When you were a kid, what did you daydream about? Are you where you thought you’d be when you grew up? Oddly, I fantasized about both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Neither look like my life today.
Every little girl dreams of be rich and fabulous, right? Wearing fancy clothes and living in a castle or a modern penthouse in New York City. You’ll be served dinner on one of those extra long tables with your distinguished husband sitting 20 feet away from you wearing a smoking jacket. You’ll be chauffeured in your Bentley and run a huge international company bringing in a million dollars a day. Or maybe a European prince or movie star will come into your life, you’ll fall madly in love and get married. All your needs, desires and whims will be catered to. Doesn’t every little girl dream of these things?
Or maybe these perfectly nice adults you’ve been living with all of your very young life will finally introduce you to your REAL parents who are gorgeous, sophisticated and extremely wealthy. They don’t fart at the dinner table and then ask who sat on a duck. They don’t think it’s too extravagant to go through the two dollar car wash when there’s a perfectly good hose and bucket at home or think it costs too much to get the extra scoop at Baskin Robbins. Your REAL parents will whisk you away to their villa in France on their private jet where you can have all the ice cream you want. And of course they’ll take you shopping for a whole new wardrobe. Because Toughskins, Fonzie t-shirts and ProKeds just don’t cut it with the jet set. You’ll thank your sweet provincial adoptive parents as you leave and promise to visit during summer breaks and send them lots of expensive gifts. You knew you were meant for bigger things than your subdivision in Dover, Delaware where all the mysteries of the neighborhood were discovered and rendered ho hum within two years of living there.
Yes, every little girl living in middle class America fantasizes and dreams up these scenarios, right? It’s only normal.
However, another make pretend world I set up for my younger siblings and myself played quite differently. Imagine if you will, a frosty February morning in the Mid-Atlantic. There are a few patches of snow in the backyard of an early 1970s model split level. A weathered wooden picnic table leans to one side, with an NFL team logo bed sheet draped over it to create a makeshift shelter. You hear young voices from under the sheet. Three children in threadbare pajamas, wearing snow boots and covered in wooly shawls and blankets huddle together for warmth. They must scavenge for their next meal, beg and steal coins from strangers to make their way in the world. They know which berries are ok to eat and will even survive on tree bark in the leaner days. They rely on the goodness of certain townspeople to take them in from time to time, give them a hot meal and a bath and then send them out again into the cold. They’re a trio of orphans, trying to stay under the radar so the government won’t separate them and send them to evil foster homes or the brutal conditions of the city orphanage. They take care of each other. They’re scrappy and resourceful. Yeah, this is the second ridiculous kind of fantasy I had as a young girl. I actually dreamed about being destitute.
Maybe it was a response to the banal existence of living in the subdivision where every 5th house looked like mine. Maybe it was the always having plenty. I had plenty to eat, plenty of toys, a plenty comfortable house. It was never too little, it was never too much, it was sufficient. No mystery, no surprise, no financial struggle. No adventure, no danger. So we had to create it. Pretend we were poor starving orphans lost in the forest as we walked through the trees behind my neighbors’ houses. Pretend the weird house next door with the overgrown grass had sinister unspeakable things going on behind their closed up curtains.
Yes, I thought being poor was a romantic notion. I suppose my literary and television influences helped that idea foster in my young brain. Little House on the Prairie, The Little Princess, and Heidi, to name a few. The Apple Dumpling Gang? They made poverty look like an adventure. They never seemed hungry, or in pain. It was fun! But I do kind of feel bad that so many of my fantasies involved being an orphan. My parents were actually pretty cool. Not sure where that came from, maybe Diff’rent Strokes?
Of course, as an adult, I know that the realities of poverty are not romantic at all. Once I got past the shock of the first job out of college and living paycheck to paycheck, I’ve lived well within my means and don’t carry debt. And while I’ve always been able to acquire the same kind of plenty on my own as an adult that I was given as a kid, I really don’t need or want much more. I can’t imagine ever owning a house. I don’t care for the latest electronic gadgets. I feel guilty already having as much as I do when there are so many people in the world with nothing. And anyway, when you have lots and lots of money, people always want something from you. It just doesn’t seem worth it. I think I’ll save my money and skip buying that Powerball ticket this week.
You know that old saying, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is with a poor one?” It’s not true. I’ve never fallen for a rich guy. Maybe it’s a need to have equality in a relationship? So I won’t be looking for that prince to come sweep me away anytime soon.
So it’s funny that as a kid I had both dreams of wealth and fantasies about poverty, but I never pictured being middle class and perfectly satisfied. It’s not my parents’ middle class, it’s my own. I’m a grown woman living in an apartment (with a roommate) in New York City, working for a non-profit, creating comedy and enjoying my life. It’s plenty and it’s perfect.
by Stephanie Bok