Growing up in the 40s and 50s on a farm in North Alabama laid the groundwork for my current perspective of how abundance and gratitude are actually an inseparable pair. The pending invitation, reader, is to stroll with me for just a glimpse into why this is my point of view.
We were reared, as we used to say, “dirt poor.” I didn’t really understand what that meant back then. My adult lens is a lot clearer than the child’s perspective. The Campbell kids had the opportunity to roam outdoors, mostly over one hundred sixty acres of red clay farmland. The land included a creek and a natural spring, which gave rise to sloughs- a perfect place for water moccasins to thrive. I still marvel at how we all grew up strikingly healthy against all farm-hazardous odds. This picture reveals the three oldest Campbell kids (sister Jerry, left and brother Don, right and me, the pouty little one) during one of the poorest periods of our life on the farm.
Since our roots had a strong religious bent, we were taught to say prayers of thanks for every meal. One of our favorite family stories offers a realistic look at gratitude from the lips of my then twelve-year-old sister. After a long day in the fields, everyone was “bone-tired.” Mother felt too fatigued to cook supper, so she made a big skillet of hot cornbread, which she served with all the raw milk anyone could want. As we crumbled cornbread into the milk to eat it like cold cereal, we grumbled under our breath about that being “all there is for supper.” This particular night it was my sis’s turn to “say the blessing.” We all dutifully bowed our heads as she recited a little different version of our usual quick prayer: “I fold my hands. I bow my head. I thank Thee, Lord, for milk and bread!” An abundance of laughter followed. So, how poor is that, really?
Poor, to me, meant no money. Sometimes it meant not even two nickels to rub together. Every penny was precious. When we didn’t have money for necessities, we had to get resourceful. I am now deeply grateful for those “poor” challenges which made me extraordinarily resourceful years later in my own life challenges. I eventually discovered that “rich” is not contingent upon material things.
Resourcefulness manifested in many ways. For example, to meet the tooth cleaning challenge when there was no money for toothpaste, we mixed some baking soda and salt in one hand, wet the toothbrush with the other so the mixture would stick to the bristles to brush our teeth and get ready for school. Comparatively, we had it better than some kids who didn’t even own a toothbrush. Those kids often chewed the end of a freshly cut sassafras stick until it was soft enough to use for a brush. All the farmers who lived near us were just as much or more financially destitute, yet still richly resourceful.
Even though money was in short supply, we did have a lot of clean, fresh air, sunshine in the summers with ice and snow in the winters. There was a wide variety of farm animals, including a small mixed dairy herd of eight Jersey and Guernsey cows that required milking twice a day. Our family made a little extra money by selling strained raw milk to be pasteurized for store-bought milk. Our family usually drank at least a gallon of raw milk a day. When we had enough cream, we churned our own fresh butter and cooked with the resulting buttermilk. That worked really well unless the cows ate Bitterweeds that rendered the milk undrinkable. (FYI-Bitterweed is a wildflower that can infest pastures. The weedy plant blooms with a brown center and small yellow petaled flowers. Its name comes from the bitter, toxic foliage that gives cow milk a bitter taste when grazed.) I now confess that I was not very grateful for bitter milk or all the hard work required to produce it. I especially resented that we had to milk by hand, at least until the summer I was fourteen when we finally got electric milkers. That was like a miracle. I am convinced now that abundance is based on perspective.
Our parents required us, kids, to help with the spring planting. Via two huge gardens, we were given basic life lessons along with gardening instructions. Special tools and techniques were necessary, along with dirty hands and feet to plant, fertilize, water, weed, hoe, and harvest. Both gardens had rows that seemed endlessly long. When working, we were forbidden to start a row on the shady end because we would be more appreciative and work faster if we started in the hot sun then finished in the shade. That was one way we learned about reward and punishment, along with the Biblical rule that those who don’t work hard actually don’t get to eat. Lots of lessons were learned by experiences that reinforced the parental comments.
