With all the hoopla about the newest birth in the British royal family, I got to wondering what it would be like to grow up rich. Growing up as a child in rural East Tennessee, I never realized that my family was poor; I thought the way we lived was the way everyone lived.
Oh, I saw that some people had more things than we had, but I never equated that with poverty. Only as I got older and heard talk about government-derived (or -contrived) “poverty level” designations did I realize that my family was “poor.”
About the same time, I noticed that some of my classmates’ families lived in newer, nicer houses than we did. They didn’t live on dirty, smelly dairy farms like ours; they lived on small lots in neatly organized and planned subdivisions, closer to stores and downtown Knoxville.
They always bought their lunches at school, whereas I often brought my home-made lunch in a tin lunchbox. They bought the 50-cents-a-dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts during the band’s fundraisers, whereas Mother and Daddy refused to do so because they said the price was too expensive.
My classmates didn’t have to work, either at home or with one of their parents on their jobs, whereas my brother and I always had chores around the house and garden and were required to go to work with Daddy anytime school was out, especially during the summer.
If those were the standards, then I suppose we were indeed poor. But poverty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If my classmates thought that my family was poor, we were wealthy in my eyes, and that conviction only grows as I age.
How so? Here’s how.
First, Mother and Daddy were never in debt. Daddy built our house as he had time and money. He never made a mortgage payment in his life because he never had a mortgage. The only time payment he ever made was $10 a month to Uncle Dillon for the well he had drilled, and that debt he paid off quickly. Many of the people who lived in nicer homes in subdivisions were debtors and would not repay their debts for decades. Neither did Daddy have a car payment despite the fact that he always bought new cars, (I only recall his buying one used car, and that was when he gave me his car to take to college during my senior year.) He always arranged to pay “90 days, same as cash.”
Being debt-free allowed Mother and Daddy to provide other things for us kids, things that would not depreciate or erode or wear out. One of those things was a long, unforgettable trip “out West.” Other trips included Florida; Cape May, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C. We were well traveled as “poor” kids!
Second, we were rich in family. Whereas some of my friends’ parents were divorced, my parents remained happily married until death separated them. The same was true of both sets of my grandparents. And our wealth in family included extended family. We had aunts and uncles and cousins all around us. In fact, I grew up thinking that we were somehow related to just about everyone in Halls.
The people who weren’t related to us were, more likely than not, people who had gone to school at Halls High with our parents. Their annual class reunions in the summer gave us ample time to get to know those people, and we ended up going to school with their kids. The Clarks, Dunsmores, Holberts, Elkinses, and other families who were of no blood relation to us seemed like part of our family.
Similarly, we had good neighbors, people who didn’t butt into business not their own but who were ready and willing to help us if we needed it, just like family. We never had any trouble with any of them. But if we kids did something wrong and the neighbors noticed, our parents soon found out about it, and we were in trouble!
Third, our teachers were another part of our wealth portfolio. A few of them, like Mrs. Garret, had taught when our parents were in school. Others, such as Alberta Loy, had been school classmates or neighbors of our parents. And many of them taught each of us kids. Mrs. Zachary, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Porter, Mrs. Smelser were all teachers who taught each of us Peterson kids. Even the principal, Mr. Lakin, had been one of the teachers when Daddy attended two-roomed Fort Sumter School.
Fourth, we were wealthy in our religious upbringing. Mother and Daddy were always heavily involved in their church activities. Teaching Sunday school, serving on committees, helping with construction, and other activities. (Daddy learned his profession of brick laying when they were constructing the Beaver Creek church building.) We were in church practically every time the doors were open. But our parents’ religion was something they practiced daily at home, too. We grew up with preachers, missionaries, and evangelists as guests at our Sunday dinner table. We grew up memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism and Bible verses and having nightly family devotions. And through it all, we were learning important truths about life as it should be lived, holiness, separation from evil, and the development of biblical convictions.
Finally, we were rich in the benefits of living in a rural environment. We were able to play outside in the fields and forests of my grandfather’s farm, roaming and exploring and learning, using our imagination, and developing our young bodies. Working outside in the family garden and on the job site with Daddy helped us develop not only muscles and a strong work ethic but also the darkest tans in the school when we returned to classes in the fall.
From all of these influences and experiences, we kids learned the meaning of true wealth. It’s not money or material possessions; it’s things of lasting, eternal value. No, we were not wealthy in the world’s distorted valuation of things, but we certainly were rich in the things that really count.
House of Windsor, eat your heart out!
[Adapted from Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee, copyright (c) 2017]