When I was fifteen I started running away from home. Oh, I didn’t find bus stations and abandoned buildings, I found a job (at Dairy Queen no less), the debate team, and books. It wasn’t that anything was “wrong” at home, but the aura of anxiety got to me. I was the oldest girl and always felt a sense of responsibility to make things at home better. So I worked. I hated to ask my parents for money for anything. At the same time I developed a well honed obliviousness to everything else that was happening. That is why the couch took me by surprise.
We were always “lower-middle-class.” But it never seemed to be important until the year we got the couch. My Dad is a welder and very good at it. Unfortunately it doesn’t matter how good you are at something if there are no jobs to be had. Because he tended to work on big projects; refineries, mines, water treatment plants, etc there were on times and off times. I just accepted it as part of how life was. One Christmas would be really good, the other not so much.
Then one year we were the ward’s Christmas project. I remember them carrying in the couch, and chair and food. We received a kitchen table, with benches, suitable for a family with many kids. We got baskets of fancy food from Smith’s; stuff I have never seen before and not eaten since. Though all the presents were nice, the biggest memory was of thinking, “Why are we getting all this stuff? We aren’t poor.” Honestly, I don’t know if we were or not. My Dad was out of work, but I never felt the kind of gut-wrenching poverty that is used to drum up support for the Food Bank and such. Perhaps my parent were good at handling it, or maybe I was just not there enough to notice.
I will admit that we may have looked poor, especially if you looked at the furnishings in our house. The old pink couch, I don’t know where it came from, had definitely seen better days. But it was comfortable and we were used to it. We joked that Dad wouldn’t be able to have his customary “resting his eyes” after dinner in a new couch. The new stuff looked out of place and uncomfortable, not capable of mixing with the rest of our old, used and battle scarred furniture.
For years it has bothered me that we received all those things. The memory of past embarrassments tends to linger, even when I can no longer remember details of my baby sister’s birth. We were grateful, but not desperate. I always wanted to take care of myself, and the idea that anyone else thought they needed to do it bothered me
We had a home, a car (a blue VW bug with an eight-ball on the stick-shift), food (ever had tuna fish in white sauce over toast?), clothes (I still feel weird buying clothes new). All our needs were met, and even some of our wants. I know that there are those worse off than me.
Go forward 10 years. David is getting his Masters; we are living on my temping and his student loans. I am pregnant with our first baby, due just before Christmas. When we saw the couch and chair frames on sale at the DI for $27.50 we though we were set. After getting them home we discovered the sad truth about upholstery. Getting the cushions for those frames was WAAAAY out of our league. But we did have quilts, a lot of quilts, so on the frames they went. Those weren’t the most comfortable seating arrangements, but very colorful.
We needed help that winter. Paying bills took more money that we had; we had to borrow money from the ward. Tending our little boy who wouldn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time wore us down. We sat at our card table and cried from the sheer misery of no sleep, no help. A sweet sister in our ward came over to let us sleep. We received packages from the ward that Christmas too. This time I didn’t need to wonder if I was poor, I knew I was. Those monthly WIC checks and mandatory meetings made sure I remembered each time I went to the grocery store. They say that there isn’t much of a social stigma associated with welfare. I don’t know about Them, but I felt it. It took a lot of control not to protest the temporary nature of our state assistance, that I wouldn’t be a drag on the common good for the rest of my life.
Even though we struggled with finances it didn’t seem like a hardship because I knew it was temporary. School would only last two years. We were going to get a job managing apartments when I got used to having a baby to tend. Then David would get a great job out of school and we would be set for life, right? We were a bit unsteady, but not down. We felt guilty receiving the ward’s generosity because I was sure there were people worse off than us, people with less hope and more burdens.
Now forward 5 more years. We are not poor. My husband is a successful audiologist in
The middle of November was my 20th week of pregnancy, so I went in for the exciting ultrasound that tells the baby’s sex and how they are doing. The Doctor first has good news, “Two heads!” I’m having twins. Then she grows quiet. I can see the screen. There is no heartbeat. They were moving just a day ago, but now both of my babies are dead. David takes me to the hospital to deliver them. There are complications and I have to stay for several days. The ward tends my other children, brings us dinner, and cleans my house. I come home and sit in that wonderful, open room and cry, missing my babies. The first few days after, I cried and I prayed. I came closer to the Lord through those weeks than I ever had been or have been since.
That Christmas I learned that poor is not a physical thing. It is a lack that brings you down. I had lacked money and not felt poor, I had lacked sleep and time and knew it was only temporary, but now I lacked my children and I was bereft. Again we received from our ward. I was slow to regain my strength and energy. The Young Women came in to clean our house and bring us treats near Christmas. I was so grateful. I was poor and they fed me and the ward took me in and loved me until I could get back up. Through all the kind words and deeds, it was the help of the Savior that really made the difference. My spirit needed help, not just my body and there is only one place to go for that kind of help. There was no guilt that I was taking resources from someone else, this resource was infinite. I knew that there were people worse off than me, but I needed help as much as any.