Let me not forget to say that we had more than enough cotton to pick, wood to chop, corn to shuck, and hay to bale and store in addition to the gardens. Ah yes, we also had an abundance of peach, apple, pear, and plum fruit trees. Then there were forays into the world of chiggers and wild thorny blackberry vines. Was it worth going to all the trouble to pick, prep, and can or freeze these items of sweet abundance? In a word, yes! It was easy to forget the pain of all the hard work when we got to eat blackberry cobbler with homemade ice cream or peach preserves on hot biscuits. I was grateful for the nourishing food experiences in such sweet eating moments.
We did have a few luxuries. We managed to buy some foods that we couldn’t grow ourselves. Things like Maxwell House coffee, sugar, and sometimes white Wonder Bread. Could that bread taste better than the yeast Cloverleaf dinner rolls that Mother made on Sundays? And how we loved the extras like sharp hoop cheese, fresh bananas, canned pineapple, or sliced bologna for sandwiches. My mouth believed those were exotic sandwiches directly from heaven.
Just in case you are wondering, we also slaughtered and preserved enough meat to get us through harvest to the next planting season. I can still pull up clear images of pork fat provided on a cold day of dressing hogs. While my grandmother used the fat to make lye soap in a witch’s cauldron black iron pot over a wood fire in the back yard, mother sat in the kitchen sewing clean white cloth strips into bags for homemade sausage. Surely by now, readers feel envy, at least a little, right?
Our city relatives frequently reminded us of how we got to live “the good life.” I just couldn’t see it myself. But hey, grander than most other country folks, our outhouse was a three-seater (commonly, outhouses had only had one or two holes). Being blessed with three seats, an adult could efficiently toilet two kids at one time. And the use of a Sears Roebuck catalog or corn cobs is another facet of the whole story. Still envious?
In my child’s mind, though, I always felt lack and insufficiency. We couldn’t afford new store-bought things like my city cousins enjoyed. Commonly, we made our own clothes from feed or flour sacks. Alternatively, there were yearly hand-me-down clothes from richer female cousins. I got the second pick after my older sister. Youthful inexperience didn’t see that we were actually rich beyond measure.
Mostly, I craved and envied what other folks had that we didn’t have. I wanted brand new clothes and pretty shoes to wear. One year I was delighted to get a used pair of black patent Mary Janes. I took really good care of them. I kept them shiny for church by rubbing a left-over lard biscuit all over them. LOL! No wonder the dogs liked to lick my feet! Well, they say any attention is better than none at all.
I could go on and on to fill a book probably, but by now, you get a pretty good overview: For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why my city cousins thought living on the farm was such a grand experience. Maybe one more story will convey the city’s point of view: One day, my cousin Johnny disappeared for about three hours. Mother worried that he might have “fallen in an old well” and that we might never find him. When he reappeared, he had a wide grin on his face and held in his hand a warm brown egg from a solid white chicken. To him, it was a miracle! He had decided that he wanted to know where eggs come from so, he chose a chicken and just watched her all morning until, with a loud cackle, she expelled a perfectly formed egg. Such an experience of chickens laying eggs was so old hat for me that it never dawned on me it could be so special to others. Now I fully understand that those out-of-city experiences could never be manufactured or bought. Today, as I reflect, I wouldn’t trade those challenging years for all the new clothes in a shopping mall or for the countless fancy packaged foods on the shelves of Super Wal-Mart.
Thank you, reader, for peeking into the past with me. Now it’s time to end this revered stroll through years long gone by. Hopefully, this brief journey shows how gratitude, generosity, and abundance work together in beautiful harmony for those willing to ponder through the lens of personal perspective. The 18 years of farm life that I once detested are now a treasure trove of precious memories and marvelous miracles of raw life, Yes, I know today’s farming isn’t what it used to be, but perhaps the miracles of life continue in updated forms. After all, abundance is a matter of perception. My sincere wish is that this brief journey has been a catalyst for deepening gratitude and abundance within each unique reader.
Wanda Gail Campbell
Wanda has served thirty plus years as a healthcare professional. Currently, she serves as a Minister of Peace ordained by The Beloved Community. In July, 2007 she completed her PhD in Philosophy focused on Intercultural Peacemaking. For her own spiritual nourishment, she enjoys reading both contemporary and ancient spiritual writings.