Tuesday, November 25, 2008

growing up poor

Some of you might have read the previous posts and wondered about how petty I must be. It’s a house. Big deal it’s just a house. Hey what are you whining about, your husband is an engineer you’ll bounce back and true enough I can see your point. Don’t for one second think that I’m some bubble headed rich, sorority girl who is upset because I have to give up my standing appointment at the nail salon.

I mentioned I grew up poor and that is true. I was the oldest of eight kids born to a Washington DC cop and a stay-at-home mom. We lived in a three bedroom home with one bathroom that was about 1,000 square feet.

Our dinner menu was pretty standard. Three or four nights a week we had macaroni and cheese or spaghetti. I’m not talking about fancy variations of the two so that boredom didn’t set in; I’m talking mind numbing sameness. If it was a macaroni and cheese night you knew there would be some tuna in the mix. If there was spaghetti then Dad threw in the cheapest ground beef he could find. They wanted to make sure we got our protein. Forget salads or vegetables. Those would be luxuries. A real treat might be meat loaf and instant mashed potatoes or fish sticks and fries. On rare occasions we might go to McDonalds but that was extremely rare.

While some girls looked at fashion magazines and giggled about what outfits, shoes, or purses they might want, I poured over old issues for Woman’s Day or Family Circle that Dad had bought me from the Goodwill. I dreamed of fixing “nutritious” and “fabulous” dinners for my future family. Pictures of a mom in an apron serving food to an appreciative family danced through my head. In my head I’d see a handsome man and my two beautiful future children, one boy and one girl. We’d be a loving family straight off Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show. My house would be spotless and people would drop by and visit.

This was not the life I lived though. I lived in filth. My mom is one of those hoarders and trash was everywhere. Looking back I know that she was depressed and overwhelmed but that really doesn’t dull the memory of being abused and neglected. If we wanted breakfast we fixed it ourselves. Lunch would be peanut butter sandwiches that we slapped together. Dinner was made when Dad was home or we were forced to make more sandwiches.

One sad memories of growing up that I still hold today involves donated clothes. A neighbor woman brought over a bag of hand-me downs to us and I was thrilled to find an outfit that might actually pass for being in style. It was a purple floral mini-skirt, a lavender vest, and a white blouse. I was walking down the hall of John Hanson Junior High when I heard a girl shriek “Oh My God. She’s wearing my old clothes. I can’t believe it. Look at that Bennie Pig wearing my old clothes.” Her friends giggled and laughed and I tried walking away, not giving them an audience by looking back but I was crushed. Tears streamed down my face. I was so tired of people making fun of my out of fashioned clothes. I have read stories about other kids having old clothes but they were clean. I can’t even say that about ours. Once they were worn they waited, often for weeks to be cleaned. Mom wouldn’t let you touch the washing machine. She also forbade us to use the bath or the shower unless she could supervise us which meant that we often had to wait for days to get bathed. It’s hard to live with mental illness. The whole family suffers. We were called Bennie Pigs and teased and taunted.

I guess it would be no surprise to hear that I wound up pregnant by the time I was sixteen. I managed to finish high school but college was not something that I could pay for and scholarships were not coming my way. Our chaotic home life was not always suitable for studying. At age nineteen I moved in with my Grandmother and took a series of minimum wage jobs often working at least two at a time. I enrolled in college and began to work towards making my dream come true. I’d like to be a Barbie girl and live a fabulous life like the feminists I read about. Imagine me writing articles for magazines and people respecting me for my opinions. Imagine a strong man who loved me and supported me. I’d read articles about women fixing up their country homes or their dream homes by the sea and I would say, “One day that will be me. One day I will have it all just like the magazines told me I could.”

Shortly after beginning college though, I met my ex-husband. I quit shortly thereafter. He was gorgeous. In my dreams I might have imagined a man that looked so good would be interested in me. It was his good looks that blinded me to so much. I was willing to forgive so much in order to keep him by my side. When the beatings began I blamed myself and worked to avoid future confrontations. I was too blind to see that this cycle of beating and making up was inevitable for us. The pattern was ingrained in our relationship as was his cheating and coming back. I accepted it all. I believe I’d been raised for just such a relationship and deserved every bit of it. When he left I was devastated. I was suicidal but the reality was that I now had two kids dependent upon me and I needed to do something. I applied for welfare and went back to college. I ached that my kids were growing up in the poverty that had been part of my every day existence but I was working to eliminate that. At first my plan was to get a two year degree as a legal secretary. Then my college professors encouraged me to reach for the brass ring go on and get my Bachelors.

Four years of putting my life on hold. Four years of working two jobs, trying to spend quality time with the boys, and studying, I finally did it. I received my degree and began teaching. I’d had opportunities to remarry but each time I felt that this would put my only chance at an education on the sidelines again. I was now ready to settle down and marry one of those strong men who admired a strong woman but I didn’t meet any of them. As a matter of fact at thirty, with two kids I was a less than desirable marriage partner. The world had seemed to change and no one had given me a head up. I moved to a small school district twenty miles from Richmond , Virginia and began my life anew. I had no one there to help me. My family and friends were a two hour drive from us. If my car broke down, if I needed some help I had no one. It was so scary. Still within two years I bought my first home and I felt that it was saying something about me. I felt like I had overcome. I baked from scratch and had a subscription to Woman’s Day. Even without a husband, at some level I felt like I had arrived. I wanted to be married. I felt so sad when I saw families together at the park or the beach. I think I was very frightened because I knew it all fell on me. If something happened it all fell on me and I didn’t think I was up to the challenge. Nothing had changed. My self-esteem still fragile from abuse and neglect kept me anchored to fear. I wasn’t searching for someone like my husband. As a matter of fact if you asked me what kind of job my husband would have I would have answered a job like military or union.

Despite my degree I was still blue collar and I didn’t dream of marrying a doctor, lawyer or accountant. The fact that Darryl was younger than me threw me off a bit but I really had never dated a guy with a degree before. My best friend Nancy had always insisted that I should but again I just felt that someone with a degree wouldn’t see me as an equal. We married and he started his own business. We bought a house in Rome that I really liked. It wasn’t far from work. I had a pool and really I felt like I was living the lifestyles of the rich and famous even though the house was $150,000. Then September 11th happened and it his business hard. Within a couple of months I was supporting him. “Shut down the business” I begged. It’s time to close it down. A few months later his mom and dad moved in. His mom had been diagnosed with cancer. So now I was supporting him and his parents. If I wanted to go out to dinner at the local Chinese buffet we wouldn’t have the money but I had the money to keep the lights going and the mortgage paid. It just didn’t seem to be part of the bargain. I assumed that being married meant we would both be putting into the pot.

It wasn’t until his mother had been dead for a few months before he finally began looking for a job and closing down his business. The job at Trinity had been a life saver. I believed it would pull us out of the hole we found ourselves in. I thought we would pay down the house and put money away. Instead he bought the house in Cartersville to try to keep his business going as a sideline until he could rebuild it. So no I’m not some snooty rich girl used to Daddy’s money. I wasn’t the Daddy’s little girl that was spoiled rotten. I have lived an up by your boot straps existence. That house on Evening Mist Drive represented so much to me. I felt like we’d truly arrived. I felt like everything else was finally over. It represented my arrival not just into middle class but amazingly enough, upper middle class. All those people who looked down their noses at me in the past might find out they were wrong about me. I was just as good as them. Dare I think it, maybe a little better than them. Maybe Mom was right when she used to say “They’re just jealous of you.” I used to think they had no reason to be but in my fairy tale existence at Evening Mist Drive, I dared to think “Yeah well, maybe they are jealous of me. Maybe they are.”

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