THERE IS A KIND OF DIGNIFIED poverty encountered in 19th-century British literature. Clean, neat, quiet, well-read, hard-working, and uncomplaining, these people, dwelling on the fringes of society, are portrayed as reading classics by candlelight after a long day of work, perhaps aloud, while another family member darns a tired sock for the umpteenth time. They take in mending and other tasks from their social betters, and are sometimes invited to large gatherings where they meekly take seats on the periphery. They are fictional creatures, bound up as minor characters in musty books.
My (Great-) Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion lived that dignified poverty, although it was the 20th century, in the coldwater flats of Jersey City. My grandmother's younger sisters, their time spanned Jersey City's deterioration and ended before its regentrification.
Passing them on the street, you would not notice them: two older maiden ladies, often arm in arm, purses tucked under their coats in fear of purse-snatchers. Who would give a thought to two old ladies? They kept an extra dollar in one shoe, just in case. They dressed neatly, and well, and cared for their few possessions so that they could be worn for many years. Cursed with a genetic tendency to lose their hair in middle age, they wore demure, neatly styled wigs.
Aunt Marion, being a bit flashier, had sparkly corners on her cat's-eye glasses, and a preference for the color red. They worked in sweat shops and at other menial jobs. Aunt Ann, for a long time, operated the elevator in a business office skyscraper, an opportunity to work in a cleaner, quieter environment. Neither had an eighth-grade diploma--the meaning of "graduation" in their time and place. They could not drive. They traveled little, to visit family sometimes. Their tiny apartment was sparklingly clean. They read classic literature, were knowledgeable about history, current events, and the activities of the people they loved.
They loved, it seemed, everyone. They were cheerful and generous beyond their means, unflaggingly loyal to their nieces, their nieces' children, and their children. Devout Catholics themselves, spending considerable time daily in prayer for others, they were remarkably tolerant of astonishingly stupid and bad behavior among their extended family. It mattered not how grievous the misdeeds: the errant youth was, at heart, Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion would assert, "a good girl," or "a good boy." After all, look how good she...