Tuesday, January 21, 2014
I can still feel the steel chair under my legs in that filthy but over bleached room in the government center. It was one of those moments that imprint on your memory...like a branding iron on the hip of a calf. I was about to lose my house. My husband had moved out of state and we eventually separated and then by sweet mercy, divorced but before that, it was just me and my two girls scrapping to make it. Having been a part time work at home journalist to now a full time bread winner, I simply could not do it. The cost of two in childcare on my income would leave a pittance for a mortgage and to work full time from home was not an option. I did everything I knew how to do. I donated blood, I sold nearly everything I didn't need desperately and prayed every night for some kind of relief. I remember sitting outside on the deck of my about-to-be-foreclosed home and wondered how it got this way. How I became so dependent on someone who could so easily walk away. How was I going to save this house. And when it got very dark, how could I feed my girls. As hard as this time was, it was by far the most powerful. I was reduced to a frantic frugality I had never known. Walking over driving, bartering, reaching deep within myself to stay afloat and alive. And despite all my best work, the bottom came. My house was in foreclosure. I had no child support and only a meager income I could use to keep heat on. A broken faucet, repaired by a greedy plumber took two weeks of my income and I realized I had been taken down. My fight was futile. My friends and parents, not sure how to respond to my divorce opted out of getting involved. Except my beautiful grandmother who kept my girls warm that winter and kept my car payment current. And then my aunt...she came with me to the local government office to apply for food stamps. It was the single most excruciating day of my life because defeat found me and swallowed me alive. Frankly, it was the most defeated I have ever felt. The first day my EBT card arrived was not the relief I thought I would feel. As much as I knew I could now feed my girls on the "generous" $260 a month, I had to inhale the humiliation that I was now, "one of them"...the very ones I helped for years...the very people I advocated for...the very mothers I took pity on over the holidays and provided presents for their kids. These were now my sisters. I realized how far I considered myself away from them on a social ladder. I remember watching their stories on Dateline and feeling emotional about their plights and harrowing experiences of poverty and challenges and defeat and yet here I was. One. of. them. It only took three months then my part time job went full time and I was granted a commission by the state to work on a three year journalism project that would change my life - and yet it had already changed. Before my presentation I was hitting consignment stores to find a suit to show up at an event that was funded by the wealthiest donors in Tennessee. Sharing expensive catering over cut glass bowls and comparing shoes and art found around town I saw myself in a different way. Because I knew how to hold a wine glass and could speak freely about Matisse didn't surprise me...I am educated, cultured and well mannered...but they never knew I would retreat back home and pray the lights were still on and I could scramble enough dollars to pay a sitter. I am okay with the lie I was living...it was saving my life and making millionaires feel good about funding me as a writer but why? If they knew I was losing my house and could barely feed my kids, was I still the darling they thought they landed? It didn't matter because I never went back there again. That job took me to DC where my destiny landed in the lap of the man who would alter my path permanently. Now, years later, in my comfortable upper middle class suburban home, I am grateful every day for my life, for my husband and for my peace of mind...I don't worry about how I am going to buy coats anymore. I don't worry about stretching a box of pasta for three nights either but what I do know is I am only a few paychecks away from that girl. The memory is ingrained...it keeps me aware and alive and in many ways, humble. I do a lot of donating and am always on a cause because as much as I love helping people, children being among my favorite, fear of survival is deeply rooted in me. I am today that girl I had hoped would come rescue me all those years ago. I never want to lose sight of what matters and never want to change the emotion I feel for struggling mothers. I never want that imprint to fade. It is who I am today. Not comfortable, grateful. Once you have experienced that kind of depth and poverty, even if it's only six months, it writes on the slate of who you are and it never leaves you. Ever.