My parents gave my two sisters and me the master bedroom, the largest room with a walk in closet. The closet itself was as big as my brother's room in our old trailer. I loved our new house! Not only was it at least 3 times the size of our last home, but there was a great kid next door, named James, who was looking for a play mate. We all enrolled in new schools and made new friends.
We also started going to a new church, which has a funny story behind it. My mother was raised southern Baptist in Kentucky and my father was raised Presbyterian in New York City. We attended a Baptist church when we lived in our trailer. I remember my dad asked the new neighbor where the closest church was; she replied that she guessed that South Vineland United Methodist was the closest. My dad said that would be our new church. My mom was shocked but she knew my dad was practical and didn't want to drive any further than he had to. We switched denominations and my mom still attends that church.
From the time I was five until I was ten, my childhood was pretty good. My mom worked at a local factory and my dad worked pretty steadily and found work pretty quickly after quitting jobs on the spot over something that didn't "set right" with him. During a particularly crappy time in our economy, I believe it was during the gasoline crisis of the 70s, my dad had trouble finding work. My mom worked double shifts whenever she could to keep us afloat. I was blissfully unaware.
Then when I was 10 years old, a little boy I didn't know came knocking at the door on a Saturday morning. My mom answered it with me by her side and I noticed he had candy bars in his hand. He asked my mom if she'd buy one to support the local little league. In her sweet southern drawl, my mother said, "I'd like to buy your candy bars but we are financially embaressed." I (and the boy) was puzzled by this phrase and almost simultaneously asked my mother what it meant. She said, "We're poor. We don't have money for candy bars."
I was shocked. I had read about poor people and had seen movies about poor people and never once did I think we were poor ... until that moment. I didn't question it. I soon started to notice things in my home that indicated we were poor. The most obvious was our couch which had torn upholstery and springs that poked through the cushion every now and again. My mother had draped one of my grandma's handmade quilts over it. The seat in our 1966 Chevy also had one of my grandma's quilts draped over it, covering the old torn seat covers. For the record, we weren't furniture tearing animals as children. My parents had bought the car with with torn covers and the living room couch had been given to us, already a bit worn.
We were not destitute. We had healthy meals, beds to sleep in, clean clothes and most of the other basics. We didn't have big Christmases or Easters or Birthdays but we always got something that made us feel special. We didn't take vacations, we went to visit family in Kentucky, Virginia or Indiana. A dinner out was a rare treat and a hotel stay even more rare.
From the "financially embaressed" moment forward, I looked at who we were as a family differently. And I was now embaressed by our "poor-ness". I worked hard to disguise that we were poor. I volunteered to help at church functions, the local American Institute for Mental Studies, I took a paper route and signed up for activities at school. I did all of that to hopefully display that we were just like everyone else, not just the poor family in the split level house in the low income community.
I knew at an early age that I would work hard not to be poor once I was an adult; that I wouldn't let my children know if I had any money problems. In my teens, with the money I earned from my paper route, baby sitting, house cleaning, etc., I searched clearance racks to find clothes that would make me look normal, not poor. I couldn't wait to get a real job and change my standing in life.
In ninth grade, I took a typing course at the same time that my older sisters were taking a typing course, too. Each of our teachers recommended we practice on a typewriter at home. We begged our parents, emphasizing that our teachers strongly urged us to have our own typewriter. That Christmas, my parents gave us a used typewriter, slightly older than the modern IBM Selectric model we used at school. It had old fashioned keys that occasionally jammed and an arm that you pulled toward you to return the carriage to it's start point.
My sisters and I struggled with it, announcing it just doesn't work right. My mom took a look at it, rolling a fresh piece of paper into it. In an instant, her fingers were flying across the keys and actual sentences were printing out on the paper. She had typed in 2 minutes what we each struggled to do in 20 minutes.
I was puzzled and asked where in the world she learned to type like that. She said, "Honey, I was a secretary in Nashville, Tennessee when I met your dad. I wore beautiful business suits and patent leather high heels to work every day in a big office building." I was stunned. I didn't believe her. My mom wore blue jeans, sneakers and pull over shirts and went to work in a smelly factory every evening and came home exhausted and dirty. Within moments, she pulled out a shoe box full of old black and white photos of her in beautiful suits and dresses. Her hair was done up, her fingernails polished and she had matching shoes and handbags.
