Money Woes

            Money was a problem when our kids were young. We had our house, chosen in a price category so that I could be a stay-at-home mom. We never missed a payment as that was a priority, but there were times when the refrigerator was a tad empty.

            No one went hungry unless they chose to abstain from whatever was put on the table. Our meals most often consisted of chicken, ground beef and chuck roasts. Pasta, rice and potatoes rounded out the meal. Oh! And canned vegetables.

            Part of the problem was that I wasn’t much of a cook. I had a trusty cookbook that relied on canned soups. The recipes were easy to follow and tasted good. On top of that, they were hearty.

            When boxed Hamburger Helper came out, they became a staple in our diet. Self-contained meals, simple directions and required adding very little.

            My kids didn’t wear new clothes until they were about eight or nine. I was an expert thrift store shopper. I found nearly new onesies, shirts, shorts and pants. Dresses and slips. Coats, sweaters and light jackets. Even rain boots.

            They usually had brand-new shoes, unless the hand-me-downs were like new. When they began school, uniforms were new, a huge expense.

            I also sewed much of their wardrobes, especially shorts, dresses and anything made out of cotton. The machine was old and not very good. Before I left for college, I bought the cheapest model Sears had. That way, even away from home, I could make me new clothes.

            At some point I upgraded, which was a wise decision. The new machine gave greater variety of stitches, which came in handy for seams and hems. It also had a terrific buttonhole maker. My daughter has that machine now.

            We always had two cars. Mine was the Ford Pinto my dad made me buy when I really wanted a fancy Mercury sports-type model. Mike had an obnoxious orange Taurus. We drove them until repairs were useless.

            We replaced those vehicles with other used cars. Repeated repairs kept them running. I drove the kids to school and ran errands. Mike commuted to work.

            We joked that we had bought the mechanic a boat, a luxury car and a vacation cabin. Many times, we’d pay for one car, then turn in the other the next day.

            When my kids were a bit older, I got a job teaching preschool for the local recreation department. I think I earned just over two dollars an hour. The biggest advantage of the job was that I only paid half the normal fees for any class offered.

            My kids learned to swim at the Plunge. They did gymnastics and my daughter took pottery.

            That salary helped keep milk in the fridge and fruit in the house. It paid for camping trips so we’d have vacations. And it gave me something to do other than be a mom.

            Teaching preschool led to a career as an elementary teacher and then later a high school teacher.

            I remember taking the kids scavenging for aluminum cans. We’d go to construction sites and walk the grounds. We found a lot of cans, and when we were really lucky, dropped dollars. One time I picked up a crumpled bill to discover that it was a twenty! That was a lot of money.

            Money might have been a problem, but we were happy.

A Fresh Idea

            When it comes to getting my hair done, I’m an avowed cheapskate. As far back as I can remember, my hairdos were monitored and maintained by my mom. She cut it, permed it and styled it, all using home care products that were unpredictable at best. I learned my cheapness from her.

            My hair hung well below my hips until I was nine. At that point, after tiring of my cries of pain, my mom decided to cut my hair. We walked to a bus stop, then rode from Beavercreek, a country suburb, into Dayton, Ohio. There, at a shop, I got my first professional cut and perm.

            I loved the feeling when someone else shampooed my hair and ran a comb through it. I was entranced by the parting and snipping that shortened my hair to shoulder–length. I hated the perm. Long rods were wound into my hair, rods which were attached to an electrified pole. The smell of the chemicals cooking sickened me.

I hated my curly hair, but my mom loved it.

            My dad didn’t just hate it, he stated that only whores had hair like min. His words were so hurtful that it was a long, long time before I allowed my mom to get my hair cut again.

            After college it became popular to have an Afro style hairdo. The perm chemicals had improved so they didn’t burn as much, but the smell lingered for days.

I loved the finished product. My hair was only a few inches long. It easy to take care of, requiring only a good combing. The one downfall was that my hair did not take to the perm naturally, and so I had to have second and third dousings in order to get the tightly wound curls that the style incorporated.

            When I met my husband, I had stopped getting perms and let my hair grow out a tad. The problem was that my hair is naturally straight and lifeless. But it was easy to care for.

Shortly after our marriage, I decided to go back to the tight curls, mostly because I didn’t have time to wind my hair into curlers every night and sleeping on them was nearly impossible. As a working woman, I needed to be awake and alert at work.

