Friday, April 2, 2010

Chapter Five--page 10

It seemed like every kid in the complex knew where to get the goodies. I’ve seen nature shows on television about bees, which send out a single scout to find nectar, and before you know it, an entire colony has moved in. No one is quite sure how they communicate. They swarm, suck the flowers dry and move on. My apartment was a little like that, with swarms of kids that I had never seen before looking for a treat. Honestly, I loved it. I had always wanted to be the slender, pleasant, perfectly-coiffed TV mom who happily pours sugar water laced with Red Dye 40 from a frosty smiling glass pitcher. In an effort to complete the role, I saved points from the back of the packets to buy myself one of those iconic pitchers.

The mental picture of myself never quite measured up to reality. For one thing, that mail-order pitcher was not made of lovely frosty glass after all. It was plastic. It wasn’t even clear, but rather a weird shade of frosted yellow that made the Kool-Aid Man’s smile appear black when it contained Purplesaurus Rex, and brown with any other flavor. As for me, I rarely coiffed; sometimes I didn’t even shower. Neither was I slender, but no one could tell how heavy I was getting beneath my clothes. I practically lived in a shapeless pink knee-length T-shirt nightgown with a bedraggled bunny holding a coffee cup and proclaiming, “I don’t do mornings,” printed on the front. Anytime I actually got dressed, my kids would ask, “Where are we going?”

The great thing about serving as the neighborhood Kool-Aid mom, however, was that all the kids liked me, but they rarely came in to mess up my apartment. I would dispense drinks, cookies or popsicles and then make them take the food outside. This also provided our family with a certain level of “protection” like I had seen on gangster movies. As long as the Kool-Aid kept flowing, my kids were less likely to get beaten up or peed on. The best thing about befriending neighbor kids was that I was able to make friends with many of their parents as well.

The diversity of our community allowed me to get to know other moms from all over the globe. I learned a great deal about geography, culture and religion during our four year stint at the apartments. I also gained two lifelong friends there, Becky and Jill. Both of them made a significant impact on my relationship with money and possessions.

Jill, who was eight years my junior and had two preschoolers, exemplified nearly everything I imagined my life should be. She was genteel, graceful, organized and beautiful. Her apartment, though simple, was beautifully coordinated. An Irish Chain quilt, which she had stitched for her own hope chest as a teenager adorned her bed. An antique console radio acted as a lamp stand, and an old steamer trunk was her coffee table. Unlike me, she did not use chintzy pressboard cabinets to store her stuff. Her video tapes were tucked neatly into hand woven maple baskets. Instinctively she always seemed to know how to decorate with just the right amount of stuff: Her home was neither cluttered nor stark. Let’s not forget, we both lived in a mere six-hundred square feet of living space, including the hallway kitchen.

Her honey-colored naturally curly hair flowed down her back in perfect tresses. Her figure looked like it belonged on a naughty auto shop calendar, but she always dressed simply and modestly. Besides all that, she was a great cook, meticulous housekeeper and an attentive mother. To me, she was practically an urban legend.

The crazy thing about Jill, though, was that, even in all her apparent outward perfection, she was genuine, and genuinely kind. When my kids had the flu, and the four of them were tossing their cookies all over my apartment, Jill came over and helped me clean up the mess. When I was expelled from the Up Town Snotty Women’s Color Coordinated Tea Club because I was neither snotty nor color coordinated (believe me, it’s a sordid story), Jill let me cry on her shoulder. Her home was quiet and peaceful, while mine sometimes looked like a monkey wagon when the circus rolled into town. As a mark of her friendship, she once left some dry cereal spilled on her living room floor to prove to me that she, too, could be messy. Who could ask for a more faithful friend?

Jill used to have a simple graceful Windsor back pine rocker, the kind that rocked smoothly and fit my matronly fanny just right. Whenever I visited, I would relax in the chair and sip a friendly cup of tea. I loved that chair. It reflected many of the things that I admired in Jill herself: grace, beauty, simplicity and comfort. I sometimes secretly prayed for one just like it.

One evening my husband, Dan, came home with a broken rocking chair that he had retrieved from the apartment complex’s dumpster. One of the supporting cross braces was missing, so the legs and rocker on its left side had torn from their holes. The chair was pine with a Windsor back. Without the damage, it looked exactly like Jill’s.

