Monday, 27 May 2013

I grew up quite poor

I grew up quite poor
27 May 2013

It can be said, that I grew up quite poor. 

My folks had a rather early start to having a family and found themselves, having just left school, at the ages of eighteen and nineteen, married, and with a little baby.  They never had time to accumulate wealth.  Never mind wealth, to accumulate a bit of home and creature comforts.  My mom had just started studying to be a teacher and due to his wife being in the family way, my dad never had an opportunity to study either.  He simply went straight out of school and the army, into a job.

My mom was fortunate to be able to finish her studies.  My grandmother helped out, by looking after me during the day, and so once she qualified, my mom immediately got a teaching post and was gainfully employed educating the youth.  As for my dad, he worked really hard in good old Barclays Bank in those days.  Not a high paying job I think.  And to supplement his income, he played in a band (though I do think that that was more for fun than for funds – there weren’t all that many paying gigs those days), and he painted.  He was an exceptionally talented artist, and oil paint was his favourite medium.  But it was by no means, his only medium.  He was equally brilliant with pastels, charcoal, wooden carvings, water paints, etc.  Basically, he was artistically gifted.  When I was little he had a one-man show, which was amazing.  But apart from that, over the years many friends bought paintings.  As well as friends of friends.  And then there was family, friends of family, etc.  And so the circle got bigger.  Occasionally there was even a bit of bartering.  Exchanging of goods for a painting.  A marvellous trade usually.

But growing up, we never had lots of stuff.  Stuff that I thought was truly important.  We very, very seldom had Coke or gassy cool drinks in the fridge.  And if we did, it was usually for a special occasion only.  And mainly for the adults.  I had gone out to a restaurant, maybe about three times in my life, before I met Grant.  And I remember each occasion clearly.  For my great-grandmother’s 70th birthday.  Once while visiting the family on the farm in Wellington.  And after my dad had left Barclays Bank, he worked for Sanlam, and he won a work competition, enabling us to go to Bobby McGees.  Just the five of us.  It was a huge treat.  We NEVER did take-aways.  My mom cooked healthy food every single night.  We didn’t always have cheese in the fridge.  We only had puddings with our meals after Sunday lunch – usually Ice-Cream or Jelly.  I never had the latest clothes, and often got hand-me-downs from an aunt’s sister.  We didn’t get branded clothing.  We never did family holidays.  We either went to visit family or we went to Kleinbaai – the family holiday house.  At the grand old age of fourteen, we went on our first proper family holiday.  A car trip up to Joburg to visit my uncle and aunt.  My mom cut our hair.  My mom made both my confirmation dress as well as my Matric Farewell dress.   Not by desire, but by necessity.  Actually my Matric Farewell dress, was a revamp of a dress I had worn to a wedding when I was a bridesmaid, earlier in the year.  We didn’t live in the right area.  Our cars always looked a little bit banged up – because they were.  We never had the latest anything.  We didn’t have a video machine – now to me this was huge, as absolutely EVERYBODY had a video machine.  And though we always got nice Christmas presents, they weren’t ever huge or very expensive.  And our Christmas stockings, always contained neatly wrapped stationary items for the following year at school.  We didn’t always have loads of sets of school uniforms, and had to wash in between.  Albert made his very first skateboard, with castor wheels and a wooden plank that he had shaped and smoothed beautifully.  We couldn’t do and participate in everything.  For school cake sales, my mom always made stuff.  Caramel popcorn, fudge, sweeties mints, etc.  As a mom myself, I so appreciate this.  Personally I’m far too lazy.  I always end up buying cupcakes or lollipops or packets of chips.  I remember my mom trying to take the sting out of small-ish birthday presents, by turning birthday mornings, into a treasure hunt, complete with clues to look for our presents.  And so you might unwrap a little box, to find a picture of a fork inside.  And so, off you run to the cutlery draw, to find a picture of a washing basket.  And so off to the washing basket you go, to find a picture of a bed.  And so to your bed you run, to look all over to find a picture of washing machine underneath it.  And so it would go, until you found your much anticipated present, after a delightfully long search.  I remember helping my mom to do these for my brother and sister.  Such fun!  I remember thinking to myself that we never had fancy stuff.  And I really wanted to have fancy stuff.

But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realised quite a lot.  My folks worked really hard to give us what we got.  We might not have been surrounded by obvious material wealth.  But we were smothered with more important wealth.  We grew up in a very loving family.  A family where the mother and father really, really, really loved each other a lot.  Such a gift to give to one’s children, if the parents love one another.  A large family – filled to overflowing with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, great aunts, great uncles, great-grandparents, great-great aunts and uncles and so the family list goes on.  And though I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, our home was always filled with beauty.  Magnificent art works and interesting goodies dotted around.  Beautifully restored items of furniture.  Many of them very valuable family heirlooms, worth loads of money.  Though to me, pretty though they were, they were just cupboards, tables, chairs, desks, etc.  I never really understood their value.  To me, they weren’t modern.  They were old.  We grew up in a home always filled with music and musical instruments.  Our house was never quiet.  There was always music on the go, and we were exposed to a huge variety of different music styles.  Our house was always filled to the brim with books.  Lots and lots and lots of books.  I remember someone visiting once and asking if it was a library.  Most of the books, were non-fiction.  Books about the world, different cultures, religions, geography, history, science, philosophy, our country, gardening, cooking, furniture restorations, biographies, autobiographies, and so the list goes on.  And more than one complete and full set of Encyclopaedias.  Our very favourite books.  Children’s story books – lots of those too.  And the toys that we did have, was lots and lots of Lego.  Lego that has survived to this day and that my kids have played with.

And so, though I perhaps grew up quite poor or less well-off in monetary terms, the opposite is actually rather true.  I grew up ridiculously rich.  The irony of course being that the cycle is repeating itself ever so slightly with my kids.

But my upbringing did teach me a lot.  It taught me to truly value, that which is important.  That material stuff, nice though it is, is just stuff.  That sometimes, the older something is, the better it is.  Even more valuable too.  That in many ways, I grew up far more privileged than my wealthier friends at school.  Because though my parents weren’t always able to give us stuff, they gave us themselves.  And that is a gift worth far more than any video machine ever.  They gave us an appreciation for what is important and an eye and ear for real beauty.

Apart from that, they gave me my very wacky, crazy, completely loony family.  No overseas trip, hip rags, “cool” shoes, new bicycle or big car, could ever compete with that.

Thank you Frank and Maggie – for passing your wealth on to me and mine.  I am sorry I wasn’t more duly impressed at the time, whilst it was happening.

Bottom of the passage at our St James Street home - my Dad's so-called "Egg" paintings, books, a globe, more paintings and interesting little artefacts



  1. Oh my hat Helene! What an awesome blog post! And all the lovely things you have to say, nogal on what would have been our 41st wedding anniversary!
    I am so proud that you can see it like this, and that you have the gift of gratitude and a positive attitude.
    I love you much.

  2. These awesome blogs just keep coming!! Thanks Helene!

  3. Helene - your words touched me deeply... I am privileged to know your mom, and what an awesome woman she is. Obviously the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Keep up the blog - stuff like this is what turns every ordinary day into a special one. From the bottom of my heart, thanks xxx