One of the essays in the Composition 110 textbook is “What is Poverty?” the text of a speech delivered in 1965 by Jo Goodwin Parker. The persona who’s speaking says that she is poor, but whether the writer was or not is debatable. More than likely the speech was written by someone who knew the conditions of poverty but did not live them herself. I asked the question in the online class, “Do you think an essay is really an essay if it is falsely written, as perhaps this essay is? What should an essay be? Should there be honesty or could it be written by someone not poor but whose words describe a situation honestly? Why?”
That essay resounded with me, not because, even though we were poor, we were not as poverty-stricken as the woman and her family, but because of one tiny detail: “Poverty is hoping it never rains because diapers won’t dry when it rains and soon you are using newspapers.” That detail instantaneously brought a memory of me folding newspaper after newspaper into diapers–two to three sheets together, the elongated diamond and then the folding. Funny though, the first ones folded were Sunday paper cartoons. They folded nicely and stacked nicely. Perhaps Pampers should stamp their diapers to look like newsprint.
I know we were poor, but we always had diapers, I thought; but maybe it was one of those times in which rain fell for days and everything in the house was soggy in spite of the wood cooking stove. I don’t think so. I think it was because my older brother was sick, and we couldn’t keep up with the washing. Someone was ill and I was old enough to fold diapers from newspapers, so I had to be at least five or so.
The woman who describes her poverty said that she had no “proper” underwear and that her rotting teeth stunk. We had underwear, even if we had to wash it out every night in the sink. I remember that we girls were given days of the week underwear that did not mean that we had to wear Monday’s on Monday, Tuesday’s on Tuesday, but that we had seven pair, which to us was like gold.
We did have rotting teeth, all of us. Mom and Dad lost theirs when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. Up until that time, I never saw a dentist; but after the folks’ teeth were pulled–all at once it seems to me–and they gummed their food for a while before being fitted with dentures, in the spring the folks took us kids for the first time to see Dr. Soe.I don’t remember his face, except that he was tall and thin and that one of his fingers on his right hand had been cut off at the knuckle. His office was on the top floor of his gray stucco house on the north side of Main Street, a block up from the blacksmith and right east of the band shell. The dentist chair, which leaned back only a little, overlooked the after-school traffic on the street, the kids on their bikes, children taunting one another. The many scenes of inclusion sprouted little comfort. He often went into a little room to the right, a carved out private space where he mixed concoctions. He didn’t talk much and I couldn’t, for I was scared to death. The needles that went in and out of my mouth for a month or more to numb one tooth after another caused more pain the longer the visits went. But he never had to pull a tooth–filled almost all of them though, but never had to pull a one. I brushed my teeth diligently after with Gold Bond tooth-powder or baking soda.