Writing From the Heart: What does poverty feel like?

From shrimp to high-end and fancy sheets, to patchwork and dents, it’s all in your perspective.


I’m not the only one who has been rich and poor and then ended up somewhere in the middle. So my perspective is not radically unique, but I think it still bears sharing.

First of all, I was never so rich that I could have my own plane, and never so poor that we didn’t have enough to eat.

There are a million nuances in between the extremes, but for an example, at 13 when all my girlfriends were going to camp for the summer, I was lying about my age and working at the un-air-conditioned motor vehicle department, transcribing people’s driving records with very sharp pencils into tiny squares of graph paper.

When my friends talked about how much they looked forward to throwing pots in their pottery class, my only equivalent was looking forward to the food cart at 10:30 and 2:30, so I could take my 15-minute break and get an apricot Danish.

Nobody talked about poverty. I don’t think the word was used until Lyndon Johnson declared a war on it. But I knew we were poor, and not because I looked around and compared my life with everyone else. I knew there were dirt-poor people and I wasn’t one of them, but I was pretty sure I was only one rung up.

My parents argued about money all the time. Honey, we can’t afford to get those pink dotted swiss curtains for you and your sister’s room because we just can’t afford it. You’ll have to do with those shoes one more year, sweetheart because we just can’t afford new ones. I wish we could afford to give you flute lessons but …

When I was dating my husband, I asked him whether he grew up rich or poor or in the middle somewhere, and he said pretty much in the middle but closer to rich, and I couldn’t say fast enough, “Oh, we were really poor.” Come to find out we grew up in the exact same economic strata. But his parents’ message was one of abundance and gratitude, and mine was lack and envy.

On Sundays, my parents’ one day off, we would take a drive to the wealthy neighborhoods in the nearby suburbs and my father would slow down and we would look out the windows at the “nice” houses. I chose one and put a make-believe friend inside. Her name was Fairlene, and I spent most of my fantasy in her big living room while her mother served us hot cocoa with both whipped cream and marshmallows on top.

Somewhere in those early years, I became a mini entrepreneur. I remember setting up a lemonade stand on our corner where the bus stopped. My first day of business, I climbed onto the bus and handed the driver a free sample. How in the world did I know to say, “If you let your passengers place orders, I will give you a free one every day. I’ll have them all poured and ready, so it’ll take less than a minute for the whole transaction.” I think I even used the word transaction. I was 11. My father used to joke, if you need to borrow any money, ask Nance, she’s loaded.

The inspiration for my writing this piece was my saucepan. Washing it the other morning after the hundredth time I had burnt it, I realized how easy it was to get it back to perfection. That only happens with a really expensive pot. The pots I grew up with had bumps you had to use a hammer to straighten out, burned parts that you had to scrub and scour that never got totally char-free, and handles that had weakened and fallen off.

It made me think of all the things I would never have experienced if we hadn’t gotten rich.

Like time.

My parents were always working, and there wasn’t a lot of leisure time. Besides taking those rides through fancy streets, my mother and millions of other mothers had to do the wash and the ironing and then shop for the week’s groceries and then clean the house and then feed their families and then God knows what. But they weren’t having their hair done and ordering cashmere socks on Amazon. So their days off were just another job at a different location.

I have the luxury of time. It’s not claimed by outside forces.

Like sheets. Until I had money, I never knew sheets could feel so soft and silky. That you could slide into bed. When I was a kid, I slept on a couch that opened up into a twin bed that had a metal seam down the middle. No sliding.

Like a car that doesn’t break down.

Like a new car with that smell of new leather and a sound system that makes you feel as if you’re in a concert hall.

Like shrimp cocktail. Shrimp must have been expensive, or we would have had it more than on our birthdays.

Like warm clothes. I remember being cold from November to May. The house was cold, my feet were cold, and my coats weren’t made of any fabric that could fight the freezing temperatures of Connecticut winters. Now I have down everything. If I could insulate my whole house, walls and floors, ceilings and doors, with Canadian goose down, I’d do it in a New York minute.

The list could be longer, but the point has been made.

So I started the story by telling you I had been both rich and poor, and now today we are somewhere in that elusive middle. The rich part lasted about 12 years, and I loved every second of it. We had IRAs and savings and two houses and a Mercedes and trips to Italy and Israel and England. I could buy hardback books. We could take friends out to dinner. I didn’t have to work. We stayed at hotels and had room service. I was Eloise for those 12 years. Then our business went bust, and I was back to scrimping and saving. Because I knew how to be poor, it was almost easy. We sold the big house, and moved here to the Vineyard year-round.

When we started climbing out of the financial hole, our new life was quieter. Our cabin was cozier. Our time was more precious. My values got tested, and they passed with flying colors.

I could have shrimp whenever I wanted, a car which I found out was only supposed to get you from point A to point B, so old with a few dents was not only fine but a true Vineyard car. I didn’t need the smell of new leather; I could Scotch tape the tiny escape routes of my old down jacket so no feathers would fly out. Fairlene got replaced by actual friends.