I couldn't help but ask "WHY?" Why in the world would she work in that hot, smelly factory when she knew how to type; how to be a secretary? She answered me quite simply: "the factory work pays more. I have children who need the best I can do for them. You put your pride aside and put your children first." I was forever awed by that statement. My mother worked in that factory for over 20 years and gave my siblings and me opportunities we might never have had.
Despite the power of that message, I was and am a very proud person. If I gave someone my word, I would keep it because I didn't want anyone to say that my word wasn't good; I didn't want them to make me feel like I couldn't be proud of who I was. Over the years, I faced so many challenges that I wanted to give up on, but would not. When I started my event business, I often wanted to just have a regular paycheck every week I could count on. My ex-husband would tell my kids and anyone else that would listen that I wasn't smart enough or strong enough to run a business. My pride served me well and pushed me through the tough times, proving to my kids (and ultimately their dad) that I was worthy of the challenge.
I remember hiking Mauna Loa and desperately wanting to turn around and go back when my legs and back ached like it never had. Every time my mind wandered to the idea of sitting down and giving up, my inner voice said "You can't. You told your husband that you wanted to do this and you will not let him down."
That inner voice has served me well but has also created circumstances I didn't expect. A few years ago, we met a wonderful couple from Canada, Phil and Sheena, on a family cruise vacation, a vacation I planned to give me hope as I dealt with a devastating time in our lives. We were instant friends and have met up and vacationed together whenever we could. We visited their beautiful home this past New Years and spent some wonderful days in each other's company. During a few conversations, I mentioned that we were recovering from a collapsed business but never really gave the full picture of the measures we've gone to in order to rebuild our lives.
A few weeks ago, Sheena emailed and said that they decided to visit friends in Port Charlotte, FL and would love to see us as well. I was thrilled as I read the email until she said, send us your address so we can stop in. I panicked. I live in a modest two bedroom house (at least 1/3 the size of her well decorated home) and I live in a rural neighborhood that is a mix of older mobile homes and small "cracker" style houses. Although we completely rehabbed this house and have targeted it as a resale or lease/purchase, not a homestead, I still felt that it was not suitable for entertaining.
I shared my fears with Frankenbutt who said, "It is what it is. You are who you are. Sheena and Phil are coming to see us, not the house." I wanted those words to comfort me and erase my fears but they didn't. We both worked hard on unfinished house tasks, cleaned and prepared for their visit. As their arrival date grew closer, I felt the need to remind them to "keep their expectations low". Sheena assured me not to worry; that they could care less about the house, they were coming to see us.
They arrived this past Sunday and it was so good to see them both and to have a warm hug from my treasured friend. In very little time, we were sitting together on the porch enjoying a cool drink and hours of conversation and catching up. She complimented my small home and made me feel proud of what we have accomplished in the last few years. I felt the best when she said she felt so at home here with us. I had been concerned about fitting the 5 of us around our small eat in kitchen table; we've had fun meals on dollar store plates and mismatched silverware. I was nervous that Phil would be lost without cable television but he has embraced our TV/VCR combo and has watched some old movies he hadn't seen in a long time. We've run to the grocery store together, cooked together and enjoyed a nice day at the beach.
In spite of my pride, I relaxed and stopped thinking that my house was inadequate. I allowed myself to just enjoy good times with good friends. We discussed plans to meet up during the long bike ride ahead, possibly in Pittsburgh, and talked about planning another vacation together in 2012.
As we talked this evening, I received a text from one of our favorite BMX tracks where we were regulars when we lived in Jersey. Cathy of Trilogy Park asked what else we needed for our bike ride and then told me that she and other members of the track were planning to present us with a gift card or cash at the Memorial Day weekend race at their Pottstown, PA track. I was glad to hear that so many of our old buddies were excited about our ride and were willing to help us reach our goals. I was doubly excited to hear that we now have another incentive to help us pedal through those tough days and get to Pottstown.
I am too proud to let them or ourselves down. Frankenbutt, the Beast and I will make it to Pottstown and celebrate our success to that point with old friends.
When we planned this bike trip, it was our personal goal to instill a sense of pride in our daughter and ourselves for our accomplishments, not our financial status.
An unexpected benefit has begun to happen and we haven't even started the trip, yet. We've found that we have a wealth of friends in the BMX community that encourage and support us and make us feel better than money ever could. We have always enjoyed the sport of BMX but the size of our BMX family's heart continues to awe us.