My friend Sally came to visit a couple of weeks ago, and we spent the time going to the Museum of Fine Arts, walking miles and miles through Boston and Cambridge, and generally hanging out and getting reacquainted. It had been a long time – very nearly a decade – since I'd last seen her, and I admit that I was worried.
We were very close when we both lived in Wilmington. I had more than a bit of a crush on her, then, and I admired her ability to just pack up what she could carry and move on to the next place.
I've never been like that. I become attached to Things. Overly attached, I sometimes tell myself. I've never given myself the freedom to just go. I need to make plans, to be organized. To arrange for the care and feeding of the animals I've always had in my life. I need to know that I have enough money, to know that I have a place, a home, a nest that I can roost in once the adventure is done.
I've worried that my inability to shun physical possessions makes me somehow less morally pure in some indefinable way. That this failing in myself is in direct contradiction with my politics and my values. Jesus said (as reported in Luke and Matthew), to not keep treasures on earth, and to sell all your things and redistribute them to the poor. Buddha taught that one should have few desires and to not be attached to material things. At the core of myself, of who I want to be, I've believed that all the stuff I surround myself with is "just" stuff. It's impermanent. Things don't bring happiness. The "gospel of prosperity" is one of those twistings of Christianity that strikes me as so immoral and self-centered as to be heretical beyond words.
But I like my things. I like have a fulfilling job that pays my bills and gives me the ability to do pretty much whatever I want to do. Even when I wasn't financially comfortable, though, even when I was barely scraping by, I still often gave away much of the money I had. If people asked, and I had it, I would give it to them. When I was waiting tables, I gave money to homeless people. When I was dropping out of graduate school, I gave $200 to a neighbor I'd never met before, because he had no heat in his house. He claimed he'd pay me back, but I didn't expect it back. Looking back, that was a stupid thing to do, because I couldn't pay my own bills at that time, but I had food and a roof over my head and heat - who cared about credit card bills and student loans? I was registered as a socialist when I was in graduate school, too, and though I have trouble believing that socialism would actually work on any sort of scale larger than an extended family (and that's pushing it), that's where my values lie. We should help each other. If someone is hungry, I want to feed them. If someone is on the streets and needs money (for food, for alcohol, for drugs, for shelter - I don't really care), then I will try to help.
However, I have not gotten involved in organizations that genuinely try to help people. I like talking to homeless people (or buskers, or the transwoman who does tarot readings sometimes in Harvard Square), but I shy away from doing anything organized to help. I'm not sure why, except that it feels far more paternalistic on some profound level to me to work in a soup kitchen than to have a conversation and hand a person a few bucks. (As an aside, I have the same sorts of conflicts with agencies like USAID - here we, the Great White Rich US telling you Poor Black Developing Country what you need). I contradict myself, I know, and part of it is my own comfort level - I like people when they're individuals, but humanity as a group makes me crazy.
I grew up poor. Not as poor as some, and I don't see the sort of poverty I grew up in as some sort of a reason for my current politics (my brothers, for instance, have all grown up to be far more fiscally conservative than I have, even when it's against their best interests). I also don't see poverty as some sort of reflection of the moral good or bad of the people living in poverty. It just is. In some ways, it was harder than the life my classmates had. In other ways, it was the only way I could have grown up to be the person I am today, and I rather like that person.
The first house I remember living in was on Stevens Street in Wallace, a quiet residential neighborhood, full of brick, ranch-style houses built in the 1960s. We lived in that rental house for a brief time, when we first moved to Wallace from Greensboro, where I’d been born. My parents were in the process of having their house built just two doors, similar in style, but new. It would have central air conditioning and heat, unlike where we currently lived. And it would be all ours.
