A Day Late and A Dollar Short

My grandfather used to love to repeat, “A day late and a dollar short,” as a regular commentary of life. His family had been wealthy, but through migration and the Great Depression, the money faded to nothing. He and my grandmother ended up running a general store out on the prairies during the hard times – a business that didn’t go a lot past keeping food on the table. But they raised four children and lived long, happy lives.

My mother-in-law used to tell about how the only work her husband could find was as an accountant in Timmins in Northern Ontario (Never heard of it? It’s that small and that far away – and bitterly cold in the winter.) He got a ticket on the bus heading north and took a chilly room over a garage. She and her two kids moved in with her parents in Toronto. When she’d had enough, she sold a chandelier (I have no idea where she got one) and took the train north. The year or two were miserable on a day-to-day basis, but eventually a job in Niagara Falls opened up and they headed back south. They too, had a long and happy marriage.

Our parents provided my husband and me with a university education – the gold card of the times. Unfortunately the times didn’t smile on us. I remember reading and exclaiming over a newspaper article detailing the struggles of people living below the poverty line. I was hotly indignant that such a state of affairs existed. When I got to the actual figures, I discovered that we were well below that magical line and I’d had no idea. I didn’t feel like I was poverty-stricken. Sure, we didn’t have a car and our apartment had holes in the wall that we covered with pictures, but we rode our bikes, took the bus and were extremely proud of our ingenious decorating.

As my grandmother used to say, we were hard up, not poor.

“Poor” in our families, was a state of mind – one of grinding desperation and the oozing hopelessness of believing it would never get any better. “Hard up” meant determined and exhausting work to pay the pile of bills while supported by the conviction that life would somehow, through sheer perseverance, get better. A door would open, a plan would work out, endurance would pay off. There were jobs taken that paid below minimum wage, long shots to make dreams come true, eked out dollars for treats or extras or holidays.

And sometimes it was fun. Getting creative to stretch out the dollars for gifts. Saving coins in a jar in the fridge labeled “Cold Cash” to pay for a week of family camping. Hitting the road with no real plan except to go exploring with maybe an ice cream cone at the end as a reward.

Lack of money can become a symbol for the truly terrible in a life – illness, abuse, betrayal and injustice. They are exacerbated by never having an extra nickel. But money neither causes nor cures them, as many wealthy families have discovered.
Oddly, I can include four generations of my family that fought hard for what they earned. And we have never been poor. My grandparents were hard up; my children are often broke. More often than not, we have been “a day late and a dollar short,” but like so many others who have wrestled with the search for cash, we keep going knowing that a door will open, a plan will work out, and endurance will sooner or later pay off.

Such is the journey…


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