I was having lunch with a friend recently when we began having a discussion about using the services of a “cleaning lady.” She mentioned that her daughter, who has a well-paying job, employs one, and the daughter had offered, as a Christmas gift, to provide one for my friend. My friend surmised that the offer was precipitated by the fact that her daughter felt guilty for having a cleaning lady, herself, while my friend did not. She declined the offer and suggested other, more practical ideas for gifts. As our discussion continued, my friend confessed that, when her children were very young and she was married to her first husband, she had had a cleaning lady. Apparently, her first husband made a very good living so she could afford this luxury at the time. I remarked that I grew up believing such amenities were only for the wealthy – doctors and lawyers and such – and that I had a hard time wrapping my mind around “normal folk” having one. I have colleagues (fellow teachers) that do, but I’ve always chalked it up to the fact that they’d “married well.” Alas, and alack, I fell in love with a retail manager, one who makes a decent but decidedly NOT lucrative living. In addition, my first husband was an immigrant with a degree in Anglo-Saxon Literature and an equally limited earning capacity. What can I say? Charm and swagger have always trumped a bank balance for me…ALWAYS. Yes, for some reason, I’ve always found paupers DEAD SEXY! In fact, historically, I’ve had a difficult time falling in love with men that even have a job at all. Unfortunately, that means I am destined to clean my own toilets and mop my own floors…indefinitely. See, here’s the thing, though: I’ve worked hard not to need the income of another person. So, I’ll take having to clean my own house, if it means my partner and I stand on equal ground.
I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college. My daughter is the second. Currently, I’m the only one with a post bachelor’s degree, but my daughter will, most likely, exceed this accomplishment by obtaining her Ph.D. Yup, my family consists of a long line of dirt-poor, minimally educated people. Once upon a time, I went by the online moniker “hillbillysdaughter” for this very reason. Seriously! I’m talking about abject poverty. My people are folks who had to put on a coat and walk a hundred yards to use the toilet, whose house had a dirt floor until the late 1950’s, and for whom shoes were considered part of one’s “church clothes”…and that was just on my father’s side of the family. My mom’s mom finished high school but, after my abusive drunk of a granddad died in a car crash, she ended up having to raise four kids by herself on a nurse aid’s salary. Creamed chipped beef on white bread toast was considered a right-proper Sunday supper for them, and my grandmother saved the “drippings” from frying bacon to use as cooking oil right up until she went into the nursing home. My dad worked as a tool & die maker seven days a week to make as good a life as he could for his kids. My mom, who was once able to stay home with us kids, ended up getting a job in retail just to make ends meet once Mom and Dad finally achieved the “American Dream” and moved us to the suburbs. The thing is, you can take the working class out of the working class neighborhood, but you can’t take the working class out of the working class. I really DID NOT fit into my new surroundings.
God bless my hillbilly father for all he did to make a better life for his kids. I know he meant well. With that being said, it just wasn’t all it cracked up to be. We had the suburban two-story colonial, but my parents just couldn’t afford the trappings that were needed to accompany it. I remember arguing with my mother about brand name jeans. There was “no way in hell” that she was gonna pay “that kind of money” for jeans. I totally get it now, Bonnie, but, at the time, you were ruining my life. The fact that my family simply could not “keep up with the Joneses” made life in the burbs miserable for the children of people living beyond their means.
It’s funny, but, in spite of my disdain for this “lineage of poverty,” I ultimately found myself mired in that same quicksand. I quit college the first time around to “live off love” with a nefarious, unemployed lothario. Okay, okay. Maybe he wasn’t actually “nefarious,” but he was my first “real love,” and, as we all know, love can make even the smartest person act dumb as a box of rocks. He ended up dumping me, and I ended up marrying an immigrant. Without any thought about if we should or shouldn’t, we ended up having kids. Although I will never, ever regret having my daughters, the financial strain of raising a family was too much for a relationship that was, from the beginning, precarious at best. When we divorced I went from being “working-class poor” and married to genuinely unable to make it on my own without assistance. So, as you can imagine, I have some pretty choice thoughts for those assholes that like to bitch and pass judgment on those who receive public assistance. I’d love for them to know how it feels. I’d like for them to know the humiliation and shame you feel when the cashier says, “Sorry, ma’am, but this brand of peanut butter isn’t on the list for WIC,” or when she hits total and you have to go through your already bagged groceries to decide what you can possibly do without. I’d like them to experience having to find a secluded spot in the women’s wear department where you can add up the things in your cart to see if you have enough money…and then try to decide between hot dogs and Tuna Helper (based on which one will give you more meals) when you don’t. Don’t get me wrong. I knew lots of people that were way poorer than me. My kids never had to have water on their breakfast cereal instead of milk, and I never had to use a kitchen towel on my baby when I ran out of diapers before my check came. I will say, however, that I got really good at stuffing as many pieces of clothing as I could into a paper grocery bag at the community center clothing bar when it was 25 cents a bag. Honestly, though, none of that shit should happen, for anyone, in a country that considers itself a “world leader.”
My old self would scoff at my current self’s jealousy over another’s ability to afford a cleaning lady. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she would say, “You swipe that damn debit card at the grocery store like you’re some kinda boss now! You don’t even use the calculator on your phone while you shop…and you have a CELL PHONE! What the HELL is up with THAT SHIT? And you want a CLEANING LADY, too?” No, old me, I’m well aware of the elevation in my station, and I’m grateful. I’ve worked my ass off to get here, and I hope my daughter’s life will be even better. Once upon a time, a hillbilly’s daughter sat on a porch drinking forties with a bunch of able-bodied, public-assistance abusing idiots and thought, “How the hell did I get here?” I felt like my genes drew me, like a magnet, to that place. Years later, the lyrics “We were meant to live for so much more, when we lost ourselves.” (from Meant to Live by Switchfoot) still resonant so deeply with me. Yes, my life is better now. No, I don’t have to make those ridiculous survival-based decisions anymore. Why, then, do I find still find myself seeking purpose and meaning? “Ah! It’s just Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” my old self says, “because now you CAN.”