January 7, 2020

When We Were Almost Poor

“I hear a baby calling,” I said to my husband Vic in 1970. After a day at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, we were driving toward the tiny stucco house we rented near a walnut orchard and chrysanthemum farm. My passion for a child had risen in the redwood grove.

“I’m ready,” Vic said. I missed my next period.

Did we discuss our threshold status, not quite hippie students and not yet settled into stable jobs even though I was 24 and he was 28? Did we discuss the cost of having a child? Did we know where or how we’d live on one small income instead of two?

No. We trusted life to figure it out.

Vic with cats 1968

Vic had left his unfinished Ph.D. out of boredom and our mutual desire to do human potential psychology in California. Working half time doing research at Stanford and half time in an experimental ward at a state mental hospital wouldn’t pay the bills without my job.

As my belly and breasts rounded with new life, we hiked in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the peninsula south of San Francisco and eyed the gray smog.

“I don’t want you to work when we have a baby,” Vic said, “and I’m not making enough money.” True, but I hadn’t cared before. We depended on an old used car and spent little. I planned to make a few dresses that wrapped so I could wear them as I got rounder and also when nursing. It had all seemed fine, but now it wasn’t. We had another life to protect.

“I want to buy land,” Vic said.

“So do I,” I said, “but we’ll never afford to live above the smog line here. We’ll be stuck near an expressway or El Camino Real with farmers spraying crops.” We didn’t know that where we lived would become Silicon Valley, unaffordable and stripped of orchards.

“I need to finish my PhD at Cornell,” Vic said. I held his hand. This was serious.

“Do you want to?” I said. “You hated it.”

“I may never love physics again,” he said, “but I left defeated and all I have to do is write a thesis. It’s time to finish what I started.”

Camping at a friend’s place (music first)

In July, I quit my job and we left our one-bedroom house where we’d conceived our child on a mattress on the floor. We spent a month in Big Sur as scholarship students at Esalen Institute before hiking in the mountains for a month. We headed east, sleeping at campsites in the back of the station wagon. Vic fretted while I trusted. Pregnancy had a calming effect on me.

Our rental on Cayuga Lake





We moved into a drafty Cayuga Lake rental near Ithaca, NY a month before the baby arrived. It needed work, but it was $110 a month including heat. Vic fixed the roof and replaced porch boards. Vic’s adviser at Cornell welcomed him back like the Prodigal Son and made Vic a teaching assistant with a small monthly stipend so he could write his thesis and we could buy food.

We had no health insurance, but somehow paid the $800 hospital bill for birthing at Corning Hospital where husbands were allowed in the delivery room. I dressed Baby David in gifts from his grandmas and hand-me-downs from friends. We applied for Food Stamps. No one humiliated us or made us feel like losers. We joined the food coop for inexpensive natural foods and met monthly to divide up the bulk shipments. I didn’t mind.

House we bought in 1972, where I still live

We were poor, but we didn’t feel poor. Life was full of promise for white educated kids. We had a future and we weren’t in debt. Universities and an institution like Esalen offered generous scholarships. Social services welcomed us without suspicion and offered help, and our disapproving families sent cash baby gifts.

Within a few years, we bought a house with beautiful land. The house was close to collapse, but we saved it and worked on it for thirty years.

Life was full of promise and hope in a way many young people can’t imagine now. We didn’t know how lucky we were.


Did you make choices without a clear plan when you were young and full of trust? Or maybe when you were older, as in my decision to adopt a puppy?  Help arrived and she’s working out well! And Vic fell in love with physics again. It hurts to know how hard it is in 2020 to pay for an education and medical care or find a job that pays the rent and buys groceries. For a post about other California adventures, see California Hippie Capers. You might also enjoy My Hippie Wedding: 1968



  1. January 16, 2020 at 9:54 am

    Ira Rabois


    It sounds so familiar. “Being poor but not feeling it–being rich in life.” Trusting “something” will reveal direction, which “it” did. Plus our privilege certainly helped. Thank you, Elaine.

    1. January 18, 2020 at 8:47 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Yes, our privilege helped and the willingness of government and political institutions to help students and others who needed a temporary boost. How did my country become so ungenerous about sharing the wealth and passing on the bounty?

  2. January 14, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    anne danford


    It was a delight to read about this time in your life, Elaine. (And, as always, the photos add so much. In particular, the one of you holding baby David is beyond beautiful.) When one has shelter, food, and clean water (to say nothing of love), being poor does seem so much about mindset. (And there’s also the safety net for those of us who were lucky enough to have families who could help out if necessary.) I have a somewhat similar story in that I had my first baby at 24, at a time when my husband was unemployed, I was in graduate school, and we didn’t have enough money for a car.(A friend loaned us one in which to drive home from the hospital.) I remember putting the baby in a little seat on the back of my bicycle to go to the laundromat (with all the cloth diapers on top of the rest of the laundry), and the bicycle starting to topple over because of the weight. Thinking back on it, it does seem, as Jean wrote, ““innocent, naive, and very, very fortunate.”

