Wishin’ won’t make it so


Kristie’s mother and some of her siblings

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

My grandmother was weeding the garden, teaching me how as she did so, and encouraging me to tackle my dreams with hard work.

Her words run through my head now in these uncertain times with fears about the current pandemic, social isolation, disrupted academic opportunities, and floundering financial markets. “Wishin’ won’t make it so,” she often added.

Grandmother was born in poverty and stayed there until she was middle-aged. Not only did she survive the Great Depression, but she survived it as a mother with eight mouths to feed.

I once heard her explain, “We were already poor, so we didn’t notice much difference.” My mother recently described her as, “A determined spitfire. Once she decided she wanted to do something, she was going to do it or die trying!”

I grew up listening to the family’s stories of shared beds, with the youngest often getting edged onto the floor. We all grinned when my aunts and uncles described, with great animation, the time the family got their first radio, their first car, and then the first black and white television. My mom chuckles as she recalls how the boyfriends of her two oldest sisters used to give her and her younger sister a stick of gum to go “mind their business” so they could court.

The family grew much of their food because they had no other choice. Each year they planted a garden from seeds saved from the previous year. In the spring, only the older children helped with the delicate task of planting transplants from seedlings.

In the summer, everyone worked in the garden, pulling weeds, hauling buckets of water, and harvesting the yield. They always included corn, potatoes, onions, and sweet potatoes since those could be put into cold storage and ensured food for the winters. Tomatoes and green beans were preserved by canning and other veggies were blanched and frozen.

Stories of reminiscence punctuated our family holidays with laughter. Laughter!  as they recalled the old outhouse and detailed the installation of their first indoor bathroom. My mother, second to the youngest, was five or six when they got indoor plumbing. She was older than that when the family got its first car. Not once have I seen a sad tear shared over those old stories. Instead, I have witnessed tears of laughter as they compete to share the most outrageous details of growing up poor.

Their stories are not ones of hardship, but of gratitude.

They laugh about getting kicked as they milked cows or getting scratched harvesting eggs from grumpy hens. Both were bred to ensure food by processing one cow and one pig annually and chickens as needed — a task that still makes my mother shudder even though she fondly remembers the bed pillows they made from the chicken feathers.

My aunts and uncles were adults with their own families before they realized why my grandmother always claimed to love chicken necks or backs. Those were the pieces with the least amount of meat, so my grandmother always told her children to save those for her. She was quietly taking the least and giving the best.

One summer, my Aunt Janelle, the eldest daughter and the inspiration for my middle name, was home to visit from out of state. She had escaped poverty through education. She married a banker and became a teacher. Aunt Janelle was painting my grandmother’s front porch and decided she would help me extend my ten-year-old vocabulary. There’s a reason she chose the two words she taught me that day: perseverance and tenacity.

As she painted, she made me recite their meanings, spell the words, and use them in a sentence, but I didn’t really learn those words until later in my life when I had to live them. Tenacity and perseverance were a family trait, built through adversity.

My relatives could have chosen to be bitter or better, another saying from my grandmother. They chose to be better, and now, during these uncertain times all of us have the same option. This time of turbulence can help us to be better. May each of us choose to let the struggle make us stronger.

/ Kristie Sullivan, PhD


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