Dan can fix anything. That, combined with the fact that he looked awesome in Angel’s Flight bellbottoms when he was twenty-five years old, is main reason why I married him. He immediately set about to restore the newly found treasure to its former glory. He re-drilled the holes and reset the legs with dowels. Then he amputated our toilet plunger handle to replace the missing cross brace. After a quick lick of matching stain across the wood, it was as good as new.

I was so elated; I could not wait to call Jill the next morning. “Jill,” I babbled, “Dan found a broken rocking chair in a dumpster last night, and he fixed it, and you’ll never believe it! It looks just like yours!”

“Where did you say he found it?” she asked glumly.

“In the neighborhood dumpster! Isn’t that amazing?”

“U-u-m, Marianne, that IS my rocker. When my husband sat down in it last night, the cross brace was missing and the whole thing went crunch.”

Suddenly, I felt nauseous. “Why didn’t you ask Dan to fix it for you, silly?”

“It’s okay,” my beautiful Jill was on the verge of tears, “I’m just glad it got a good home. I’ve gotta go now.” She hung up.

My elation had turned to sorrow. Of course, I thought grievously, I must give her the chair. I phoned her back again.

“Jill, I’m bringing over your chair.”

“Please don’t do that,” she sniffed, “I want you to have it.”

“But it’s your chair!” I argued.

“Please keep it. Don’t bring it over.” She hung up again.

The chair was no longer a blessing, but a curse. What should I do? I could not let a chair, even a beautiful dream-come-true-fantasy-life rocker, come between my friend and me. I thought about it a long time before calling her back.

“Listen, Jill, I am going to ask this only once: Would you be happier and more comfortable taking the chair back or leaving it here? Think clearly before you answer because, after this moment, I will never mention it again. I don’t want to feel a strain between us when you see the chair, whether it be in my house or yours. You’re my friend. No nonsense. No hanging up. No crying. What’ll it be?”

Jill was silent for a moment as she thought. “I really, truly want you to have it,” she said. “Yesterday, I was broken hearted to throw it away. Today, I am thrilled that you got such a beautiful rocking chair. You are my dearest friend, and I love you.”

After Jill’s husband finished at the university, they moved across the country, so he could further his education in medicine. She and I lived as neighbors for less than two years, but our bond has remained strong for over two decades. Jill is still close to my heart. To this day, I have a Windsor backed pine rocker and an amputated toilet plunger to prove it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 9

Life in the apartment complex brought with it a whole new cast of characters. Much like the old mobile home park, the place was overflowing with kids. Unlike the folks at our old place, all of the parents there were full-time university students. With only a few exceptions, they were intelligent, involved, and, most importantly, present. Many of my neighbors were also international. During the four years we lived there, our family made friends with people from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Europe. Our little microcosm was wonderful, but it was hardly a perfect world.

One of the families across the hallway was from China. Both the mother and the father spoke English, but since they were busy with school and work, they left their little four-year-old son, Song Song, in the loving care of his grandmother. Song Song’s English repertoire consisted of exactly three phrases: “I’ll save you, Sweet Polly!” “Never fear! Underdog is here!” and “Simon bar Simon!” Yes, I know that the villain in that cartoon was Simon bar Sinister, but Song Song didn’t.

The people who lived directly above us were a colorful melting pot of crazy. The mom was a loud Brazilian who screamed out the windows at her children every day and smashed her furniture around the apartment on the weekend. The dad, an American fellow who rarely spoke, only appeared outside his door as he left and came home from work. Trudging down the stairs with an old-school black metal lunch bucket every day, he looked like Fred Flintstone meets Zombieland. They had one son and one daughter. The little boy, Max, entertained himself by peeing on other kids’ toys, while his tubby older sister coped by eating her feelings.

In the apartment beside them was an American family of four. From the outside they looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting: A mother, father sister and brother all with red hair and freckles. Life inside their apartment, however, was a dark and lonely place. Both mom and dad were busy college students who left their two children to fend for themselves all day long. The teenage sister, who was supposed to be taking care of her little brother Brian, turned on cartoons for him every day and retreated to her bedroom to cut herself. Brian usually showed up at my door at about 6:45 every morning for breakfast. On school days, I made sure he got dressed and out the door. On weekends and during the summers, he stayed until he absolutely had to go home.

The family that lived in another apartment across from us was Korean. The father was a post graduate student and the mother was a lovely friend of mine whose only fault was befouling the entire apartment building with her cooking every night. Thanks to her, the place smelled of rotted cabbage and overdone shrimp most of the time. Their son frequented my apartment in a daily search for something better to eat.

