The Smell of Shame

December 19, 2006

I cannot manage my money. It is humiliating. Somethings are even more humilating, though. Today, I bounced a checked to my boyfriend. He knew when I wrote it to him that I could not really afford it, knowing that it if he didn’t help me I would not be able to buy Christmas presents for my family. Maybe Christmas presents should not have been bought, anyway. I don’t have enough money. This week I have been hit with $500 in car repair bills. He helped me with those, but he needed paid back.

The thing is, he is in a position to help me financially. I know what his investment portfolio looks like. I also know that he likes to pretend that it doesn’t exist. I also know that in a given week he earns several thousand dollars. I know that the hemorrhages money, too. It is not his responsibility to pay my way through this world. I know that he thinks I am immature and irresponsible when it comes to money. I know I am these things.

My most important job as a child was to get the mail. I was to sort out all the bills and only present my father with junk mail when he got home and asked about the mail. My mother hid the bills under her mattress. My father earned at least 4 times what my mother earned, but her job was to manage the family finances. She had free rein with the checking account. My father took out cash for his weekly expenses every payday and never questioned her management, for the most part. Sometimes, when I was really mad at her, I would let him get the mail. Even a regular phone bill with no long distance charges would send him into a fit. When it was stamped “Past Due,” things got ugly.

My father was an Electronics Warfare Specialist at an military base near our home. He was paid very well, and truth be told, we should have been much better off than most of our neighbors and family members. I know we were far better off than most of our family. No one would have ever known it from looking at us, though.

My mother grew up in abject poverty. She was born in 1950, and her father left her and her four siblings when she was nine years old. Her youngest sister was two at the time, and my grandmother had just suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed on her left side. She was 30. Grandmother could barely walk. She drug her left leg and her left arm was curled up at her side. Grandfather couldn’t stand the stress of caring for the children and a crippled wife, so he hit the road. He married a woman 3 years older than Mom’s older brother, who was 14 at the time, had five more children, and moved to sunny Florida. They never recieved any money from him, they never recieved a Christmas or birthday card from him, and they certainly never received anymore love from him.

My grandmother did the only thing she could do. She ignored the pain of her condition and found any job she could to support her children. Truthfully, it wasn’t much different than when he was there. The primary difference was that she now drug her leg when she walked. Often, she worked three jobs to keep a roof over their heads. She tended to work at restaurants, so she could bring home leftovers for the family to eat. Her parents helped when they could. They watched the youngest children and provided clothing for them.

My mother’s family did not have electricity until she was 16 years old. That was 1966, for those of you who are even more math challenged than me. 1966 was a little late to join the electric revolution, but better late than never. Dental work was an impossibility for my mom and her siblings. If they had a cavity, my grandmother would instruct the dentist to pull the tooth, regardless of where it was in their mouth. She reasoned that all adults eventually had false teeth anyway. My mother had the misfortune of having two cavities on her front teeth. She really was a beautiful girl, and she spent about 3 months of her sophmore year without front teeth. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her. Her grandparents finally scraped up the money to buy her a bridge, but socially, the damage was irreperable. You can imagine how her peers might have treated her. To go from rotten teeth, to no teeth, to fake teeth was not easy. She associates with no one from her high school days.

My mother’s sisters both got pregnant at fourteen and fifteen, respectively. They each also had another child and two divorces under their belts by age 18. Mom’s older bothers joined the military. One voluntarily enlisted in the Marine Corps at the height of Vietnam. You know…”They draft the white trash first around here anyways.” The other enlisted in the Air Force. By this time, Mom was about to graduate high school. She was engaged to a man that my grandmother thought was a wonderful catch. He came from a family with money. He also beat my mother. Grandmother told her that sometimes you had to put up with certain things in order to have a better life. She almost disowned my mother when she broke off the engagement for good.

My mother’s upbringing affected her, naturally, in very intense ways. The poverty mindset ingrains itself and never leaves. Whenever bills came, and my father would act like an ass, she would most likely think he was goin gto leave her. That’s the best reason I can come up with for her fear of him seeing them. Yes, he did act like a jackass when he had to pay a bill. He would never have left her, though. Her poverty mindset also showed in other ways. Most of our clothing came from yardsales. My father refused to wear clothing from someone’s garage, and he would get pissed when she bought us other people’s junk to wear, so we were never allowed to tell him wear it came from. They could afford to buy us new clothes, but my mother thought it was a waste of money. I remeber begging my dad to take me school shopping. He never wanted to do that, though. Instead, Mom would load us up in the car and hop from one classmate’s garage to another. I would hide in the car until she drug me out, sometimes literally and almost violently, to hold some grubby t-shirt up to me to see if it would fit. Sometimes, a classmate would recognize an article of clothing and mention it. To this day, I cannot accurately describe the shame and humiliation I would feel.

Which brings me back to the bounced check to my boyfriend. I have a closet full of clothes, and I do not need anymore. Except…I do need more. I need those new clothes to help erase the embarrassment and insecurity I still feel. So, I buy things. Sometimes, I don’t even take the tags off and wear them. But they are new and they were bought in a store and no one will ever look at me and say “Didn’t you buy that shirt at my mom’s yard sale for a quarter? It used to be mine. I didn’t like it anymore, and we sold it with all of our junk. Hahahaha…you’re wearing my junk!” Sometimes, my need to have new clothes overrides my ability to pay for them. I still remember how yardsale clothes smelled. They all smelled the same. I will never allow that scent to be on my body again.

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