Most people remember my mother as a sometimes intimidating corporate director figure who was also generous to a fault. She worked many years to get to that point though and she showered her family with lavish Christmas and birthday gifts. But before she ‘made it’ in the corporate world, back in 1983-1984, she was a struggling single mom working long, long hours to try to support two kids without any child support from my deadbeat alcoholic father. I loved my dad, but that is how things were and how he was.
My middle school years were punctuated with memories of cold dark holidays and barely getting by. My mom kicked my dad out of the house when I was 13. She came home from a business trip to find my dad passed out at the kitchen table of our small rental house in a pile of beer cans and a rifle pointed at me and my sister. That was it for her. Done, fini, terminado.. whatever. Eventually my dad retreated back to his home state of Missouri and my mom was left with one less ‘kid’ to take care of but also one income. Though if my memory serves me correctly my dad had by then quit or gotten fired from his job as an alcoholic (I know ironic right?) counselor from the County Health Department.
I remember the first Thanksgiving after my father parted, my mom couldn’t afford to take us up to Youngstown to spend the holidays with her parents and siblings so we stayed at the dark, depressing rental house but she had found enough money to buy an off brand turkey and the fixings. She was humming as she fixed up the turkey and slid it into the oven announcing that we would soon be eating our fill of delicious turkey. We started waiting for the roasted aroma to waft to our anxious noses but we never smelled anything. She went into the kitchen and opened the oven door.
“Oh No!” She exclaimed. “The oven isn’t heating right.” Not knowing what else to do, she literally cooked the turkey for hours at the lukewarm temp since a call to the landlord who briskly told her it wouldn’t be until tomorrow before he could fix the oven. Basically we pretended the half raw turkey was great only eating the most cooked parts while praying we didn’t get sick. I think it was one of the saddest holidays I’d had other than the ones after her death.
At this time, designer labels were all the rage and I had none really. I got made fun of at school for having ‘bobo’ or non-designer label clothes. We simply couldn’t afford them. My grandparents had tried to help out but there was no way my penny-pinching grandmother thought it was worth the money to have a pony on my jeans’ pocket. These jeans at Kmart are just as nice. I just smiled and agreed because otherwise, I would have no new school clothes at all. My grandparents sent me home from summer break with some new clothes and a pair of Nike’s with a baby blue swoosh. I was so proud of those tennis shoes that I probably used several bottles of white shoe polish trying to keep them looking almost new. I only had 3-4 pairs of jeans to my name so on Wednesdays, I had to wash a load of dark clothes so I had enough clean clothes to make it through the week. The re-wearing of the same jeans in one week also brought down the fashion police on me and I was tormented over that as well but again, I couldn’t help it.
My grandparents also sent home several cases of Campbells Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup cans. I often wondered why they didn’t send us home with different kinds but it seemed like we were living on this soup that one year. My grandmother wanted to make sure her grandchildren didn’t starve to death and I guess as long as we had soup, we would live. We were old enough to use a can opener, add a can of water, stir and heat. There were also a lot of TV dinners as well. Though I still love TV dinners once in awhile though their appeal isn’t as great as when you’re 13 and you’re digging into half-cooked chocolate cake ensconced in its own square of your disposable tray.
Once my parents’ divorce was finalized in early 1984, when I was 14, (stop counting to see how old I am- stop it!) the darkness started to lift from our lives. My mom traded in her 1979 Ford Pinto on a brand new Ford Fairmont which we thought was just the shit. Though it was rear wheel drive and mom had a hell of a time getting to work and back in the winter. I think about her on those cold freezing winter mornings and evenings because she would work incredibly long hours, driving alone praying she stayed on the road and the car made it in the frigid temperatures. We had no family close. But we did have some friends through her workplace, now my workplace as well, and some of those friends still work with me. So we were blessed to have a support system.
My mom was incredibly brave when I think about it. She just did it, she had no choice. But once the weather started to get nicer and she got her financial feet under her, we moved to a townhouse in the next town which was much bigger than our current one. My sister had to switch elementary schools but I don’t think she minded. I missed having a yard but not the landlord beating on the door scaring the crap out of us. I remember weekend day, my mom kept the curtains drawn and told us to keep quiet. A car pulled into our driveway and she told us to hide in our tiny bedroom closet. We could hear the landlord out there bellowing “ANITA! I NEED THAT RENT MONEY! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!”. Finally he left after what felt like an eternity. We slipped out of the closet and I will never forget the sight of my mom climbing out of her blanket chest in her bedroom. That stuck with me until this day and I still have that same chest.
She had to not pay the rent I think to be able to move us to a less expensive but nicer townhouse in what is essentially now my daughters’ and I’m hometown. However positive the move was, there were some casualties that absolutely broke my heart. She had to give away our Shih Tsu mix dog I had for years, Boomer, because the townhouse had a no pets policy. Then she had to sell her Baldwin spinet piano. I just remember crying myself bleary eyed when each one left. Before Boomer left, I think she took him to the humane shelter, I took a small Avon box that had housed a ring I loved and lost while still living in Missouri, and I cut a lock of his dark grey hair to put in that box. After we moved, when I missed my doggie, I’d pull that out and touch the fur. And cry. But never in front of my mom, I knew she had no choice. Now I have a Baldwin piano and a shih tsu mix dog… I guess you can say I came full circle when I was able to afford to do so.
My last birthday in that rental house, my mom couldn’t afford much. I would have been turning 14 and I was a huge fan of Garfield. She found these plastic drinking cups with the cartoon cat on them. I still have one of them tucked away in my keepsake boxes. She did her best with what she had. To this day, I still appreciate all she did for us.
While my youth wasn’t ideal, I learned how to fend for myself, I started to teach myself to cook after we moved into the townhouse. I would pull down my mother’s Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and just follow a recipe. Sometimes she would help me on things I couldn’t understand or didn’t get from reading a recipe. Before we moved, I had started learning how to fix my own bike with tools my dad left behind. I could tear a ten-speed apart and put it back together and adjust the shifting until it was smooth as butter. I also learned how to fix some minor electrical issues, how the breaker box worked, how to do some oddball plumbing fixes because my mom was afraid of the landlord and didn’t want him in the house. That house eventually fell in on itself, the roof collapsing and now it’s simply an empty lot. It’s better as an empty lot.
Every time I see Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, I think of those dark days. I think about how much my life has changed in all those years. I am grateful that we made it, for the help we had along the way, for my mom’s tough spirit that kept going no matter what. I am grateful I didn’t grow up to be a helpless girl, that I wasn’t afraid to fix it myself or dive in when I needed to. Now I’m spoiled because my husband does a lot of this stuff and is better at it than me, but I don’t walk around afraid that if down the road, if I were to be on my own for whatever reason, I’m not helpless.
I have my mom’s fiery, determined spirit.