Is going to a food shelf anything like riding a bike?
Well, if riding a bike makes you feel like a colossal, shameful failure, then yes. Yes, going to a food shelf is EXACTLY like riding a bike. If you stand next to your bike and have a hard time getting on, if you have to picture the faces of your kids and close your eyes and take a deep breath before flopping one leg over the seat and grabbing those handlebars...YES. Totally the same thing.
If I've learned anything over the 8-year long roller coaster ride my kids and I have been on, it's this: never get cocky. Never look around and think, "Yeah. Thank God I never have to do that again." Never assume that you got the all clear from the universe. Because guess what, friends? Shit happens.
Things are so different this time around, and yet it's as if nothing has changed. Yes! I do have a good full-time job. With sick days and full benefits and great hours. Yes! I am getting some child support for the two remaining high school kids. Yes! I do have a little bit in savings this time around. Enough for a car repair or to cover rent for a month if I get tuberculosis or break a leg, not anything crazy like college money or retirement.
On the surface, it all looks manageable. But strap on that snorkel and dive mask and look under the water...you'll see me frantically paddling just to keep my head, and the heads of the people who have looked to me to be their safe zone, above water. It's a reality for me, and for millions of other people. I've written about it in a lighthearted tone before, but here's a secret: it's a scary way to live.
The job? Love it. It is where I am supposed to be, where I am needed and where I fit. I love my boss. I love my coworkers. I love every single one of the kids at my school. I am that person who cheerily greets people at 6 mother effing a.m. with genuine happiness.
However, I am not earning a living wage. Maybe if I was still married and had a spouse making good money it would be enough. Or if I had a roommate or if I lived by myself in a little apartment. But it's not enough to support my family of five. It's not the fault of the school district I work for, they only have so many dollars to pay so many people. This is on me, for not having the education I should have and for not investing the time/energy/money to get it. No, the onus for not having what it takes to earn a proper living is on me. I own this one. I keep thinking "ooh next year will be easier. It will just be me and William and the other three will all be in school and out on their own."
And then a kid or two moves back home. Christmas happens. Winter break comes and stays a while. The only other car in the family takes a $1000 dump and is rendered useless because who in the world has $1000 extra to fix a car? The driver's side door handle on my car has been broken for two years and almost every day someone at work jokes with me about it. "LOL Jenny your window is still down and it's snowing! Get that fixed!" and I LOL right back at them and say "Ha! Trying to figure out which month we don't need electricity and food hahahahaha" only I'm not kidding.
The child support? Honey. I'm not going to lie. If it wasn't for those two bank transfers from Secretary every month, I'd be sunk (yes, she pays it). My kids would be sunk. We'd all be sunk like the Titanic and I'd be Rose, all shivery and trying my darnedest to blow that whistle. That said, he still isn't paying what he should be paying. Somehow he's managed to get away with paying an amount that reflects him having the two remaining supportable kids every other weekend and eight weeknights per month.
So he's paying child support based on a 60/40 custody situation when it's actually 100/0. Yes, I have brought this up with him and you know what I hear in response? Not "Augh, you're right! Here, let me make it up to them (and you) and be a man and a father and really help support my children. I'm going to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do and not because my ass is being held over a flame." Nah. I hear crickets. Pretty, pretty crickets. On a related note, if you know of a family law attorney in Minneapolis who loves poor single moms and wants to help, call me!
This would also be the part in my post where I wax philosophic about the ridiculousness of child support ending abruptly at 18. Because I don't know many kids (and yes, they're kids) who wake up on their 18th birthday, turn to their parents and say, "Aw you guys! Thanks for everything. I'm off on my own now. I won't need anything else from you from this day forward." But that's a rant for another time.
So how did I happen to end up back in the parking lot of the food shelf, bracing myself for a good 20 minutes before I had the courage to walk in? Kind of a funny story.
Just kidding. It's not funny at all. It's a stack of obligations- some expected, some not- up against my resources. It was me wanting to give the kids an okay Christmas. It was a huge utilities bill. It was my 100% covered annual physical ending up to be not so covered and Park Nicollet sending me to collections over a disputed $500 bill (hey, by the way, thanks Park Nicollet! Happy New Year to you as well!).
It was life, as it always is. I made sure the rent was paid, and the car insurance and when all was said and done I had $18.00 left in my checking account. I steeled myself, gave myself that old pep talk and damn if I wasn't all Rocky Balboa running around in a gray sweatsuit singing about how I was gonna fly now.
I transferred $50 from my meager savings to checking and wrote out a menu and headed to Aldi's, which, no offense to anyone, reminds me of shopping at a food pantry except you pay at the end. Aldi's is like going to a grocery store in Bizarro World, everything looks familiar yet different. Fiber One bars are Fiber Now in Bizarro Aldi world. My kids call it "bootleg food" but I have yet to see one of them perish after eating it.
