Poverty or Happiness? Privilege or Abuse? Growing up in rural Tennessee.

I am still suffering and not feeling like writing....I have a billion thoughts in my head and this has been the only one that I feel confident enough to articulate on.  As I said before, since my mom passed I've been thinking of her positive qualities, and the nice things she did for me as a kid.  Things I never dwelled on before.  And as if making up for it, having horrible nightmares with her, every single night.  It's not pleasant.

Anyway, onto the topic.  My thoughts have always been that I was abused, that I grew up poor, when I tell people the dirty and filthy and sad and cold conditions that I lived in I always get jaws dropped or "so sad" shakes of the head.  But there is more to the story than that.  I think I've gone into it somewhat on the blog before.  Lately what's been bothering me is...was living the way I lived really abuse?  Or do I just associate with such because I was being physically/emotionally abused by my parents at the time?

When I was young, I knew I was poor.  I knew it because my parents told me every day.  I knew it because they constantly stressed about money.  I knew it because my clothes and shoes didn't look like the other kid's at school.  I knew it because I was treated differently.  And I knew it because every time I visited a family member or friend from school who had their own room, their own bed, a working light switch, a working faucet, a working toilet....I was jealous.  And sad.

And yet, my parents were happy to be poor.   My dad came from poverty and I always knew just how much he hated rich people.  (His version of rich=a normal person's version of 'middle class'.)  My mom, however, came from a well-off family who traveled and had beautiful homes and generally took care of themselves.  She was always a black sheep in that crowd though, and idealized country life.  She thought she was Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.  And my dad saw himself as Jeremiah Johnson.  Happy, smart, simple wilderness people.  They saw the charm in that.  As a kid being made fun of and having to do back-breaking work and not have anywhere decent to lay my head at night, I always resented it.

And then when I became an adult, I noticed a lot of people idealizing.  I lived in a really nice area of Salt Lake right in the middle of the green movement.  "Free range meat."  "Home grown vegetables."  "Fresh jam."  I was like, are you fucking kidding me?

We got our water exclusively from a private spring.
Bear, boar, and deer were frequently on the menu.
We had a huge family garden where we grew it all: potatoes, corn, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, pumpkins: you name it, we grew it.
We pickled our own foods and made homemade jellies and jams.

The list goes on and on.  Things that I hated more than life itself were suddenly sought after by these granola types.  Dolly Parton made jokes about bathing out of a pan--the way I took baths and hated it for my younger years.  These things all annoyed me.  What was wrong with people? Didn't they see that what they thought they wanted was a life people should aspire to move on from? I'm not saying that everyone should eat McDonalds and be wasteful and have a jacuzzi.  I'm saying that gardening, farming, pinching pennies, going to the Food Bank for things like rice and oatmeal, are not an easy life.

I guess lately I've been questioning what the real problem was.  My parents raised me to feel very rich; we were special and lucky, they said.  We lived by other rules.  Society didn't have anything to take away from us (unless it wanted some decent firewood or foxberry jelly) and we were free, freer than all those people who worked 9 to 5 and heated their food in a microwave.  I didn't exactly buy into that--I would've given anything to have a bed--but I did realize that while I hated walking half a damn mile back and forth just to gather water, for a lot of people clean water isn't even an option in their lives.  I knew, even though during the blizzard of '93 that my milk froze in my cereal bowl before I could eat it, frozen milk and cereal would be heaven for some children around the world.  Even when I was literally surrounded by poverty my nagging thought was 'it could be worse.'

You can't blame me for wanting to better my life.  It wasn't just an issue of poverty.  I mean, that was bad, but I was being abused at home by two parents.  I had no joy in that cold house, no sense of belonging.  I was only happy with my nose in a book, or when I was out playing with animals, arguably the only friends I had until my little sister got a little older, and then became my partner in crime.  And my parents weren't just poor.  I firmly believe there's no shame in being poor, but they were lazy and dirty.  Part of this probably has to do with the drugs, but I still say both Mom and Dad had a plethora of undiagnosed mental illnesses.  Food would rot, animals would die under our house.  There was a literally radioactive swamp in our backyard where my dad dumped someone's plutonium years before.  When my Aunt Doris came over to help clean one time, she moved the stove and found a dead rat (and probably died a little that day of fright, lol.)  I had to routinely throw out eggs (FREE RANGE CORN FED CHICKENS! ORGANIC AS FUCK!) because Mom and Dad would let them sit and pile up and a swarm of maggots would rise up.

