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Friday, November 20, 2009

Check Please

For my twenty-fifth birthday my Mom sent me a card containing a $25 check. I never cashed it. In fact I have a vivid memory of tearing it up and throwing it away. I had completely forgotten about it, until today.

My family is poor. I grew up poor.

The upside is that when you are poor your ability to get creative is top notch.
I played in the woods instead of with toys, made my own jewelry, and dreamed of working in a bank. Because that's where all the money was.

Since we didn't have a computer, and I'd need to hone my skills if I ever wanted my silver plated name tag to read "Sarah: Teller", I made myself a laptop out of a file folder. I lined it with blue paper, and drew a screen on one piece and a keyboard on the other. It was light and compact and the battery lasted forever! Since a blank screen will get you nowhere I made myself other screens on white paper and would switch them out, placing them over the blue home screen with paper clips on each side to hold them. Everyday after school I would come home and work. I would balance people's accounts, give loans, transfer money, cash checks, issue money orders, etc. At the end of the day, I would close my manila laptop and dream of my own paycheck.

The downside to being poor is how very, very aware of it you are. I hated bringing home permission slips for field trips and the stapled envelope for the money it cost to go. I never knew if I would get a yearbook until the very last day money was due. I mostly wore hand me downs from strangers or Good Will, which was fine except that they were over sized and ugly. There's a reason someone gave away the neon green one-piece bathing suit with black polka dots. My packed lunches were so sparse and disgusting that I can still smell old bread, nearly rotten fruit, and the smell of stale peanut butter soaked into hard plastic whenever I see a lunchbox. When I finally got on the school lunch program it was a major trade up. I can't relate to anyone who thought school lunches were gross. I loved them. Milk?! Real milk?! Not powdered or watered down? Not old and chunky? You couldn't trade me all your Fruit Gushers for me to give up my milk box. On Fridays it was chocolate. Brown, thick, cold liquid heaven.

As years went on, my awareness of our financial situation grew. I also noticed others' awareness of it too and how they try to pretend like they don't know while being conflicted about wanting to do something to help. I still see it. I vowed that I would never be poor when I grew up. I didn't need to be rich, but I would not be poor. I would not utter the words "That cereal is too expensive" or discourage my kids from trying out for sports because there was no way to pay the fees if they made it. I would not see unicorn stickers and need to consult the budget before buying them. I learned to manage money quickly and efficiently no matter how much there was or wasn't, and by the time I had my first job, at fifteen, I was basically OCD about balancing my checkbook. While Math has never been my strong suit, I became a really good personal accountant for myself and friends.
I even bought a laptop. Paperclip screens not included.

Presently, I do really well for myself. I worked very hard to get to this point, and will continue to work hard to get further. There have been and will be many sacrifices and difficult choices made along the way. Stability in my job, life, and relationships are very important to me and I refuse to let go of the visions I have for any of them. Because that would just be spitting in the face of everything I went through to get this far. By the time I had lived in NYC for a year I had surpassed both my parents in earnings and was finally in a position to support my family (Mom and brother) in whatever they needed. Like clothes for my brother, school supplies, dinners out, movie tickets, food and cleaning necessities for the small apartment I grew up in where my Mom still resides, and Christmas presents off the wish list instead of the donations list.

So, when I got a check in the mail from my Mom, the sentiment brought me to tears but the logic to rip it up didn't even take a second thought. Usually I make sure to request Salt Water Taffy or Wintergreen Life Savers for any gift giving occasion. After shipping and handling it's only about $5, and everyone has something to be happy about. When all I got was a card, I knew there wasn't any candy coming. I knew she wanted to do something for me. I knew this birthday was as much a celebration for her as it was for me. I knew it wasn't much, wasn't what she wished she could give, but it was a lot coming from her. I also knew she couldn't afford to part with what she was offering. I kept the card, tore up the check, and forgot about it.

This morning my Mom called:
MOM: Hi honey! Did you forget to cash that check I sent for your birthday?
ME (check...? check...? oh crap, check!): No...
MOM: Do you still have it?
ME (searching drawers & wracking my brain about mail from 3 months ago): Yeah... (lie)
MOM (has her issues--stupidity never one of them): Yeah...meaning you put it somewhere and don't know where it is?
ME: No...I know where it is (In a land fill somewhere on Long Island).
MOM: Oh good. It must be really hard for you to get to a bank with your busy schedule, huh?
ME (This is where I should've continued to lie, but nooooo): No...not really. I just...I just didn't feel like cashing it. (And I wish I could suck words back in as easily as the shoot out)
MOM: How come?!
ME: Because...well...I know you need the money more than I do. (There, I said it. And my voice only cracked once!)
MOM of course got choked up "Oh honey!!!!!" and I could hear the guilt and acceptance amidst the compassion and understanding of such a harsh truth. Truth: a place I rarely delve into when it comes to my Mom because all I want to do is protect her.
MOM: There's so little I get to do for you that I at least wanted to give you $25 for your twenty fifth birthday!! You cash that check.
ME (going back to the lying thing): Ok, I will. (That buys me at least another 3 months before she checks her statements again, right?)
MOM: Next time, I'm sending cash.

Ah shizz.


Karley said...

im really proud of you mama. you deserve everyone of your hard earned buckaroos.i lived in some similar situations... mostly cuz I came from a family of eight kids. Therefor, like you, I made a vow. Never to have 8 kids.

Jami said...

Her heart is always in the right place. I am so proud of you for how loving and nurturing you are in spite of it all.