I had a good childhood. I lived in a neighborhood overrun with kids and played outside daily. I went to sleepovers and had friends come over to do sleepovers with me. I got into cheerleading at a pretty young age and cheered all the way through my teenage years. I was on a competitive team that ended up traveling to San Francisco for national championships. I also took karate for a few years, even had a chance to compete in the Junior Olympics.
I wore cute hand-me-down clothes from my cousins who lived a few hours away. We took beautiful vacations in my grandparents’ motor home. We would drive all the way from Florida to North Carolina and stay in the picturesque campgrounds there, hiking every day and my sister and I building rock dams in the cool creeks. Those vacations are some of my very best memories from childhood.
Our refrigerator always had food in it. I had fun birthday parties. I can remember a few years when my sister and I were dazzled by the display in front of the Christmas tree, by the piles and piles of colorful presents for us to tear through.
My childhood was full. I had everything I needed and more.
But I do remember a couple of Christmases where my mom warned us in advance that there wouldn’t be much for Christmas, that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. “Things are tight,” she’d tell us, but we would get our hopes up anyway. I remember thinking she was trying to pull a joke on us, setting us up to think there wouldn’t be much so the surprise would be that much bigger. Those really were small Christmases, though. Bare in a way that made my greedy child-heart sink with resentment at how open and sparse that area beneath the tree was, while at the same time feeling guilty for being so selfish. My mom remembers me opening presents very slowly those years, to prolong the festivities.
I also remember being at a friend’s house for a sleepover one time and asking her, “Is it okay to flush your toilet?” My friend gave me the strangest look. From her perspective, why on earth wouldn’t it be okay to flush the toilet? Isn’t that the point of toilets? But we had a septic system that badly needed maintenance, and there was a long period of time when the toilet couldn’t be trusted to flush. We always had to ask before we could flush it. We kept the bathroom door closed so the smell wouldn’t permeate the rest of the house.
My sister and I were on duty for answering the house phone. That way, when a bill collector called, my sister or I could tell them my mom or dad weren’t available. I honestly thought bill collectors calling was just a part of life, like taxes. I thought everyone was being harassed by these evil people called Bill Collectors.
The kids at the bus stop would make fun of my clothes, the hand-me-downs from my cousin that I was so proud of. They matched so perfectly, but I guess didn’t fit very well and maybe were a little faded. But I loved them and thought the people who were teasing me were stupid jerks who didn’t know anything about fashion. It didn’t occur to me to feel bad. I loved those hand-me-downs.
As I approached 16, I wondered if my parents would do something like some of my friends’ parents were doing and surprise me with a car for my birthday. I imagined waking up the morning of my birthday and seeing a new-to-me car outside with a giant bow on the hood. My parents emphatically assured me that no surprise car was in store. We would shop for an inexpensive car together and I would be happy getting something that ran. They bought me a dark blue 1987 Ford Escort for a thousand dollars. My friends and I joked that the rust hole in the back was to help with aerodynamics. My mom paid my insurance for me and I covered my own gas with my part-time job. I loved that ugly little car. I really was happy that it ran.
One day, when I was getting ready to leave for college, I sneaked a peek at one of my parents’ bills. It was a credit card. The balance was high. Higher than my teenage mind could quite comprehend. I had a car to get to and from school and work and social activities, but my parents were way behind on their credit card bill.
In fact, my mom made sure I had a lot of things that I probably could have gone without, while the family credit card bill slipped out of control.
My sister and I talk about this funny habit my mom used to have. We’d go to Walmart or someplace and fill the cart with things we needed, sometimes picking up along the way a small trinket for my sister or me or my mom. My mom would browse the clothing section and pick out a couple of clearance T-shirts, a nightgown, maybe. She might throw in a bottle of nail polish or two. But then, inevitably, when we’d arrive at the cashier, my mom would always take the things she had meant to purchase for herself out of the cart and hand them across the conveyor belt.
“Maybe next time,” she’d tell the cashier. My sister and I would always ask her why she wouldn’t just get those things for herself. We didn’t understand back then. She was making sure we got the things we needed.
My mom always put my sister and me before herself. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood how much my family’s livelihood depended on the whims of the volatile Florida housing economy. My dad was in construction, so any lull hit our family hard. He often went weeks, sometimes months, with no work, and my mom’s salary had to carry us all. I know now that my mother was always counting, always shuffling. I now remember the many times our application for a loan to do a renovation on our house was denied, how at the time I thought denials were just part of the process.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I fully realized the extent to which my mother in particular sacrificed. She always juggled funds to make sure my sister and I had everything we needed and much of what we wanted too. She was always the one to sacrifice the most, and she never once complained. We may not have worn brand-name clothes or taken the kinds of lavish vacations that require an airplane and hotel, but we had good things, good experiences. We were always in extracurricular activities. We never went hungry. And we had fun.
It was a good childhood, and I owe my mom a huge debt of gratitude for ensuring that it was.
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