I really do think about how fortunate I am frequently. My grandparents grew up with so little it is mind boggling. They grew up in rural Alabama and Florida at the height of the Great Depression, in areas untouched by Restoration, having to give up educations in order to make livings. My Granddaddy never learned to read. How those men and women managed to carve out lives for themselves that included being home and car amazes me.
My parents grew up with a little more than their parents had, but my mother can remember wearing clothes made out of feed sacks, and they grew or hunted for much of what went on the table. The children in her family also worked very hard before and after school to add to the minimal income of a soldier’s salary. I don’t think there was anything my grandparents were prouder of, than my uncle’s achievements at the Citadel. His education was (rightly) a crowning glory to them.
I grew up with exponentially more than either of my parents had. We were decidedly middle class, but since I was an Only and had grandparents who were generous with me, there was enough of a disposable income that I had things in my childhood that many other kids my age didn’t see until they were teens. During our leaner years, I never knew there was any lack. We used layaway, which I just thought was exciting. My mom made a game of finding the least expensive items possible, and when I was old enough to care about labels and designers, we would go on a veritable safari through the Fashion district warehouses to find either what I wanted, or something so close to it it didn’t matter, and we NEVER paid anything close to retail.
But, we also never had to make a choice between milk and a winter coat.
I do a lot of my shopping for Thor at Ross and WalMart (shh, Lisha, you didn’t read that) where I can keep him pretty well set for 3-4 months at a time for under $75, including shoes. Now and then, we’ll shop Target, whose prices are higher. Shorts at WalMart? $3–$5 a pair. Shorts at Target? $7–$12. Same goes for the clothes of the adults in our family. I find the best I can, for the least amount of money. And no one has ever accused any of us of looking cheap. I defy you to tell me Thor ever looks anything other than well put together. Point of maternal pride there.
We had a space of time when it was to our financial benefit to buy Brand X products at the grocery store, but I have never had to make a choice between milk and a winter coat for my child.
I was walking home from Thor’s school today, shivering in my layers, and passed a little boy of about eight, wearing nylon track pants that were two years too short, a tshirt and a light hoodie. There was a good three inches of space between the hem of the pants and the top of his ankle socks. He was huddled into himself, eyes on the ground.
I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “How did his mother let him out of the house like that?! Those pants come nowhere near fitting!” My second thought was, “Shame on you. He might not have a mother, and that might be the best he has.” My third thought was, “Or his mother got tired of waging the clothing war every morning and told him to just dress himself-wear whatever he wanted-freeze to death if that would finally make him happy.” I hope it was the latter.
I’m glad I carried it through, though, because it tells me I am not completely out of touch. It tells me that I remember that there are parents out there, who after paying the rent and the utilities, have to sit down and look at what is left over and make HARD decisions about whether to buy food or diapers. I remember that there are people working three jobs just to be able to buy both. I remember that there are people whose children will never be quite warm enough, quite full enough, or have quite enough of their parents’ attention, because those parents are working so hard to provide the minimum.
There is a disconnect between the unspoken caste system in this country, and it sounds something like this: They have no bread? Let them eat cake.
In the modern vernacular it would sound like this: They can’t afford disposable diapers? Let them use cloth.
And it sounds good, doesn’t it? Cloth is an ecologically sound choice–doing something great for the baby’s bottom, the earth, and your purse all at the same time? Awesome! But you know those parents who are having a hard time affording diapers? I’m betting they don’t have washing machines, or the money to plunk down on diaper services, and have you ever tried to find a daycare center that would allow you to pack cloth nappies for your baby? Good luck, Marie. Ain’t happening at LaVerne’s Kids ‘n Play, which is probably about what these parents can afford.
The truth is that some people will work all their lives, and work hard, and because of circumstances beyond their control (national economy, industry booms and busts, slight shifts in policy, misconduct in high places) will never do better than watering down the milk to make it last longer.
The truth is that there are some mothers whose husbands have been laid off, who are now expressing breast milk for the whole family because that’s all there is–I knew that mother. Well, the one I knew was married to a guy who got laid off and never went back. She fed me pancakes made with breast milk before telling me the truth of their situation, and then I cried all the way home. My tears did her a fat lot of good, but I didn’t have anything else to give her. Except diapers–and when I gave her the diapers, she told me how she had been making those last longer. And that was another drive home in tears.
She was able to find benefits, though, and she has worked her keister off to get an education while working from home, caring for three kids as a single mother. And she has carved out a life like my grandparents did. She is a vital part of the American Dream.
We have to remember that for every lazybones trying to grift and bilk, there is an honest citizen just trying to get by. And those people are too busy to get in front of the cameras and tell you the problem. They don’t have time to complain. Think about that: A life so hard that complaint is a luxury.
To me, the OWS movement has been about remembering those people. And I am thankful to everything holy that our family has the means to do a little something now and then, and that I am married to a man who always says yes when I want to give, and that I have a little boy who is already thinking about sharing with those who have less.
And that I never have to think about it when I need to go buy some milk. Which I need to do today.