The apartment complex featured a wonderful back yard for the children to play. It had a large grassy area with picnic benches and clotheslines, plus slides and swings for Max to pee on. I thought about trying a Mr. Bubble Pool Party there, but among the thirty-six apartments in the complex were a total of about seventy children. Even I, in my Brady Bunch delusions, could see that that wasn’t going to work. In lieu of creating the fanciful world of Mr. Bubble, I chose to become the neighborhood Kool Aid mom.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 8

The apartments had previously been used as enlisted men’s quarters for an old Air Force Base. Originally each apartment had a living room, two bedrooms, and a long hallway which connected the rooms and dead-ended into a bathroom. The bathroom was even smaller than the one we had had in our first trailer. It had a tub, but no sink. The sinks were located in the bedrooms. Its primary feature, however, was the scariest toilet my kids had ever seen. It was an industrial tankless toilet that hooked directly to the plumbing. Every little kid is afraid of being flushed down the potty. In this case, the fear might have been justified. Every time I flushed, I could almost feel the water sucking an upstairs neighbor kid down the drain.

The kitchen in this place was the best part of all. The apartment didn’t originally have one. The enlisted men must have eaten in a Mess Hall. After the university acquired the complex, they installed an itty bitty kitchen sink and a half-size stove in the skinny little hallway which connected the rooms. My first thought when I saw the arrangement was, “I can do this. I’ve gone camping before.”

Originally we put all four kids in one bedroom and ourselves in the other. As they grew a little older, Dan and I decided to give up our room, so we could split them up. They were divided not by gender, but by messiness. The ones who lacked object permanence got one room and the ones who took after me got the other. We sold the couch and moved our bed into the livingroom.

With six of us in that little apartment, the kids were climbing the walls. I mean that literally. The kitchen hallway was so narrow that they could stretch their hands and feet on either side of the walls and shimmy up. Living in that tiny space was an efficiency experts dream: I could sit on the toilet, reach my arm around the door to stir a pan on the stove in the hallway, and use the other hand to wash footprints off the kitchen wall all at the same time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 7

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I wonder if that still holds true even when the change one makes is an insane one.

Dan and I decided that the only way out of our poverty was an education. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? The words, “Dan and I,” make it sound like a joint decision. As for the rest of it, using “poverty” and “education” in the same sentence makes me appear noble. In truth, the change that I wanted most was a change in my husband. He was a blue collar worker when I got him, but even after years of tinkering with his character, I could not get him to be like Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver. Although we had met in college, neither of us had finished. I convinced him that the only way out of our woes was for him to return to school and finish his degree in Civil Engineering.

We quickly sold the doublewide for about $5000 less than its market value and used our small amount of equity to pay for Dan’s tuition. We had a big yard sale, and I got rid of a lot of things. We crammed the rest our stuff, including that original box of ironing, the complete collection of Readers Digest, and the neatly labeled boxes of pocket trinkets into a rented storage unit. The six of us moved into a six-hundred-square-foot two bedroom apartment in the Married Student Housing complex at the local university.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 6

Two weeks after our son was born Dan lost his job. The company for which he had worked moved their operation to another state. A month later the baby got very, very sick and ended up in Pediatric ICU for a week. In my quest for Mr. Bubble perfection, I had put no money into savings. We were left with no regular income and no health insurance. One of our friends hired Dan as a laborer for his construction company, but the work was sporadic. I babysat several neighbor children, and I continued to sell needlecraft kits at in-home parties. Try as I might, we could never seem to catch up. Too much of our meager income was floating away with my floating checks. The bank which held the loan on our doublewide, the mobile home park which rented us our space, and numerous collection agencies which represented the medical community came knocking on our door. For two full years I held them all at bay by paying what I could whenever I absolutely had to.

