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.