We lived in the “new house” until I was 7. My parents had started looking for another house to buy just before Patrick was born. The “new house” was too small for a family with three children. At that point, we seemed like a normal, ordinary young family. Two parents, one a stay-at-home mom with her two children, a boy and a girl, four years apart. My dad had worked as a mechanic until Granddaddy offered him a job as a bookkeeper at a limestone quarry that he partially owned. East Coast Limestone was about half-way between Wallace and Topsail Island, where Granddaddy owned the beach cottage, Tak-It-Ezy, and during the summer, we closed up our house in Wallace, and lived at the beach, gorging ourselves on seafood every day, swimming in the calm morning ocean, and building sand castles and going for walks in the afternoons.
For kindergarten, I started school at Harrells Christian Academy, the private school where Grandmama taught, where Mama had graduated from high school. Even though I was an odd, sad child, I had friends in kindergarten. I was like every other child there. When I was in first grade, though, after just a couple of weeks of school, I moved from Harrells to Wallace Elementary, the public school in my town. I didn’t know why – like many things that adults did, it seemed arbitrary, but I adjusted relatively quickly, and I had a new best friend, Holly.
At some point, Daddy stopped working at East Coast Limestone. “It’s given me an ulcer,” he said, clutching his gut. He pointedly avoided fried food, and said he needed to find a job that was less stressful. I don’t remember when he quit, or what sort of fall-out there was, but before the second grade, we moved to Liberty, the small town near Greensboro where Daddy had grown up, and he worked in a furniture factory. In the two years we lived there, we lived in three different houses. James was born when we lived in the second of those houses. Two of the boys shared a bedroom, and James slept in his bassinet and then crib in Mama and Daddy’s room. We shopped at second-hand stores for clothes and got hand-me-downs from people at church. My shoes were perpetually too tight, and Mama tried to hide her disappointment when I came home with yet another pair of jeans with a hole in the knee. I remember her singing to me as she ironed on yet another patch.
The houses we had in Liberty were all too small, save the last one, and I remember none of them as “home.” None of them had heat – we had a small kerosene heater which lived in the hallway of one house, and I would run back and forth between whatever I was doing to help Mama get dinner ready, and standing in front of the heater, rubbing my hands back and forth.
Some time while we were living in that small house, Daddy lost his job at Liberty Furniture. He applied to other jobs, but I always kind of wondered if he actually wanted another job. Mama typed up his resumes, as he applied for jobs throughout North Carolina and sometimes in other states.
“I just realized I misspelled ‘supervisor’ on this one,” Mama said, holding a resume just out of reach.
“Come on, you know supervisors can’t spell anyway. You don’t need to type another one.” He grabbed for it, and stuck it in an envelope.
The third house we lived in was huge by comparison, and I wrote in a story when I was 8 that I was excited that the rent was only $250 a month. We each had our own rooms, which was a very big deal when I was 8. As the only girl, I never had to share with anyone, but I was aware then just how crowded our houses had been. Our house was old and falling down, and it had a house next door that I was convinced was haunted. We had a small garden in the vacant lot behind our house, and Mama canned and froze and pickled all summer.
One thing I never remember is hunger.
I do remember when we were approved for WIC and Food Stamps, though, and the excitement of my father and the humiliation of my mother as we went through the grocery store filling two cartloads full of no-sugar-added food and baby formula. I remember the taste of Government Cheese that we’d pick up in a warehouse. I remember how shy Mama had seemed when we went to pick it up, and how Daddy tried to make a joke of it all.
And I remember when we could no longer afford the $250 a month for the big house, and when we boxed up everything we owned and stored it in my paternal grandparents’ shed. My brothers and I did share a room then, all four of us, for those months we lived with them. What I remember most about that time were the secrets.
“Hey, Grandmama! We’re pretending to cook!” I told my paternal grandmother as she walked by Mama’s and Daddy’s room with an armload of laundry for her son, my dad’s younger brother, who also lived with her. I pretended to stir in Mama’s cooking pots that she had unboxed for us to play with.
When Grandmama had gone back downstairs, Mama hissed at me, “Don’t tell her that! She already thinks we’re weird.”