    1. January 15, 2020 at 1:45 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      David was 3 weeks old in that photo. The idealistic mama was learning about sleep deprivation. We had a small safety net from family (my mom gave me that $100 for my wedding), but it was mostly from institutions–except Vic’s mom had given Vic a VW bug when he graduated from Dartmouth and gave him an old station wagon some years later. Those gifts were a big deal. I thought it was a lot to backpack dirty diapers 1/8 mile uphill to our station wagon, but a bicycle, a baby, and laundry? You must have had an incredible sense of balance. I love those words, too: “innocent, naive, and very, very fortunate.” That’s about it.

  3. January 13, 2020 at 9:38 am



    Thanks Elaine, for this early layer of your story in time, evocative, and eerily familiar, also resonating with the comments here.

    Young ones today are compelled to take a sober look at the future. The naive optimism of fools is in decline, defeated by hardening circumstances and rationality, something I grieve about.

    1. January 13, 2020 at 9:44 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for commenting, Ashen. The world feels so much harder as we face what we’ve done. I was naively optimistic in 1970 despite assassinations, the Vietnam War, racism, pollution, and clear warnings of climate change. Somehow it all seemed manageable and fixable. There was so much hope for positive change. Yes, naive. I grieve for the lost optimism and the suffering Earth that wasn’t cared for when we could have saved our planet and so many lives.

  4. January 10, 2020 at 12:09 am

    Marian Beaman


    To clarify, we traveled all over the Southeast from Virginia to Florida in the travel trailer, Cliff doing art assembly programs in schools. During the 1 1/2 years of travel we rented out our house in Jacksonville. At least occasionally, disposable diapers (as opposed to spilled diaper pails on the road) would have helped save my sanity.

    Like you, we grew from those character-building experiences. :-/
    Thanks for the good wishes, Elaine.

    1. January 10, 2020 at 10:09 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Vic and I traveled back and forth from this house to various rentals and finally a small house near where he taught. Those diaper pails always spilled and leaked. Yet, looking back, it all seemed simpler then–or maybe I just had more energy.

  5. January 9, 2020 at 9:33 pm

    Jean Bota


    Beautiful article Elaine…brought back so many similar memories of our beginning’s in 1975. My wedding dress was $150.00, which my grandmother wanted to pay for, as this was her gift to us. I was 21 years old and Larry was 24 year, he moved to the big city to join me, knew each other for 8 months when we got married. He was a mortician and was preparing bodies for the university students at University of Calgary and I worked at the bank. We lived together for 3 months before getting married, which upset my family ( in those days, it wasn’t common) or so they thought. We got married, small little celebration and we paid for it, except my wedding dress. Later that year we both quit our jobs. Job’s were plentiful in those days, and we trusted the universe, or at least I did. We rented a basement suite from an Italian couple. Beautiful place, hardwood floors, and parking in the back, big windows for lots of light for $110.00/month. We thought it was heaven. Our furniture was his, mine and ours, again furniture and status was not who and what we were. I thought about going back to university, but a year later Larry decided he would take a move to the north of our province. By this time he was working for the provincial telephone company. . Sounded great to me, and again I followed and I was able to transfer. I trusted and with him by my side, we were unstoppable. Life was good in 1976 and moving north to Fort MacMurray was the best move we made as a couple. We had to survive and rely on each other…We tried having children, but nothing came about. We both began tests to see if there was an issue with either, and in 1978 we transferred back to the area I had been raised. Another good decision and the divine knew what it was doing, as my father developed a cancerous brain tumour and died in February 1980. So glad we had the time we did with him and were able to help my mother. … Happy New Year to you and all the best in 2020 Elaine. Truly enjoyed going down memory lane tonight..hugs <3

    1. January 10, 2020 at 10:05 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks Jean. I love knowing a few details about your life in those times when life felt less precarious and more secure. Vic and I lived together for over a year before we were married. His mom was upset. My mom didn’t care. What a wonderful gift from your grandma and thank you to those who create the Divine Plan that brought you near your dad in his last years. The 1970s seem like a long time ago, but here I am in that same house, living on the same land we bought in 1972. I still lean into the same oak trees. Blessed New Year to you and may we all have peace and a caring world.

