A past problem that haunts me still

While I may not be vocal about this, I spend a bunch of time thinking about a problem that is not currently a problem of mine. That problem is food insecurity, and if you don’t know what that is, you can read about it here: Understanding Hunger and Food Insecurity.

While I say this thankfully is not currently a problem of mine, it certainly has been a problem of mine in the past. Long ago, way before I had a well-paying job in a lucrative industry and was married to a person in the same position, I lived in the basement apartment of my father’s house, and did not have much of a salary. At 27 years old and with a recently deceased mother, I was going through somewhat of an emotional and lifestyle crisis. My dad had threatened to kill himself after my mother’s death, and asked me, his only daughter, to move in with him. I had a respectable job in publishing in New York City, but telecommuting was not done back then, so I quit and moved three hours north to one of the poorest counties in the state.

dad

My dad and me, a couple of months after my mother’s death. The door seen on the left leads to my apartment.

The house and property were large but extremely run-down. The main house itself had a living room, dining room, kitchen, one bathroom, and three bedrooms. It also smelled horribly of smoke, as both my parents smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. At first, I slept in the bedroom I had stayed in when I visited, but the daily smell of smoke was getting to me, and I asked to move into the basement apartment.

That apartment was not unknown to me, as I had lived there a brief period when I was 18-20 and going to junior college. It had a large living room, a very small bedroom, and an even smaller kitchen and bathroom. And I use the term “kitchen” loosely. When I was younger, the kitchen had a sink and a refrigerator. Moving back there, both of these items were gone.

Trying to make money in a poor, rural community is difficult. As a student at the local massage school, I got a student job in the bursar’s office. I was allowed to work a maximum of 10 hours a week, and I made $9 an hour. After taxes, that was about $300 a month. I had to pay for my classes, of course, and also gas for my car. My father allowed me to live in the apartment rent-free, since it would otherwise just stand empty.

Sometimes I try to think back on what I would eat on a day-to-day basis. When I first moved in with him, my dad provided me with every meal. But as I moved to the apartment and started school, I saw him less. In those days, I would have a granola bar for breakfast, a cup of free coffee at the bursar’s office sometime during the day, and whatever he made for dinner. I was hungry from skipping lunch every weekday, but there was no real suffering.

Eventually, we grew further apart as our lives went on. My dad met a woman and spent a lot of time with her, so there were no more prepared dinners most nights. I had a microwave in my apartment, so I started having microwaved popcorn almost every night. Remember, I had no sink, so I didn’t want anything that required dishes or utensils. Also, I had nowhere to store food that needed to be cold. So, I largely lived on granola bars and microwaved popcorn for two years of my life, and it wasn’t the worst that could have happened.

I remember being hungry all the time. A bag of microwaved popcorn is about 300 calories and a granola bar is about 150, so with the coffee, I was having about 500 calories a day, most days. As a comparison, I now eat about 1,100 calories a day, most days, and the average adult woman eats about twice that (2,000 according to Google). Of course, some happy days I did get other food. Sometimes my dad brought home a bucket of KFC. Sometimes I went to a friend’s house for dinner. Sometimes, when it was payday, I treated myself to a sandwich from the gas station when I filled up my car.

Let me be clear in saying that I did not have it all that bad. But what I do want to emphasize is that it is now many years later, and I still look back on that time of my life often and with a feeling of existential dread. I wanted to write about some things I do that help the situation and also alleviate my anxiety, but this post has gotten pretty long, so I’ll save that for next time.

Small moments

Elegant_Sparklers

A few weeks ago, I was out at the playground with my two kids. They were playing together, while I sat on a bench and stared off into space (a favorite pastime of mine). A little boy, who may have been about two, came over to me and started babbling. He put his hands on my knees and acted very familiar with me. I started feeling really uncomfortable and also like the parent would not be happy seeing me so close to their kid.

My two sons saw my distress and came over, and I asked them to play with him. They tried, but he would not leave me. I asked him where his parents were, and started to look around. About ten minutes later, a man came over and stopped when he saw me.

“Is he yours?” I asked.