            We had little money back then, and so when I discovered there was a beauty school in our downtown, it became my go-to for all things hair. I found that one of the greatest the joys of going to the beauty college was that I could get my hair cut for free. Yes, it took a long time. Often hours. Because I chose to go upstairs where all the novices were, every step along the way had to be approved by a supervisor. But it was free! And unfortunately inconsistent.

            After months of this, I decided to stay on the ground floor, where the skills of the students were much better. It still required hours and I had to pay a minimum fee; I think five dollars. Quality varied, and so I had to be flexible in terms of the final product. Sometimes I really liked what they did, most of the time it was tolerable, and sometimes it was downright awful.

            I decided to move over to the south side of the main floor where the operators were nearing graduation. My care was still monitored, but not as closely. I was still getting perms, but only enough to put some life in my normally straight hair. The good thing was that my hair was getting done regularly for a minimal charge.

            After I went back to work and was making a little more money, I found a local shop that only charged eight dollars. It was located in a poorer part of town, in an old house not too far from my school. No appointments were needed, but by that time I had given up on perms, so all I needed was a trim.

            Because of how cheap it was and how close to my place of work, I went there for years. Unfortunately, the quality varied. Sometimes I got a cut that pleased me. But more and more often the operator cut my hair too short, making me look more male than female. Or it was butchered, long in spots, barely showing in others.

            I switched to a shop not too far from home that was run by sisters. The first one I met did an excellent job and she only charged twenty dollars. I returned over and over until I got her sister. She cut my hair the way she wanted it, way too short, almost masculine. It was uneven to the point that when I got home I’d have to do my own trim.

            My stepmom used a salon within walking distance of my home. She only saw one stylist, so I made an appointment with her. I should have known better. My stepmom’s hair was bleached to the point that it looked like straw. In fact, all the time she was with my dad, I wondered if maybe she was wearing a really cheap wig.

            The first few times this stylist cut my hair, she did a pretty good job. But then she decided to do things her way. Once again I ended up with a masculine cut.

            Things changed when my sister-in-law treated me to a cut at a salon out near her home. She had won a Raffle ticket for a free cut and style from an operator that she never sees. Without knowing what they normally charge, I assumed it was in the thirty-dollar range. While she did a great job with the cut, the stylist insisted on fluffing my hair out into a bouncy, plastered helmet. The good news was that I’d never have to go back as it was a good forty-minute drive from home.

Despite my helmet-hair, I discovered two important things: you get what you pay for and there is a difference between a cut and a style. I fell in love with style. Not that my “do” is fancy, because it isn’t. What I liked was having my hair cut evenly, the finished product a blend all the way around.

Despite the long drive, I contemplated returning to that shop. Until I attended a birthday party for a wonderful man that I had known for years. I sat next to his son during lunch, where I learned that his wife was a stylist in a nearby town. The next time I needed a cut, I went to her. I loved the result. I have returned over and over and will continue to go to her as long as she is local.

Now my cuts cost big dollars. It pains me to pay so much, as the cheapskate part of me is still there, but I love the end result. It is well worth it to pay more if, when you walk out of the shop, you feel pleased.

Scars

            Some scars are invisible but powerful nonetheless. Because they can’t be seen, no sympathy is offered, no concerning questions asked.

            But what happens when you are told that your scars will be easily seen? Do you have the procedure or not?

            That’s the choice I faced when I investigated cosmetic surgery after losing eighty pounds.

            The scars on my arms would run down the backside. They might fade with time or they might remain as deep red lines. I didn’t care. I hated the flaps of saggy skin that smacked the water when I swam, so loudly that I could hear the whump, whump as the bags smacked the surface, despite wearing earplugs and a cap.

            I believed that if I could hear it that clearly, then so could everyone else.

            I hated the way my arms looked in short sleeves: huge bags of quivering flesh. I was embarrassed, humiliated and my self-esteem suffered.

            The surgery would remove the bags. I chose self-esteem over scarring.

            After recovering from that operation I investigated additional cosmetic surgery to remove the roll of skin that had pooled around my waist. Even though it was always hidden under my clothes, unless I wore an overly baggy top, the bulge was visible.

            Once again the surgeon said there would be scarring, most likely a deep red line that encircled my waist. My response? I told her that the only one who would see it was my husband. The benefit of the operation would be clearly visible: no roll of excess skin.

            Granted my scars are visible, but the surgery removed the psychological effects caused by extreme embarrassment, by my disgust of my body.

            After recovery, every time I looked in the mirror, I was shocked. Who was this woman looking back at me? She had no flabby arms, no roll of skin.