  6. January 8, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    Marian Beaman


    Self-confident, innocent and naive described Cliff and me as well. I blogged about our low-budget wedding on a shoe-string here: https://marianbeaman.com/2013/06/08/wedding-on-the-cheap/
    Incidentally, my teaching salary was similar to Jean’s.

    We began married life in a roach-ridden $50.00/month garage apartment and graduated to a $100.00/month house we bought just before Crista was born. I had no student debt and Cliff’s was paid off in a year or two. So interested in paying off debt, I remember looking at some change on the bedspread trying to figure out how to pay for groceries. Technically, we were poor but had college degrees and dreams!

    The hardest thing in our early life was living in a travel trailer with two babies to help Cliff get his art performance career established. No disposable diapers and very little adult contact. No, I don’t want to write about it (though I journaled all the way through), but the sacrifices did set a course for future successes.

    Thanks for the revelations, which match mine (sort of). Great discussion here too in the comments. Wonderful start for 2020, Elaine!

    1. January 9, 2020 at 11:50 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Roaches!! Oh, no. At least I didn’t live with those. I hope the house trailer was warm. Maybe so because you were in FL (roaches like it there, I hear). Definitely no disposable diapers for us. Our rental on the lake had a driveway too steep to navigate in the winter, a shady water supply, and no washing machine. We stocked up on durable supplies, food that didn’t rot, and 5 gallon glass containers of spring water before December snows and then backpacked laundry, including diapers, groceries, and the baby in and out. We were adventurous and fit, but after 2 winters of that, I was seriously relieved to move into our decrepit farmhouse (still no roaches, but lots of mice) with a good water supply, an inadequate wood stove, and an old washing machine. Diapers and all laundry were draped on wooden racks near the wood stove to dry. (I wish I had photos of that, but didn’t think it was beautiful or interesting at the time.) If nothing else, this helped us develop tolerance for our children’s choices. Blessed and Peaceful 2020 to you.

  7. January 8, 2020 at 7:50 pm



    Hi Elaine. I loved your story. Times have changed tremendously. There always seemed a way to get by back in those golden old days now. I miss that world. <3

    1. January 9, 2020 at 11:37 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Debbie. I miss that world, too, but it may be gone forever–or maybe not. It’s always possible people, even politicians, will wake up to what truly matters.

  8. January 8, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Deborah Gregory


    I enjoy reading your family adventures Elaine so thank you for sharing this one! And what great photos as always too! January feels just right for a story about new life and birth. Coincidentally, at twenty four I also gave birth to my first child so can relate well to a time of having to trust that life would provide our small family with all we needed … and miraculously somehow it did!

    Well until nine years later when divorce (a choice without a clear plan!) approached and a change of residence, income and other circumstances brought me the closest I’ve ever been to poverty and homelessness. And yet in many ways this was also where my life and my children’s lives truly began to change for the better.

    Love the photo of Vic dancing in the doorway and the beautiful black and white one of you holding baby David! Like others your post is triggering many a memory from those years today. It’s wonderful to read the rich replies and your responses! Hope all’s well with you, Willow and Disco the dancing dog! Warm & wild blessings, Deborah

    1. January 9, 2020 at 11:36 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Deborah. So our oldest children are the same age–and what a gift it is to have my younger son in the neighborhood when he isn’t traveling. He picked up Disco the Pup for the day and we’re planning overnights for the future. It’s so good for her. I imagine divorce is something you know in your gut that you must do. The practicalities are secondary. I’m glad you made the choice that saved you.

      Vic and I moved into the wooden toolshed for a month while we waited for our rental to begin. I was 7 months pregnant. Wow! We had access to our friends’ bathroom and kitchen and we were very close friends and spent lots of time together, but Vic set up the little building with rugs and a mattress on the floor to give us a private bedroom and retreat area. First thing he did was dig an underground trench from their home to lay electric wire so we could have music for listening and dancing. I took this photo when the music went on and he stood at the door dancing–so proud of his achievement.

      It’s cold here which is the nature of winter, but even colder would be better so the ground would freeze. The cold controls biting insects and invasive weeds. I think of Australia in our rainy winter–and don’t complain.

      1. January 9, 2020 at 12:22 pm

        Deborah Gregory


        Thank you so much Elaine for the warmth of your reply. Hmm, since my eldest is in her early 30s, I’m guessing David is in his early 50’s as I believe you have nearly twenty more blessed, croning years on me! And on that divine subject, if you haven’t read Jeanie’s recent post on the joys of being a woman in her seventies, I highly recommend doing so … it’s so inspiring for women at any age!

        In other news it’s wonderful to connect on Twitter with you (3rd time lucky for me!) again but atm I won’t receive notifications until we “follow” each other I guess? Eeek! And the new layout’s has thrown me. It’s taking me a while to get used to again … I seem to forgotten how to use it!

