasy from the moldy breadcrumbs, raw onion, and headless chicken.
“They were much poorer than us,” my mother repeated quietly. It certainly seemed like a cautionary tale; we had survived many years awash in the muted pigments of poor with stolen corn, gifted onions, and wild blackberries to supplement the welfare bread. But I was not sent off into the woods to forage cake from other’s roofs all alone. My mother went too because we were not so poor as them.