It wasn't enough. It just wasn't enough to put dinner on the table every night. I tried. But things can only stretch so far. The kids know when I'm worried and they know when it's money that's worrying me. They are remarkable humans and sometimes I wonder how I got so lucky. Molly watched a neighbor's cat while they were away and when she got paid she stood in front of me, holding out the money and said, "Here. Take it." But I couldn't. This is the girl who is paying for her own college education (with help from some scholarship and grant money, of course). Nope. Not going to take that from her.
A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, I sat in a bank and signed over a stack of my children's savings bonds in order to pay the mortgage on a house we eventually had to leave. We'd had a family meeting and the kids, who were kind and wise beyond their years, agreed to let me do so. That moment is burned into my brain and my heart and I will never forget how embarrassed and how ashamed I felt. And now here they were again, offering whatever help they could. Molly bought dog food. Henry bought lunch. William, who doesn't have a job yet, offered to put gas in the car with some of his Christmas money. Charlie, not working at the moment because of a transfer to a new school and a huge course load, has been on kitchen duty and keeps hugging me and telling me everything will work out.
I haven't told anyone about my situation, except for my homie Danielle. She offered to loan me some moolah but my next paycheck hasn't even been born yet and it's already screaming for mercy. No, I put on my happy face mask and do what I always do: carry on. I am Mr. Freaking Rourke on my own little fantasy island, standing there in my dapper suit with little Tattoo next to me, waving and saying, "SMILES, EVERYONE! SMILES!"
Yet, there I was. Sitting in that parking lot, a swirly blowy snowstorm whipping around outside while I wrestled with my pride. Took a few minutes but I pinned that bitch and then I stepped out of my car and into the building where I could get some help.
Because I'm Jenny and the universe likes to eff with me, the woman who took my paperwork this time around has a son who graduated with Charlie. Bless her heart, we didn't discuss that at all and when she said, "So it's been a while since you were here last! We're happy to see you again!" I replied, "I wish I could say I was happy to be here." I told her this was a one-time deal, that I just had a week to get through. Her eyes were kind but I wondered if she was thinking to herself heard that one before.
Not much had changed at the old food shelf. The carts were the same, the rows of groceries were the same. I hummed a Frank Sinatra tune (New York, New York) as I made my way down the aisles. No eye contact was made and I'm pretty sure I did that thing where you leave your body for a while. Astral projection. I kept thinking, "One week. One week. One week." I grabbed a bunch of soup. Some mac and cheese. A loaf of garlic bread. And thank the good sweet Lord, milk. There was orange juice, something I never buy but took a carton anyway because the kids would be thrilled. Ramen because even though I think it's not really food, William considers it a delicacy. Frozen chicken breasts. Eggs! They had eggs! Potatoes and onions and carrots. I kept thinking "One week. One week. One week."
The man who checked me out looked at my slip of paper and said, "Oh wow. Five people? That means you can get a container of laundry soap, too." I smiled at him and said, "I'm okay there. Plenty of detergent. But thank you." Because that's how it is. Thank God this time around we had plenty of toilet paper and detergent and ahhh, paper towels. Looking back, I probably should have checked to see if they had any tampons. Earlier this month I was MacGyvering a very unlucky package of panty-liners into something else. Sorry, but when a broke-ass mom has $7.00 to spare she's going to buy spaghetti and sauce, not a box of Kotex. #reality
So I packed up the one week's worth of stuff into two cardboard boxes and loaded them into my car. I drove home and waited until the coast was clear and then tucked the new goodies in alongside the bootleg Aldi's products. I don't want the kids to know. Why? Why would I be okay writing about it here and not wanting them to know? Simple. I feel like I've failed them somehow. What kind of mom can't provide for her family? I know they wouldn't care, I know they wouldn't judge. But still. I quietly broke down the boxes and put them in the recycling bin and later on when one of the kids said, "Orange juice? No way! Thanks mom!" I didn't say anything.
Last night I was in my happy place. I was in the kitchen making our trademark family meal, homemade fettuccine noodles. I made pasta dough and music was playing (The Man Who Sold The World, rest in peace beautiful Bowie) and kids were drifting in and out of the room, talking to me while I ran the sheets of fresh pasta through the noodle cutter. Later on, when all of this has passed, I wonder if my kids will associate that meal with being poor.
I wonder if they'll think being poor tastes like fresh pasta? I guess as far as memories go, that one is okay.
I hope I will look back on these times, these awful and wonderful and scary times and not cry. I hope there comes a day when all of us can sit down together, over a meal I made while listening to good music, and talk about the good old days. The days when we were those people.