I fell so in love with my little shack that my old envy melted into the woodwork.

And the best part is the gratitude my husband grew up with rubbed off on me. And now when I drive up Middle Road in Chilmark, I turn off the music, the news, and any sound, and I feel bliss coming on. I ask the gods, How did this happen?

I had thought we lost everything, but now I know that moving here with nothing, we actually found everything.



  1. Wonderful. This is what we should all be doing at this time of life (not that we’re old) — putting our life’s experiences into the perspective of a larger view.

  2. Just loved your story Nancy! So many of us were in that “in between” place and whether you felt rich or poor was how your parents felt about it. My mother grew up rich in NY and my father grew up poor in Stamford. We moved to Alaska so my father could get a job on the pipeline, lived in a quonset hut and he hunted for our food…lot’s of moose burgers. Camping trips were our only vacations…and my father would always say blissfully around the campfire “I wonder what the poor people are doing today?” and my mother would answer sarcastically “they’re wishing they were rich!”

    So…I grew up in between (with a richer spot in the middle) but I have never been more grateful or felt so rich as I do right now. We are in the midst of a Worldwide Pandemic of all sorts but I am warm, eating is the highlight of the day and I have loving friends and family and I still can truly appreciate the magic of nature (though camping is off the list) and the simple beautiful things in life.

    Thank you Nancy for the memories and sharing your stories.

    • Bessy, small world. I recently took one of her writing classes and found an unbelievable connection with 4 of the women where we still communicate. Nancy, Bessy is one of my most long time friends and a great guide when I was in college and she was a graduate student.
      Great story Nancy,

  3. Nance.
    — “Moving” in all the senses of the term.
    — Your story brought to mind a story of my own: At age 95 my mother was asked in an interview: “Weren’t you poor when you came to this country in the late 1930’s?” She answered: “We had no money; but we were never ‘poor’ “.

  4. Your writing has, once again touched me… this time bringing me to tears.

    As someone who grew up poor, then “made-it”, only to lose it all, make it again and loose it again… then make it again and finally give it all up to find true happiness and well-being, I agree wholeheartedly with your final sentence.

    Thank you again Nancy, for always being a shining light and reminding many who may have self-doubt that we are indeed on the right path.

  5. Dear Nance,
    It is clear that you have wealth now.
    Your journey helped you define it.
    Wealth has not a thing to do with money it’s a point of view.

    I love all your articles and still you remain my favorite teacher ever.
    I think it was 1972 when I was in 10th grade and I remember your enthusiasm, laughter and outlook as wealth.

    Love you

  6. “I have the luxury of time. It’s not claimed by outside forces.”

    “I could Scotch tape the tiny escape routes of my old down jacket so no feathers would fly out.”


  7. Nancy, thank you for sharing your perspective. With everything going on in the world, it’s easy to note all the things that are missing or “wrong.”This soft slap upside the head (in the form of your effective and evocative storytelling, of course) is appreciated!

  8. On Milton St. you where rich we had many friends and good times, school was good and you where always the very smart one. You had a mother that was special and family that loved you, I was the poor one my family had money but no love now that is poor

  9. Loved this Nancy! I also loved taking your writing class! You are so funny and talented! This piece was great! Most of us who live on the Vineyard are rich with friends, family, community and MV’s pure beauty. We are blessed to have you here. ❤️

  10. Your pieces always recenter me – thanks for another brilliant one. I like your idea of tuning inwards…and of shutting out the noise. From now on I too will “turn off the music, the news, and any sound” more often… and let myself feel the bliss of living in this magical place.

  11. “Being rich, poor, and now in the middle”….sounds like a book title….tales of perception…love this piece…

  12. dear Nance, you are rich indeed! No middle about it. Heart of gold, pearls of wisdom, shining light that warms everyone around you. Gratitude, abundance – you have (and you give) a wealth of what truly matters. Much love, dear teacher!

  13. It’s a thoughtful philosophical piece which provoked memories. I had a friend whose mother had Alzheimer’s. In her (mother’s) good years the family owned a successful retail business. It lasted until her husband got sick and died, and mother, as I’ve already mentioned, was not in a position to run business. On some point my friend and her siblings sold the store for a good price. She visited her mother in the long-term facility and said, “Mom you are rich now”, to which mother, miraculously obtaining the clarity and eloquence of a sage, replied, “What is rich! Rich is when you have someone to wake up in the morning with. Rich is when you can wipe your own ass – this is what means to be rich.” Nothing more to add.

  14. Now I want an apricot danish. And please send up 3 shrimp cocktails and 6 hot chocolates with whipped cream and marshmallows. And Charge it, PLEASE!!


  15. I love this, Nancy. One thing I included in my memoir was
    My divorced mom being poorer than my father. I have been rich as an adult married to my high tech engineer husband. Such a fascinating topic. Thanks for sharing it. We are loving our on going meetings on Zoom every week and have become great friends.

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