“Don’t tell Grandmama and Granddaddy that we’re going to church,” Mama said as we entered a Baptist church. “They won’t understand why we don’t want to go to church with them.”
“Don’t tell Grandmama and Granddaddy that Daddy’s looking for a job in another state,” Mama told us.
“Don’t tell Grandmama and Granddaddy that we’re moving back to Wallace.”
We moved back to Wallace and lived in yet another too-small house, this one without a rent payment attached. My maternal grandfather owned a lot of rental property, and, in some cases, he bought a house specifically for us to live in. My parents did yard work for him on other properties to attempt to pay him back. Daddy worked for the textile plant then, but we still had no money. I believed in Santa until I was 10 because I knew that there was no way my parents could afford the presents we had under the tree.
In the fourth grade, back at Wallace Elementary, my teacher asked for my weekly lunch money. The day before, Mama and I had met with the principal, and I’d gotten approved for free lunch.
“I’m not supposed to need any,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I- we- met with Mr. Beaman, and he said it was supposed to be free,” I stammered. I could feel my face turning red. The rest of the class was silent. Even the class next to us in the open-plan classroom seemed to be listening in.
“When did you meet with Mr. Beaman?” Mrs. Bowman asked.
“On Monday,” I said.
“On a holiday? I don’t think so!”
“But we did!” I put my head on my desk and began to cry. Not only did all the other kids know that I was poor, but they also thought I was lying about needing free lunch. On top of that, it looked like I wasn’t going to eat that day. I did, but the sting of humiliation lasted.
In the sixth grade, my brothers and I all randomly ended up with teachers who were black, and that was Not Okay for my father. He made racist jokes constantly, used the n-word with regularity, and talked about how many points he would get for each nigger he hit with his car – just a couple for a man, more for a woman, and the most for a child. I squirmed, thinking of my friends and classmates who were black, of the woman who cleaned my grandmother's house and took care of my brothers and me, of my grandfather's right-hand man, who had saved Granddaddy's life more than once. But he was my father, and talking back to him was not okay. Ever.
We went back to Harrells, a school founded on the idea that white kids should not have to encounter black people, unless they were the help and they knew their place. Mama went back to work. Daddy drank away what little money we had.
By the time we went back to public schools, when I was in the 11th grade, my parents owed so much money to the school that Harrells would not release my transcripts. It wasn’t clear that – even with straight A’s all the way through school – that I would be able to get a high school diploma. There was some whispering of my getting a GED, mostly from the guidance counselor, just as a back-up plan, just in case they couldn’t convince the people at Harrells to send my transcript. It would be enough to get me into college, after all, and once I was in college, it wouldn’t matter anymore, and it wouldn’t matter for my brothers, since they were all in middle and elementary school when we transferred. Those grades don’t matter anyway.
My Harrells math teacher – then the interim principal – saved me. When he finally learned what was happening, after the Board had denied my mother’s pleas, he said he didn’t give a good goddamn what the Board thought, and that somebody had better send my transcripts to my new school.
I graduated valedictorian of my high school class, thanks to him. Thanks to him, I graduated.
And, once I was in college, in the early 1990s, the grunge movement had finally made it to North Carolina. Suddenly, buying clothes from the Salvation Army or Goodwill was seen as a fashion statement, not something shameful. Instead of people trying to one-up each other over who had spent the most on a pair of jeans, my friends and I argued over who had found the best deal. For those couple of years – before I met the evil ex (who was incredibly invested into who made her clothes) – I felt like I fit into society.
Now, I don't fit, not really. The financial success I've had seems like a lucky roll of the dice, just a fluke. Sure, I worked hard, but lots of people work hard. I am expected among the nice, middle-class people I work with and am friends with to fit in as a nice, middle-class person. Still, though, I feel like if I do, then I've given up something of the past. That I'm taking for granted that the world is an easy place, that I deserve my salary and my apartment and my things. That I have, as my mama said to me once, forgotten where I came from.
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