So, it wasn't just poverty.  It was also an Ed-Gein/Leatherface esque tendency to hoard, to not clean, to not fix, to not...do anything, to the things that needed to be done.  I see that now, but as a kid my life was all grouped into this one cell of miserable hardworking existence.  And so I ask myself now, did I hate being poor?  Am I materialistic?  Am I a country-phobe?  I think I turned into that when I left Tennessee.  I wanted nothing to do with trees and cabins and everything to do with big lights and rude cityfolk.  I turned into one of those myself.

At my heart, I would like to think I retain the good parts of growing up in poverty, in the country.  I know every animal track and call, I know how to start a fire and how to cut wood and where to pitch a tent and what weather to plant in.  I don't practice any of those things and if I had to start a fire for example, I would probably be overcome with anxiety just for having to step back into that character.  That poor girl with the bad clothes and big teeth.  But I'm not ashamed of it.

It's been hard to decipher exactly how I feel about Tennessee and separating the negative feelings I have toward my upbringing into categories: was it from the hitting? the names they called me? being forced to sleep outside?  going to school with dirty nails and hair because we didn't have running water? I still don't know how I feel.  I don't want to live in the country.  I don't want to be one of those fucking intolerable pseudo-granolas who think it's funny to spend a week in a cabin with no electricity just for the fuck of it and eat "authentic Southern cooking."

So did I grow up in privilege? For all that I've said, I now tend to think yes.  I feel bad for people who have never tasted delicious, (ORGANIC! WILD CAUGHT!) bear meat.  I roll my eyes at people who whine about being on a hiking trail and all the bugs.  I laugh at the farmers' market gawkers who are just so fucking amazed that you can plant hybrid tomatoes.   And I don't know what I would do if I couldn't swing an axe as well as I can.

I guess I will continue to question my past and my upbringing as I've been doing in the long dark winter days since my mom died.  I hope that every discovery I make brings me the same kind of peace as realizing I am lucky to have endured all that horse shit, brings me now.  I may even make another trip to the Appalachians and this time, I might even let myself enjoy it.


  1. Sweetie, you have a lot to be proud of. It's one of the weirdest things about getting older - discovering things you thought were abusive that weren't, and vice-versa.

    I grew up in downtown Detroit, so my issues were just about completely opposite to yours. I played on railroad tracks and in abandoned buildings. My clothes were from some convent girls born in the 1950's - I'm not kidding (sounds cute now, but it wasn't then). I guess what I'm trying to say, is good for you for discovering the beauty in the ugly. Life is less black and white than I ever used to think - and it sounds like you're thinking the same. :)

    1. Thank you Rose <3

      Actually yes those clothes do sound cute LOL. And yes, there are a lot of things that lately I'm not seeing through the bad filters I used to. I guess the dark parts of my past lose their hold on me as the years go by. Which is a great thing.

  2. i wish i had some great advice to add here, to help you get clearer. although i have not been through the tragedy you're currently experiencing, i am also taking a look at a period of my life in which i thought things were one way, and i'm wondering if they weren't another. . . it's very confusing. as we grow older and wiser, our views shift, our mature brain handling and deciphering things our immature brain wasn't equipped to understand. on the other hand, don't discount your feelings about the past. you are a very self-aware person. go with your gut.

    1. Don't worry, I appreciate when people read what I write just as much as advice. If not more. Being listened to is a treasured thing for everyone. And you're right. Even the past changes as we get older, we remember it differently. and maybe that's not a bad thing--at least in this instance it's not.

  3. I think it's easy to question moments from our childhood, especially when we look back on them from an adult lens. But, there is a difference between you and the granola people--you did those things because you had to, in order to survive. If you didn't eat the animals your family hunted, or the vegetables from your garden, you would not have anything to eat at all. For everyone else who is into that these days, they do it because they choose to--a luxury for those of us in developed nations. Does it make sense what I'm trying to say? Nobody can tell you how to feel about your childhood, and you're right--maybe you would look differently upon it if the abuse was removed from the situation. I don't really have any advice to give, I guess, mostly because I haven't been through what you've experienced, but our memories and our beliefs change over time, just keep processing what you feel and maybe that will help you untangle your emotions.

    1. I hadn't even thought of this for some reason....(I blame still having jumbled thoughts) but for some reason it comforted me. That I shouldn't be so shrewd of my own past because it wasn't a choice unlike the people who do it now. So thanks for that :) It made perfect sense, don't worry.