I was 18 years old before I knew that I was poor. It was a lazy afternoon in Oberlin, Ohio and I was hungry. I did not have to work that evening at the student union and there was nothing happening on campus so it was the perfect set up to scavenge through my care package for something that I could eat without leaving my dorm. There was a dining hall in my building, but it was only open for dinner on weekdays which meant that we had to venture to one of the dining halls in one of the larger dorms on the weekend. If I had to go to work, then it was not much of a problem as I could stop in South Hall or Dascomb Hall on my way to Wilder but since I did not have to work, dinner was not enough motivation to leave the building if I did not have to.
Looking through the plastic bin that sat on the floor of my closet I found my salvation in a can of chicken noodle soup and a sleeve of saltine crackers. Having something warm was the quickest way to feel full and soup required little preparation. As I was gathering my supplies to head over to the little kitchen at the other end of the building, my roommate came in and asked what I was doing. Although we were both from Cleveland and had met briefly over the summer, Richgina and I did not have much in common. She was tall and thin, and her clothes and hair were always in the latest fashion. She was rarely alone, and Rich was always surrounded by a bevy of folks hanging onto her every word. In short, Richgina was popular. “Hey Rich, I was just on my way to fix some soup. Would you like to join me?” I asked. Having soup and crackers with my parents on a Saturday evening was a common occurrence and I would have appreciated the company. Richgina looked at my provisions and asked if I had another can of soup because one can of soup is only enough for one person. “What do you mean?” I asked sincerely and informed her that my parents and I often shared one can of soup. She looked at me in disbelief and let out a little laugh and told me to enjoy my soup because she was going out to eat with some friends anyway.
On my walk to the kitchen, I remembered all the times I would sit and eat soup with my family, and I know that the three of us ate from the same can. I had watched my mother or father prepare the can of condensed soup countless times and I never saw them add any water or other items to the pot and the result was always three cups of soup. Now there might have been some uneven noodle distribution among the three of us, but we each had a full cup of soup and a handful of crackers and were satisfied. I never thought this was odd or insufficient, but I also never considered that anyone else could see it as such. As I ate my soup that evening, I thought about what else Richgina thought was insufficient about my life. It may have been the look on her face or the derision of her laugh but Richgina’s question about how much soup I had sent me spiraling. I had always been driven and I had a vision for my life, but that day I felt small and insignificant. I began to scrutinize my hair, my clothes, and my habits to figure out how I measured up with the rest of the world. How much did I need to have enough?
I was clear that my family was working class and not wealthy, but I never made the correlation that we were poor. I always had something to eat and clothes to wear. There were toys and books and records throughout my childhood, and I never felt like I did not have what I needed. During my senior year of high school, I participated in a citywide youth development program and interacted with girls from the suburbs who had cars and genuinely nice clothes. The first time someone questioned me about my attire I accounted for my differences as a lack of sophistication. I had never been in some of the environments that the program exposed me too and I admittedly did not know what was appropriate to wear. In response I used my allowance and savings from my summer job to buy three outfits that mimicked the outfits the other girls were wearing and rotated through those outfits as needed. It never occurred to me that the other girls did not need to rotate outfits. I knew that we did not have unlimited wealth as I would sit with my father and help him write checks to pay the bills and I thought everything was okay because there would always be a balance, albeit small, when were finished and everything was paid. In my limited understanding, we were the epitome of living on a fixed income. We had just enough, and I never felt diminished or discouraged by that. Enough is enough.
The next day I went to visit my aunt who lived and worked in my small college town. After church we sat outside on the patio, and I told her about my encounter with Richgina and that I never knew that my family was poor. My aunt listened quietly and then said: “She sounds like she is poor in spirit and miserable and you know that misery loves company. Don’t keep that company. You are rich in other ways.” A wave of relief washed over me. While there was nothing I could do about the economic status of my family or how other people perceived me, I did have a choice in how I responded to that. I could live my life in a spiral of fear and rage, wondering if I ever have enough or I could continue to do the best that I could with the resources I had been given. In that moment I understood that was the inheritance that my family had given me: to make the most of each day and to explore every opportunity. To find joy in the simplest of things and to be grateful for everyday that I had exactly what I needed to get by. Enough is enough.