“Yes.” He tried to take the kid’s hand, but the boy slapped him away. “Sorry, you look like his mother, who died last month.”

I was too stunned to say anything, and the man walked away, leaving me with his son. He had given me no guidance as to how to act, and generally parents frown on a stranger even touching their kid. My kids eventually got him to play, but he kept coming over to talk to me (I couldn’t understand anything) and trying to pat my hair. I let my hand rest on his shoulder, but the dad wouldn’t meet my eye, so I don’t know if he approved or not. I also let my kids play in the park for roughly two hours, because I didn’t want this kid to see me leave. I also hope that seeing me did not scar the kid somehow further.

If you can stand it, here is another emotional incident! Last week I was at the grocery store getting some things for my son’s seventh birthday party (how did that happen?). I was in the aisle that has decorative plates and whatnot, and a woman in her 70s was also there. She held up a black plate with a picture of a purple birthday cake on it, and asked me if I thought it was “too girly” for her son, who was turning 31.

Now, I’m not the type to start talking with an older woman about gender norms, especially when she was just trying to be sensitive to her son and do a nice thing, so just I told her I thought it was fine. We started talking about candle choices, and I convinced her to get the same ones I got for my son, which were sparkler candles (Note: They weren’t as spectacular as the packaging would lead you to believe, but still pretty cool.)

We talked about our respective “kids” for a few minutes, and she gave another glance toward the paper products and asked, “Do you really think it’s okay?” I told her that if my mother had been alive to celebrate my 31st birthday with me, not to mention being thoughtful enough to contemplate whether the decorations would please me or not, I would have been so grateful. We hugged and then I went to sit in my car and cry for a good ten minutes. And then I pulled myself together and continued being a mom.

Where do I get it from?

My constant struggle to declutter and minimize is not something I do just because I think it will make my life easier and my environment more pleasing–I actually enjoy getting rid of things. Whenever something, especially something big that I’ve had for a particularly long time, leaves the house, I feel happy and lighter.

When did this begin? I think I may have been influenced by my mother. When I was a child, one of her favorite games to play with me was to give me a garbage bag and set five minutes on a timer. I then had to run around the house and see how much I could fill the bag in the time allowed. There was no tangible reward at the completion of this game–just the pleasure of throwing stuff away.

IMG_0960
My mom and me in the late 70s. Probably in Florida, as evidenced by the plethora of oranges.

My mother is an odd case, because although she grew up with very little in the way of material things, she also didn’t want many material things. My father, who also had very little while growing up, was somewhat the opposite. If he saw something that he could get for free or very cheaply, he would get it just in case he would ever need it.

When my parents retired, they moved to their summer house in upstate New York. While my mother kept the house very neat by doing a weekly deep clean and actively discarding non-desirable items, the garage and barn were filled with all sorts of items by my father. Eventually, he rented one other garage, and then a second. There was also a one-bedroom apartment attached to the house, which was filled.

My mother passed away first, and eventually the house was also filled with my father’s near-worthless items. He then moved to Florida, and planned to sell the house, but neglected to bring any of these things with him. Instead, he got some people to take away all the stuff so that he could stop renting the garages and put the house up for sale. (Think of a more redneck 1-800-JUNK type of company.)

Unfortunately, I was in the process of moving from the house to an apartment in New York City with my then-boyfriend, and they also took all of my belongings. These included off-season clothing, decorative items, memorabilia, and most things I thought were too breakable to take in the moving van we had hired few few days before. Also, my cat.

When I went back to get my stuff, I fortunately found both my cat and the urn containing my mom’s ashes, but everything else was cleared out. I felt depressed and violated, but relieved that the two things that were the most important to me were still there.

Having a strange fascination with hoarding, I know that these types of events are generally ones in which a hoarding inclination is triggered. I was nervous about this going in, but fortunately I still have no hoarding tendencies. At least in this case, I seem to be taking after my mom.

Little break down in tears on the prairie

One of my favorite book series when I was young was the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books. I read them at least once a year while I was in elementary school, and then every few years as I grew older. Now that my older son is almost five, I decided to start reading them to him. Of course, I started in chronological order, with “Little House in the Big Woods.” It was less exciting than I remember.

lh

Poor Jack had to walk all over the prairie through the first few books!

