As If You Have a Choice

People in my family, the older ones, believe to their very core they're living rich due to their efforts. It's fruitless to argue with them. They are convinced everyone lives like them on top of a hill with steak and ahi tuna and copper pipes delivering clear water to their many toilets. I don't think one of them ever considered what life would be like if they began it through a different birth canal, one very far from here.

I wrote a blog article for the Washington Post's "Eating Down the Fridge" section in which I explained how, when you're poor, eating down the fridge is a game you have no choice but to play. I sent my dad a copy and never heard anything. I never hear anything. I never know if most of my family even gets my emails. If it's important, I've learned to call.

My dad calls. "We had dinner with your aunt and uncle," he says. "They read your article and they didn't have any idea you were poor."

"They read my article?"

"Your uncle kept asking, 'how could this happen? I don't understand at all.' You know how they are: they think everyone lives like them."

My uncle drives an amazing red Ferrari, the kind that gets you lots of looks when he gives you a ride. It's breathtaking. I always wished my uncle was my dad, or that my dad had a car that'd get him lots of stares. I don't understand how my uncle has a Ferrari, my dad has a ten year-old Nissan truck and I share a Yaris with my husband. So as far as understanding goes, we're even.

"They've sent you checks, they've said, for your birthday."

"Dad, the checks my aunt sent were for $25. One check for birthdays and one for Christmas. She recently upped it to $30." She's been sending these my whole life. She never forgets. She deserves a Ferrari. She's very supportive.

"You should have written her thank you notes."

"I wrote thank you notes, Dad, every time." I did! I did! When I bring up a touchy issue, my dad's answer is always, "You must not have written a thank you note." I'd be stupid not to write a thank you note. I may be poor but I'm not stupid.

"Dad," I say, "a couple of $25 checks aren't going to lift you from food stamps."

I want to ask him what he said in response, what he told them about how I am such an embarrassment, again. But that would acknowledge I am an embarrassment and I don't feel like an embarrassment. I don't say anything and let him keep talking. Another thing about my family is that you don't have to worry about lulls in conversation. There was never a lull in my home growing up. Sure, it was hard to feel like anyone listened but on the good side: no lulls.

"I just talked to your kids upstairs," he says. He's referring to my grown son who lives two floors up with his daughter and new wife. They were married less than two weeks ago and I wish they could get married every two weeks. It was worth every food stamp I qualified for to see them so happy, and to have lots of talkative relatives all in one spot, talking on top of each other. "They were running off to Target to get things for their honeymoon trip," he says.

"Yeah, they said they're getting things for the baby, to keep her occupied on the flight."

My dad likes to tell me things to tell to my son, particularly about money. I don't understand why he bothers. If he's convinced I'm so bad with money and that's why I was on food stamps, then why would he want me to give advice to anyone?

He's relentless, though. Maybe if he hounds me twice as hard to hound my son twice as hard, things won't be half as bad for him. My dad used to say things like, "You need to show him how to do a budget. My wife says he doesn't know how to budget. She saw they were buying root beer. They shouldn't be buying coke and root beer while he's going to school."

If I say anything more it might call attention to the fact that my son is at Target, spending money. I have learned that, in this family, if you call attention to something and you try to justify it, you will convince everyone you're completely unjustified.

"My ear's getting sore," he says, so the call ends without getting a single piece of advice to relay to my son. This used to rarely happen but now it's happening all the time. In fact I'm not even hearing advice about my own money management skills anymore.

I think about money the whole time I'm exercising at the Y. I joined the Y because my dad said it's a better use of money than buying basic cable and exercising to FIT TV. I took this advice because I don't want to be poor. If I do what he says and I still end up poor, what can he say? I hated the Y at first because there are all these old people going almost backwards on the stationary bikes, they're so slow. Now I like it for that same reason. I'm an amazing athlete in comparison.

I'm not poor now but I still have some bad habits. I spend money when I shouldn't and I can't spend money when I should. I have this old Brita pitcher from seven or eight years ago when we were remodeling a nasty, rat-infested dump of a home. I hate that old Brita. It's full of old paint and scratches and I can never get the inside clean. I really need it though, as the cold water out of my kitchen sink comes out brown. The previous tenant had it tested for lead and it was at 20.7. The acceptable lead limit is 15.

I sometimes ride to Target with my son and his little family and I look longingly at those pretty Brita pitchers. They're available in colors now. When I go to other people's homes and use their pretty Brita pitchers, I think to myself, 'they must be rich.' I've been doing this for three or four years. Even my son upstairs has a pretty Brita. I've tried to buy one, even on sale, but I can't. I pick them up, look at them for a minute and think 'What would my dad say?'

I come home from the Y and notice the baby's toys out in my hallway, like my son's family was here. That's not unusual. They come by to drop off things I've left at their apartment or pick up things they've left here at mine. I don't think about it and go about my business, taking off my shoes and putting my sweatshirt away.

When I walk by my dining room, I see something there that I know wasn't there before. It's a brand-new Brita in my favorite color. There's a note in my daughter-in-law's handwriting. I never said a word to anyone about my Brita envy. Not a word, not even to my husband.

The note, the Brita, it's too much. I keep walking away and coming back to it like it's my first car. I have to wait to call and thank my son and daughter-in-law. Ferraris can't make you feel this rich, I think to myself. I'd better write a thank you note.



