7.21.2009

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.