For those who haven’t read this series as recently as I have, “Big Woods” basically goes through a year in the life of the Ingalls family, without having much of a plot. The most memorable part for me was when the kids blew up the pig bladder and tossed it around like a ball. The next book, “Farmer Boy,” about her husband growing up in upstate New York, was memorable for all the vivid descriptions of the food. In the next book, “Little House on the Prairie,” the family attempts to settle on the Osage Indian reservation, and there were a lot of very negative things said about Native Americans, so I ended up skipping over quite a bit. “On the Bank of Plum Creek,” which comes next, has my very favorite part in all the books, where Laura has a party and takes all her school friends to go wading in the crick, and there scares Nellie Olson with the crab who lives in it.
A few nights ago, we started on the next book, “On the Shores of Silver Lake.” There is a gap of a few years between the start of this book and the one before it, and Laura is now 13 years old instead of 9. The tone is very different, and a lot of horrible things have happened, such as Mary going blind and the death of an infant. I knew I had to read the part about Mary going blind, because it is such a prevalent plot point in the rest of the books, but I paused in my reading to make sure my son understood what blindness was before going on. (I edited out the part about the “Scarlet fever settling in her eyes,” because Scarlet fever doesn’t make one go blind. One theory is that she actually had untreated meningitis. But I digress.) And although I swore the part about the baby dying happened right away, I didn’t see it. Perhaps they cut it out of the book, since I have a very new edition? Whatever the case may be, the youngest sister is already born at the beginning of this book, and she was their last born child, so chronologically, it already happened.
The second chapter of the book is memorable because Jack, Laura’s childhood dog, dies. I was prepared for this and fully expected to be able to read it. It’s an important part of the book, because it’s supposed to represent Laura’s transition from childhood to adolescence. But I’m not deluded enough to think my four-year-old child would grasp the significance of that. So as it went on, I started breaking down and crying, and eventually had to stop reading at this part:
“Good Jack, good dog,” she told him. He turned his head to touch her hand with the tip of his tongue.
Then he let his nose sink onto his paws and he sighed and closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep now.
Strangely enough, I don’t remember crying quite so much about it when I was younger. Since I’ve had kids, I’ve definitely gotten more emotional, and everything I see I tend to imagine seeing through their eyes. And while I want to be able to talk to my sons about anything, the death of a fictional bulldog is obviously too much for me right now.

I’ll be there for you (with repetitive plot devices and flat, obvious humor)

In honor of Mother’s Day, I am going to share a random memory of my mother that eventually turned into a journey of shame and depression. My mom passed away 13 years ago, but I randomly remembered a few months ago that she once said, “I actually kind of like that show Friends, except for that one annoying guy.”

It took very little for me to become obsessed with this memory, to the point where I just had to watch the show to figure out which one was the one annoying guy. In case you don’t know, and I hope you don’t, there are nine seasons of Friends, so watching the entire series, start to finish, is a big commitment, especially since the only purpose was to re-connect in one very small and even insignificant way with my mother. But I was willing to do it.

In any case, I somehow got up to the last episode of the eighth season, when a song from the first Interpol album came on. I immediately stopped the show and looked up when that album was released: 2002. My mom died in early March 2002, so I am fairly certain I ended up watching more of that crappy show than she ever did. Instead of feeling relief that I never have to watch the ninth season, I just felt depressed that my mother never got to watch the end of that stupid show. And it made me wonder what crappy show I will be in the middle of watching when I drop dead. (Right now, I am thinking it more likely that GRR Martin drops dead before me, but who knows?)

When I mentioned this to my husband, who has never had to process the agonizing, soul-crushingness that is Friends, he said, “Obviously the annoying one is just David Schwimmer.” Which was the same conclusion I came to and made me want to rip out my hair, because, really, I could have made that uninformed decision after only watching about five minutes of a single episode.

friends-milkshakes-netflix

It is unspeakably upsetting to me that I know all their names.