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Riches to Rags
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When I was seven, my father began to show signs of shell shock, what we’d now call PTSD. He lost a wife, a son, and his parents in the first week of WWII. Through the rest of the war, he was taken POW four times and escaped four times. I have a small, clear plastic box with medals in it, medals he never fully explained.

He woke screaming in the night, something that began before I was born. By the time I was seven, I never knew what would trigger an explosion. I suspect Mother didn’t either. Life at home was long and tentative. What should I say? What should I do? I escaped to my room when I could, but mealtimes were the worst. Vegetables were overcooked. Mother jumped up and down from table too much. Stop toying with your food. Sit up straight. The barking went on.

After two years, he lost it on Christmas Day. He went through the house smashing furniture with an axe. At one point, he dropped the axe, kissed my mother and me, and left the house. In retrospect, I think he was afraid he’d hurt us physically and didn’t want to do that. He was gone for three years.

Also gone was our middle class life. Our house had been part of the collateral for a loan for his business. The business failed and the creditors called in the collateral. Mother and I stood in the rain while the bailiffs threw everything out of our house and boarded it up. We walked down the road. The bus stop was at the corner. I stood there. “We don’t have bus money,” mother said. “We’ll walk.”

And so began our new life. We found a place in the Overgate, the worst slum in Dundee. It was being demolished, so anyone still living there kept moving. As one end was demolished, we moved to the other. There was no electricity, but there was still a gas meter. Useful if you had a shilling to insert in the meter to heat or to cook. We didn’t.

Mother got a job and we moved into a better slum. And finally had a shilling for the meter. But Mother got sick. She’d never had chicken pox and got shingles off a kid in the contagious stage. Now she couldn’t work any more. She could barely move with the pain.

I got a job gutting fish in the fish factory. I was paid a shilling a week and a piece of fish on Saturday. We no longer had a shilling for the meter, so we learned to eat fish raw right away, so bacteria didn’t have time to develop. At the end of the three years with just the two of us, my father, in Canada now, was ready for us to resume family life. We moved and life was different again.

It took me a long time to understand how that period affected me and what being poor taught me. I don’t assume that my next meal will automatically appear. I think of the “delicacy” of sashimi these days and how much it costs in a restaurant and I think back to Mother and me choking down raw fish we’d have given anything to be able to cook.

I learned that poverty takes time. If you don’t have bus money, you walk. The bus takes ten minutes. You take an hour. And so it goes with everything. Longer and harder. If you don’t have money for the meter, you’re cold. If you have a coat, you wear it inside. You go to sleep early or sit and shiver in your coat and in the dark. You invent talking games to amuse yourselves, your voices disembodied when you can no longer see each other.

And your poverty changes who you are in society, even as you haven’t changed inside. You can have less money than your neighbor, but if you can get by, you’re still “ok.” If you can’t, if you become homeless, if you show any sign of resentment or complaint, you’re toast. Dismissed. Lesser.

If you’re biblically oriented (I confess I’m not), “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). The line between rich and poor is thin. You can be poor in an instant, but it takes a long struggle to recover, if you ever do.


Thank you for sharing this story. Poignantly written, and a story that many of us will benefit by having read it. Blessings to you!

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