Thanks to a whiney conversation overheard on a train, I’ve been thinking recently about how spoiled and ungrateful we all are. How you (and I) should be more grateful for your life, and that you (or I) aren’t living someone else’s.
Why You Should be Grateful for Your Life
The life that springs to mind is “Family 311”, one of ten discussed in an article I read for Build Your Signature Wardrobe. The information about their 1928-9 expenditure comes from a survey undertaken by the US Children’s Bureau .
The core family was parents, an unmarried son (18), and two daughters (11 and 13) living in a four-room rented house. Not four bedrooms, but a total of four rooms. A married son, his wife and their children occupied one of them, leaving three for the family. They kept house separately but used the same communal space. Additionally, a married daughter and her five children moved in for a couple of months when her husband deserted her.
The house was “a mass of children and one always crying.” While father thought he would “go straight up and never come down,” he couldn’t refuse his children when they needed a home despite the cost and chaos that ensued.
Father worked as a railroad labourer, and Mother took in washing. For additional income, she worked as a turkey picker during the season (judging by equipment advertising, she plucked feathers from the carcases). The kicker is that a childhood illness had left her feet so badly deformed that she could not wear shoes. She made “shoes” from old rags and wore several pairs of stockings for padding. When her feet got too painful to stand, she knelt on a chair to finish her work.
The unmarried son was a “bad boy”, so badly behaved that he was “excused” from school early (at 14 years of age). He took odd jobs, but they didn’t last long. While he kept almost all his income for himself, he did pay a small amount towards his board. Father stood guarantor for his phonograph purchase, hoping it would have a “steadying influence.”
Father was too ashamed of his shabby clothes to go to church during winter. Mother described her mending as “quilting” rather than patching because his shirts and overalls were almost entirely patch. She and her daughters dressed in “gifts” of second-hand clothes.
Despite their poor health, they generally couldn’t afford to visit the doctor or buy medicine. Having to take their 13-year-old daughter to the doctor three times for typhoid must have been a blow. Their married daughter went four times for the flu. They were prioritising life insurance (probably along the lines of funeral insurance) for the whole family but intended to let the policies for the older children lapse.
They prioritised payment of Father’s union dues and Mothers church tithes, by economising on food (which wouldn’t have helped their health ).
By the end of the survey year, they had spent 130% of their income and owed the doctor, dentist, grocer and clothing store as well as their friends. On top of debts from the previous year. At the time of the survey, they had never been out of debt; they always got into debt over winter and started paying it off in spring.
Why I am Grateful for My Life
My life has its difficulties, but there is a lot to be grateful for.
- My mortgaged house has nine rooms, a porch and a deck. I have hot and cold running water, an inside toilet and bathroom I don’t have to share with anyone (except DB). I usually have electricity, gas and water supplied directly to the house, and I can afford to use it. It’s usually quiet and calm around here, though the generational mix in the neighbourhood is changing so that might not last more than a couple more years. One day, I will own this or some other house outright.
- I have a garden. It’s not as big as I would like, but it is green, provides shade and has pretty flowers. We have birds, possums, frogs, geckos and a fascinating range of bugs and other wildlife passing through.
- My clothes are good quality, they keep me warm, and I am not ashamed to leave the house in them. I can afford to buy new clothes, though sometimes I choose second-hand.
- In general, I am in good health. Most of the medicines I rely on are government subsidised, so I can afford to keep taking them. I can afford to seek treatment, and pay for medical tests when I need to. While my feet swell and get sore, I can wear shoes. And when my feet are too sore to stand, I can sit and rest.
- I am sufficiently well-fed that economising on food will not do me harm (and may, in fact, do me good).
- My debt is manageable, and will one day be paid off. Even my student loan.
What are you grateful for?
 Wright, Helen Russell. 1932. “A Year’s Expenditures of Ten Railroad Laborers.” Social Science Review 6 (1): 55-82.