I always thought we were rich when I was young.
We had a one-bedroom apartment, a small boom box, and we always had food. I did not understand why my dad was always working either as a priest or in the bank, or why my mom was at times nervous and irritable.
I did not notice that it was always the same food, and there were rice and vegetables and very rarely some meat.
I didn’t know other people got pocket money. I didn’t realize a lot of things.
One day, in school, I noticed that my friends could buy ice cream candy or samosas from the local vendor who stood outside the school.
I asked how and they said they got their money from their parents every week. They had no idea what I was talking about.
My mom deflected the question when I asked and my father threatened to smack me when I persisted.
I got curious. I noticed we did not go to the store to get clothes.
I always went to a tailor who had a sewing machine on the side of the road and that my clothes were always made a couple sizes bigger than me so that they lasted for a while.
My shoes didn’t have the same logos as my friends, and my pencil box was a simple Camlin metal one, not the soft magnet encrusted one that my friends had.
My dad always wore the exact same pair of boots to work, and I had happily chiseled the crusted blacktop off of them so they looked nice over the years. I began to see that my school bag was older than most, and made out of jute rather than the fancy plastic ones with action figures.
I saw the overall quality of what we had was slightly shabbier than my classmates’ things.
It all began to make sense.
There was no “aha” moment. It was a slow dawning realization.
We were slightly lower strata of the middle class. Not absolutely, but relative to our community.
I would guess we were one loan payment or one medical catastrophe from being struck out at any point in time, but it never felt that bad.
My mom figured out I knew before my dad did.
My demeanor didn’t change, but my behavior did.
I asked for less. I didn’t demand anything for the Parsi New year that season. Or any year after that I remember.
I never asked to have birthday parties at home.
I was never big on clothing trends but wore clothes until they fell apart or I had completely outgrown them although I did fancy those fitting ones my friends wore, especially the long pants while I wore loose-fitting half shorts — even in 9th grade.
I stopped stealing money for samosas at the shop close to the school.
I walked to school more and took the BEST bus less saving some coins.
I paid attention to prices when we went grocery shopping and asked for less big-ticket items.
I did not tell my sister but I started to share more with her.
I accepted more invitations when my friends’ parents offered dinner or birthday parties.
I asked my friends to come over less often. I learned to repair my worn-out things, to sew, and to cook.
I started to turn off lights when going out and started to wonder if I would be able to provide for all of them when I grew up.
I understood things that my parents had hidden from me. The loans they took to pay for the apartment or how my mother stood for hours outside financial trusts and donation centers to collect scholarship money.
I adjusted. I started to help out.
To write applications for educational scholarships and even deliver them to obscure moldy offices of the Parsi trusts managed by shriveled cranky women.
I learned how to charm them and win their approval by appearing slightly humbler than I felt within.
My parents, they accepted that I was helping in my own way.
To my parent’s credit, they would offer to buy clothes, try to tempt me with the small toys that I had long outgrown, and would pay attention to everything I would eyeball at the shops.
They would not let me avoid buying the school books or the one-month subscription to the local library during the summer vacation, since they knew my great love was reading.
I still have that love.
What they fostered — It grew.
I too grew up — to be frugal, weighing the cost of items against their value, buying mostly from thrift stores, and living just too simply, sometimes embarrassingly so, even when I could afford to splurge a little.
I learned to cherish experiences and people more than objects.
I learned that I was never truly poor in any sense.
I just lacked money.