My people, as I have long said, were raised in hard times in the Appalachian foothills. I don’t know that I had a grandparent who ever saw the sum of $500 at one time or even held a hundred-dollar bill.
There are many times my heart breaks when I think of the struggles that each faced and how their shoulders visibly slumped from the weight of the worries they carried. My clearest memories of them is how each one’s brow seemed to be constantly furrowed — not in anger, but in worry that shrouded their beings with a burden that wouldn’t let go. Even when times improved slightly, the furrow stayed, for it was chiseled into their faces. Neither of my grandfathers ever knew the luxury of indoor plumbing.
I never heard one of them complain. They took the tribulations in course and kept going. There was no bounty on their tables, and their clothes were simple but always clean and neatly presented. They each believed that with faith, hard work and determination, they could overcome so they could keep coming back for more hard luck.
Resolutely, they lifted themselves up one teardrop at a time and instilled in their children and grandchildren a powerful yearning to do better than the ones who came before. See, poverty has its privileges. If a family is poor enough long enough, then a catalyst is lit somewhere that inspires and drives. That’s what happened with my folks. My parents and their siblings ran as hard as they could from being nothing much to being something more. From living with heartache to living with hope. Then their children ran a little harder, and their children’s children pushed a little further. It’s made me realize that being poor can have its riches and rewards because it ignites a want and need to do better.
Here’s why I got to thinking about all this and philosophizing: the R.J. Reynolds family. I have recently read two books on the family, and I’m telling you this. Hollywood’s finest creative sorts couldn’t make up a movie with more twists, turns and tragedies than that family has weathered.
R.J. Sr., of course, made a fortune in tobacco, but died in his 60s of cancer. (As an aside, several of the family’s heavy smokers died with cancer, including his daughter Nancy, who had a lung removed before succumbing to emphysema.) His son Smith died shortly before his 21st birthday when he was shot through the head with a .32. It was initially ruled suicide, but a coroner’s inquest later reversed it to murder. No one was ever charged.
Smith Reynolds married and divorced Anne Cannon, the heiress to the Cannon textile fortune. She died at 50 of pneumonia and an embolism after having married six times. A Reynolds grandson, suffering from addictions, died in a private-plane crash. His brother climbed atop a building and jumped to his death.
Smith Reynolds’ only child by his second wife, a Broadway actress, died at 17 in an accident while climbing Mount Whitney.
The first thing I can say about some of that is this: When you’re poor, you don’t have money to buy private planes or climb mountains other than the ones in your own backyard that need to be climbed for the sake of hunting or checking on your still. If you’re mountain poor, you never own a handgun — only a shotgun — and the only actress you will ever see is on television, certainly not close enough to kiss. You marry for life because it’s much cheaper than divorce.
But here’s the best thing about being born poor, or at least having it as your family legacy: It gives you a place to go. Up. And it gives you pride in the climb.
See, I told you that poverty has its riches and rewards.
Rich is the author of “There’s a Better Day a-Comin’.” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.