        Re Australia, yes I understand, so heartbreaking. It’s been cold and rainy here all day, no complaints.

        1. January 9, 2020 at 3:44 pm

          Elaine Mansfield


          I thought/knew you were quite a bit younger, Deborah, so a moment of confusion on my part. We were the same age when our first kids were born, but it wasn’t the same year. David will be 50 in September. I have not read Jeanie’s post, but it’s on my reading list. My reading and everything else “schedule” is demolished by puppy needs, but that will change. It’s already changing. Today Disco spent much of the day with my local son Anthony and we plan more of that plus she’s having a few daycare experiences. I was out of my mind, but straight from the heart to adopt a baby pup. I’m not sorry, but I am a little frazzled. I followed you on Twitter. It doesn’t take long to figure it out. Sending you love across the ocean and peace.

  9. January 8, 2020 at 10:43 am

    Jean Raffa


    Thank you for this wonderful story, Elaine. It brings back great memories. We went to college on scholarships and married young too, with no money and no jobs.

    My mother spent $200.00 on our wedding. We moved into married student housing at FSU and my first grocery bill was $20.00. I thought that was outrageously expensive.

    Fred became the resident manager of our housing development and I miraculously got a job teaching 3rd grade while he attended graduate school. My salary was $3,600 a year. For every year I taught, a year’s worth of my scholarship was subtracted from my debt. When Fred graduated with his doctorate, my scholarship was paid off and we were debt free.

    We were poor by today’s standards, but had no worries or doubt that we’d manage somehow. We did. We were innocent, naive, and very, very fortunate. You’re right. In those days life was full of promise and hope in ways many young people can’t imagine now. I wish it could be so for young people today. I wonder if it will ever be again….

    1. January 8, 2020 at 11:32 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I beat you, Jean. (I’m laughing.) My wedding cost $100. I made my dress (a lacy mini-dress in pale yellow) and prepared all the food. This cost doesn’t count the wine provided by Vic’s mom along with wine glasses brought from Connecticut. She didn’t want to drink wine out of a jelly jar. Now that you remind me, Vic’s debt was lowered because he taught, so there wasn’t much left at the end. We were self-confident about life ahead. Our property of 70 acres and an almost livable house cost $10,800. Hard to imagine. Your words are just right: “innocent, naive, and very, very fortunate.”

      1. January 9, 2020 at 6:17 pm

        Jean Raffa


        Hahahaha. You win!! I bet nobody’s spent $100.00 for a wedding in our children’s generation!!

  10. January 8, 2020 at 5:07 am

    susan scott


    Thanks Elaine so much! It’s lovely to look back to see how far we’ve come, with all the accompanying joys and sorrows.

    It’s interesting what gives us the feeling of being poor – I know that as a child I thought we were poor because we weren’t allowed ice creams every time we heard the ice cream man tinkling his bell down the street, and fizzy drinks were verboten in our home. We had homemade ginger beer and lemonade.

    Both my sons were keep on a short string as well. Dave the musician was on the radio with a financial man a few weeks back – he was interested to hear how he viewed money. Dave said that he thought we were poor. He and Mike would sell avocados and lemons on the street from our trees on our property. Their dad passed on his t-shirts shorts and things to Mike who passed on to Dave … never mind that our home then had a swimming pool and tennis court and they both went to the best schools in the country – and university …but, what they both learned from being kept on a short string was the value of one’s own hard earned money.

    1. January 8, 2020 at 11:15 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      It is so much about mind set, Susan. But it was also easier to pay for education, food, and basic healthcare in the 1960s and early 1970s in the United States. Vic was raised in a poverty-level housing project and his mom had an 8th grade education, but because he did well in school and loved learning, he got scholarships beginning with undergraduate education and all the way through graduate school with under $2000 debt in the end. I had full room and board scholarships for my first bachelor’s degree and no debt when I graduated. We had to get decent grades to keep our scholarships, but that was the only requirement. My government had faith that education was good and allowed a kid to do something positive for the world. There was also help with medical care and basic expenses if you were a student or had a low income job–without shame. Pretty amazing by today’s standards where kids graduate with impossibly large debt and children can’t get medical care–or much worse. Vic and I were given helping hands. I’ll always be grateful.

  11. January 7, 2020 at 10:44 pm



    Goodness, you would never let your boys raise a baby in a house that looks that bad! Isn’t it amazing? Great piece, Elaine.

    1. January 8, 2020 at 11:03 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      And now you know why our mothers wept when we bought this house, Harriet. But Vic was convinced the roof line was straight and only part of the foundation needed rebuilding, so we could save it. We did. (I like the photo of our friend Linda on the hayride and many other old friends.)

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