My stepmother pushes herself past me like she's late for somewhere important. We're in my bathroom with my dad, talking to plumbers. They're here to give us a quote on how much it will cost to get water out of the pipes when you turn it on instead of rust.

My dad says we, my sisters and him and me, own the building but she does not. Since she was the one who explained my kitchen remodel plans to the plumbers, I don't think she knows this. She's so focused on impressing the plumbers with her questions and knowledge of my kitchen remodel that I had to leave the room. I've done nine kitchen remodels and I came up with the plans. When she pushed in front of me to explain my remodel, I sat in the living room, called my daughter-in-law who lives upstairs and said, "help." She came right down.

I tried to be part of the discussion when they moved onto the bathroom. I'd just asked the plumbers if these old gas station-type toilets have a shut-off valve, something good to know if you're planning to shut it off. "It's right in here," the plumbers said. "You just turn a screw and you can shut it off."

"Thanks," I said and that was the last thing I said before being bumped out of the way.

"Is it a big screw?" my stepmother says.

I don't need to know the answer and I don't think she needs to, either. I go back to my daughter-in-law in the living room and give up. Go ahead and be the project manager for this remodel. You seem to have an unhealthy interest in my bathroom.

"You coming?" my dad says when they're done in there. Mary holds the front door open, my front door, for the plumbers. She starts to close it when I come near but I slip through. "Thank you," I say. She looks away. Ha! Gotcha to be nice to me!

We go to the next apartment and the tenant is there, hanging out. The stepmother pushes me out from the bathroom again before I can do much plumber-listening so I go talk to the tenant about his fish. For some reason the stepmother decides this is the time she's going to introduce herself to the tenant, right in the middle of me talking. It's obviously disrespectful. I'm the apartment manager and she dissed me in front of a tenant. Even the tenant looked at her like What the hell?

When the plumbers, my dad and the stepmother finish up and turn out of the apartment to go down the stairs, I keep walking straight back to my apartment. If she wants my job, she can have it. She can do all the work and I'll hang out in my living room with my daughter-in-law.

The next time she came up to my apartment with my dad, she decided to ride her bike to the museum. That wasn't enough drama, apparently, so she called my dad to complain her seat was too high. My dad drove to the museum with a wrench and lowered it for her so she could ride back with a properly fitting seat. It took him 45 minutes to do this errand, right in the middle of talking with me.

She complained for the rest of the day about that seat. I would have said I was sorry I raised her seat when I borrowed her bike but she seemed to enjoy making my dad go to all this work. She had something to talk about and something to do so I gave her something. She should have thanked me.

I tried to tell my dad that, as a manager I can't do my job if she's going to diss me in front of tenants and take over the remodel. "These are woman issues," he says. "Just let it go."

I called him again and he didn't want to hear about again. I said, "You're my employer and there's someone hindering me from doing my job." He said it wouldn't happen again if he could help it. That's all I wanted. That's more than I wanted. He never did that much, ever.

Tonight he brought her with us to an apartment association meeting. "She doesn't have an apartment here," I said. "Does she have to come?"

"She's coming to take care of me," my dad said. "She's worried about me falling asleep driving home."

Is she being nice or wanting to make sure she's taking over and in charge? This is the way I think around her and I'm grateful nobody can hear my thoughts. Bad me.

As soon as I see her in my dad's office, she's nice. Not nice enough to ask about me but you can tell she's been told something. She's not so strict-looking, at least at this immediate moment.

"Is he using the facilities?"

"Oh yeah," she says. She's stuck with me in this tiny office until my dad gets out of the bathroom. "What's new?" she says.

She must have forgotten how much she hates me or she really got put in her place by my dad. Either way, I have to be nice or I'm going to look like the bitch. That'd really make her happy. It'd prove her right.

So I'm nice. I'm nice all the way to the meeting and I'm nice as much as I can be before the meeting starts. I'm nice to my dad and talking shop without being interrupted as she's nowhere to be seen.

The meeting starts and the seat next to my dad is empty. He keeps looking around for her but I don't think he sees her. She's standing at the opposite end of the row behind us. She has a bad knee. It's hard work for her to stand. It's nice for me. I can talk about work with my dad without being interrupted to hear stories about my stepmother's kids, stories that have nothing to do with anything and no point at all.

We're driving back to my apartment and she hasn't once mentioned her kids. I've never been around her for more than five minutes without hearing about her kids in stories that don't always make sense. You know when someone tells a story and it's quiet for a little bit? Nobody knows what to say? That happens a lot.

After being around her I usually call my husband and tell him the best choice crazy things she did. This time I felt almost good, like I didn't have to make fun of her to feel good about myself.

Is this what everybody else feels like?


Proof of Life

The thing about weddings is that they're not just about the couple, otherwise people wouldn't be so pissed off when you talk about eloping. They're about all the family that comes together and gets to meet and talk with each other over croissant sandwiches and cake. You get to meet the new family and they get to meet you. Unfortunately, you get to eat cake with relatives at whom you'd rather forcefeed e. coli. Why is that illegal again?

Fortunately, you also get to eat cake with wonderful people with whom you share a few genes. You get to celebrate two people you love and enjoy and sometimes there's a sunset or two, pizza and alcohol. Now it's all over and I'm really missing all the relatives and friends. It wasn't even my wedding.

Celebrations are great, aren't they? More later, unless I can supress this urge to explain my relatives who are proof of alien life.