I gave birth to our fourth baby, a girl, at home. She was born fine and healthy, but I ended up in the hospital with complications. We accrued more medical debt, and I despaired under the weight of it. I felt like a failure, but nobody, not even Dan, knew. As much a failure as I was in regards to my relationship with possessions and money, as my family and friends would attest, I was a big success as a wife and mother. I worked very hard to create a secure environment filled with peace, patient discipline and kindness. Dan maintains to this day that I was "the best mother he has ever known." On our wedding day years before I had promised Dan that I would make our home a sanctuary. I held true to my vows, but I did it at great emotional cost. I bore the full weight of our financial burdens on my own soul. I worked hard to keep Dan ignorant about our troubles. I fielded all the collection calls, and kept him in the dark about our bank account. I felt like I was paddling upstream against a raging current. Worst of all, I chose to do it all alone. I was ashamed. I knew that I wasn’t the Pledge commercial mom that I wanted to be, and I hated myself. I could only imagine how my husband and my friends would feel about me, if they knew the truth. Something had to change.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 5

I believed that having more perfect stuff would create a more perfect me. I started spending money in a passionate, but albeit unconscious, effort to fill the gap between who I was and who I believed I needed to be. I wanted my pantry to look exactly like the ones I had seen in the Tupperware catalog. I spent hundreds of dollars on perfect plastic containers that fit into perfect modular shapes for my obviously imperfect doublewide trailer. Heaven forbid that I should use inexpensive, possibly mismatched plasticware, or that my flour should sit naked in its original bag on the pantry shelf! In my kids' rooms every set of toys was organized in perfectly labeled plastic baskets from the dollar store. From both an organizationally and fiscally responsible point of view, this was a very good thing. My problem was that, as a homeschooling parent, I was inundated with dozens of educational supply catalogs which featured more brightly colored, aesthetically pleasing organizational systems for children. They also sold intellectually stimulating toys which were obviously essential for enhancing my children's development. My poor kids were stuck playing with uninspiring stuff like Barbie dolls and Happy Meal prizes. I habitually put myself down for not having the best. I bought every organizational book that I could lay my hands on, and I filled my bookshelves not only with them, but also with classic children’s literature, encyclopedias, and how-to’s. I joined two or three different book of the month clubs. Even if I never got around to reading them all, an extensive library made me feel empowered. I also spent thousands of dollars on home d├ęcor items to cover the shame of my cheap trailer-house faux wood paneling. I faithfully subscribed to stacks of women’s magazines, each one promising that I could “walk my way fit,” “find out what he really wants in bed,” and make the “best chocolate cake ever” all at the same time. I filled the empty space in my character with possessions, and I did it with amazing skill. No one looking at me from the outside would have guessed how addicted I was to stuff.

I bought all these things with money that I did not have to spend. My priorities were badly messed up. We were always behind on our house payment and medical bills. Collection agencies were ringing our phone off the hook while I buried my head in the latest catalogs and yearned to buy my children everything I thought that they should want. I got into the insane habit of “floating” checks. I would go to the grocery store and request money over the amount of purchase. Then I would run to the bank and deposit that cash to cover another check that I had written the day before. Time and again, it never really worked, and I never really learned. When one bank grew tired of my shenanigans, I opened a new account at another.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chapter Five-- page 4

I can’t speak for Joyce, but for my part, I believed that a 1976 trailer in a rented lot was just a stepping stone to bigger and better things. I told myself that this was the way life was supposed to be: A young couple starts small, and then they, to borrow a phrase from the immortal Dr. Seuss, “keep biggering and biggering.”

I wanted more. I wanted newer. I wanted nicer. I wanted better. The same longing that had filled my heart since childhood grew from innocent hope to something so twisted that it is hard for even me to explain.

On the one hand, I loved my life; I truly did. My children and my marriage were, without any doubt, more wonderful and fulfilling than I had ever imagined. My home was clean, well-ordered, and peaceful. Dan built me a beautiful tiered vegetable garden in the back yard, and he even put a door on the shed. Deep down, I was still the leftover hippie chick that I had always been: I grew, canned and cooked my own organic food. I gave birth to my last two babies at home and breastfed them with absolute devotion. I continued to diaper them in real cotton. I sewed most all of the family’s clothes myself. I started attending homeschooling support groups and reading books about homeschooling when our first baby was only five weeks old. Throughout their childhoods, I taught all my kids at home until they went to college. I worked outside my home, and attended college myself, only when my hours did not affect the children’s schooling. I was a fiercely devoted mother, homemaker and wife. That was who I truly was with every fiber of my being.

On the other hand, I was miserable because my lifestyle did not fit into my Brady-Bunch-Pledge-commercial-Mr. Bubble imagination. I could not reconcile my real values with my imagined ones. Dan was an ordinary low income blue collar worker without any real prospects of advancement, and I was a refugee from the Le Leche League. Joyce eventually put her kids in public school, got a job and moved out of the trailer park. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. I was once again the only housewife in the not-so-happy neighborhood, and I was filled with self loathing, even in the midst of genuine happiness.