This column originally was published in The State Newspaper on April 17, 1998.
Sugar sandwiches were rather common around our house during my childhood. Of course, not as common as ketchup sandwiches, mayonnaise sandwiches or pork and beans sandwiches. Sometimes that's all we had.
Visions of sugar sandwiches danced in my head recently as I talked with folks who told me they never knew they were poor as children. One colleague told me he recalls days of eating cereal with water because there was no milk. Then he went on to talk about family and how his mother and father raised him and his siblings.
Van Woods, president of the famous Sylvia's soul food restaurant in New York, told me the same thing about when he was growing up. He talked of how his mother and father worked to make ends meet, both in their native Hemingway and in Harlem. The two areas were akin because of the poverty both have endured, he said in a January interview. "We were a product of all this poverty and devastation. Yet, we weren't poor."
He told me about the love and care that his parents showed. "We didn't have the poverty mentality," he said. I knew what he meant. I've often had the same thoughts about my family and how my mother raised us. While we were in poverty, we weren't of poverty.
Sylvia Woods, the restaurant founder known as the Queen of Soul Food, told me that she too escaped that mentality because of the work ethic and teachings of her mother and grandmother.
"We didn't have anything, but we weren't hungry," Mrs. Woods said. It was Mrs. Woods' mother who worked to keep the family farm after her husband's death. She later used it to borrow money to help Mrs. Woods get Sylvia's restaurant started.
It wasn't until I had gotten older that I realized how poor my family was. My mother raised 11 children. She drew a modest Social Security check and worked as a maid making $20 a week. By the time she died in 1986, she was receiving the most she ever had in a year. That was less than $5,000.
Our lives were rich and fulfilling. We were never in the dark because the light bill wasn't paid. We were never put out on the street because the rent was overdue. Of course, that's because we never rented. My mom bought that little two-bedroom house we grew up in. She owned it. I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out how she did it. Makes it a little easier for me to write that check out for my mortgage each month.
Although my brothers and sisters and I didn't get a lot of new clothes, we never considered ourselves poor. My mom either got second-hand clothes from the veterinarian she worked for or bought them by the box from a woman who would come around selling used items at discount.
We rarely ate out - having Kentucky Fried Chicken every so many Sundays was a delicacy. We never owned a car. Most of us never had a bicycle. We didn't get a hot water heater until around 1980. But we never felt poor.
My mother always made sure we were well-mannered, got our studies and felt good about ourselves. There was no sacrifice she wouldn't make for us. She never talked about what we didn't have. She never complained. She never obsessed over something someone else had. She made it clear there was nothing like a good, hard-earned dollar.
The strangest thing is that while we had little, she always found enough to share with other children in the neighborhood. They loved her cooking and baked goods. It seemed as if she adopted a new kid every other year.
Being poor wasn't an excuse to run amok. My mother never let us take short cuts because of our lack of money or things. You didn't lie, steal or cheat in our house. She demanded honesty. If you wronged someone, you'd better believe you were going back to apologize.
I remember the time one of my brothers stole a Donald Duck night light from a local grocery store and my mother found out. (I didn't tell.) She whipped him and made him carry it back and admit to stealing it. She didn't dismiss this as some childish prank or an act by a child who didn't have anything.
My mom made one thing clear. It didn't matter what we were eating - Spam or hamburgers or steak - the important thing was that we were full. People didn't know what we had eaten unless we told them. But what we said, how we carried ourselves - that told a lot.
When I reflect on how my mother prepared us for life, I know that we never felt poor because we never were. What riches could replace the wisdom and guidance we got every day? Even King Solomon, when asked by God what he desired, chose wisdom over all the riches of the world.
No, we never had that "poverty mentality."
We were content. We had our mother's love. We had each other. She'd sit among us and talk about God and her childhood. And she'd teach us gospel songs. Today, when our family gets together, it's rare for us to leave one another without singing the songs of Zion. It's food for the soul. And we reminisce about Mom. The more we talk, the richer we realize our lives have been.
It doesn't feel so bad to know I had to eat a "jam sandwich" or two sometimes. If you've never eaten a jam sandwich, you need to know the process: Take two slices of bread and jam them together. You've got it.
It's a poor man's delight.