To The Dump…
One of our pastimes in college was to go to the dump. I know it sounds weird, but think about it; we were students in need of sofas, lamps, etc. Our bookshelves were made of boards and cinder blocks.
It wasn’t uncommon for someone to shout down the hallway of our dorm, “I’m going to the dump, anybody wanna go?” If four people went, we’d have to haul home big treasures balanced on the roof of the auto with our hands out the windows holding onto it.
Even if you didn’t need any furniture, it was fun going to the dump. Garbage and trash were deposited elsewhere, so it wasn’t smelly with rotting debris. The beginning and end of semesters were a good time to score big items, but the best finds were discovered on Mondays after the townsfolk had cleaning sprees.
It was one of these Mondays that my roommate and I found the memories of someone’s life. In a pile of beat-up spatulas, one-tined forks, old-Christmas cards, and bags of faded ribbon and crushed bows were a stack of letters.
They were postmarked in the early ’30s. My roomie and I hurried back to the dorm to read the epistles of 2 young lovers separated by miles and poverty.
Though engaged, they addressed each other very formally; and the romance would make a Disney movie look X-rated: “Dear Mr. Billings, I hope this finds you well and in good spirits….The weather has been fickle. Father says…..” and so on.
What I carry with me to this day is how they lived. Dinner almost every night for the young lady’s family was a boiled egg for each person. During the summer there were some vegetables to go with the egg. The young man, living and working in a city miles away sometimes could afford a small piece of meat, but usually he bought a bone and boiled it with his nightly portion of rice. They never lamented the boredom of their menu, but instead, spoke of how fortunate they were to have it with a glass of milk.
My roommate and I couldn’t get through all of the letters in one night. Not because there were a lot of them—only 13—but we’d read a sentence and find ourselves staring into space trying to imagine such a penurious life. Here we were in a climate-controlled high-rise and had sneered at the mystery meat served in the cafeteria that night. At first we’d read and chatter, but we dwindled into silence and our own thoughts after the first couple of letters.
The papers became somewhat sacred. We felt invasive as their relationship bloomed and their lives unfolded. We held in our hands the story of a young girl sleeping with 3 sisters in one bed. And miles away, the young man changing the cardboard in his shoes because the soles had worn through.
We were also awed that they never spoke of their lives as impoverished—just the opposite. They were thrilled to simply have what they had. It was a startling lesson for my roommate and I. We had plenty, and we expected even more.
Whenever I read the paper and get sucked into the whirlwind of fear from more layoffs, more banks failing, and more uncertainty, I ask myself what I ate last night. It was much more than an egg or a bit of rice.
I say a prayer of gratitude. Many years ago I go to peek inside of 2 lives who simply accepted the times for what they were and went on living. It gives me hope that maybe forty years from now, some college kids will find our memories of 2009 discarded in a dump. Proof that we made it through and thankful that what we had—was enough.