My new identity was hard to embrace.  Months went by and I still did not recognize myself, did not connect that reflection with who I was now.

Two years later I am still surprised. The scars are there, but they are badges of honor, not of shame.

Heat Wave Woes

            When the temperature rises, when the sun beats down on city streets, people get grouchy. Children whine. Parents yell. Teachers lose patience. Workers stuck in sweltering shops make mistakes. Car drivers honk horns as they swerve in and out of traffic lanes.

            The longer it stays hot, the worse things get. Frustrations normally held in check surface. Old hatreds blossom. Minor complaints become major sources of ire.

            Environmental problems make matters worse. Fires erupt that, if the wind is blowing, sweep across the landscape, burning houses, schools and businesses. People die, not just because of wildfires, but also because of heat exhaustion.

            Crops can’t grow or are burned so badly that the fruit is destroyed. The aquifer, which supplies water to roots, dries up. Plants die. Yards turn brown.

            When the lows and highs intersect, tornadoes are born. The high number of fans running taxes the electrical grid. Rolling power cutoffs cause food to spoil. Machines that keep people alive falter.

            So many things happen that make life miserable that it’s sometimes hard to find a single positive about rising temperatures.

            Ask a kid, however, and you might learn a thing or two.

            Sometimes fire hydrants are opened and kids run gleefully through the spray. Backyard swimming pools are blown up. Perhaps it’s only enough water to sit in, but the magic works anyway.

            Footballs are put away: baseballs come out.  Outings to the beach or lake or river are planned. School is over for nearly three months. Television becomes a major source of entertainment. Kid-friendly movies proliferate.

            Cold drinks and frozen treats lift spirits. Water guns and filled balloons cause much running around and shrieking.

            Kids get to stay out well past dark. If they live where there are lightning bugs, they might catch one so as to hold the tiny on and off of light in their hands.

            Badminton and croquet sets come out. Volleyball, too.

            There seems to be so much more to do when it is warm than in the frost of winter.

            Just like any season, summer has its plusses and minuses. How you think about it makes the difference.

            You can bemoan the heat or step outside and watch the kids zip around, smiles on their faces.

            The heat can make us miserable, but it doesn’t have to. It’s just one more thing that nature gives us to deal with as best we can.

Summer’s Rhythm

Fiery days of outdoor fun

People always on the run

Ice cold drinks relieve the thirst

Swimmers race to come in first

Birds soar high on currents strong

Moms hover yet kids do wrong

Free to jump like squirrels brown

Scream and run all over town

Sleep until sun’s high in the sky

Teens do nothing as days fly by

Dads pray for first day of school

Think their lives will be so cool

Summer’s fun comes to an end

Shopping trips: money to spend

 Mind recalls memories sweet

Hordes of children on the street

Must put summer’s toys away

Shortened  time for kids to play

People once had time to run

Fiery days of outdoor fun

Summertime

I’m feeling lazy

Nothing inspires me,

nothing motivates me

to run and jump and play

like when a child

on a hot Ohio day

To be that young again

when the joys of a cold

sprinkler far outweighs

the best new-bought toy

or movie at the theater

Running free as the breeze

half-clothed

hair dripping with sweat

rivulets pouring down

my suntanned face

and I don’t care, for

I’m having the time of my life

Give me an ice-cold glass

of water, sparkling clear

with a wedge of lemon

precariously perched on the edge

and I’m happy these days

Sit me in front of a fan turned

on high.  Mine and mine alone.

Toss me a bowl of low-fat ice cream

and I’ll scream for joy

Throw on some blueberries and

I’m yours for life

The simple pleasures of life

become simpler as we age

Give me free time to read,

write, and cuddle with my cats

and I’m in pure ecstasy.

Ah, there’s nothing like

summertime

To Children

children at play

laugh all the day

rejoice in life

without much strife

wide-eyes surprise

springs from their eyes

dancing, singing

joking, laughing

bubbling with joy

each girl and boy

create the earth

from their own birth

to something new

mystical brew

nary a thought

of something bought

giggling, shouting

each believing

laugh all the day

children at play

Valentine’s Day Lessons

            I still remember my first Valentine’s Day party. I was five years old attending a private Kindergarten, not because my parents were wealthy, but because free Kinder programs didn’t yet exist. My parents enrolled me because I was painfully shy and well behind academically.

            My clothes were hand-me-downs or homemade while my classmates were well-dressed. Even at that age I knew there was a difference. I stood out because of appearance, sociability and academic struggles (I didn’t know my shapes, letter sounds and the basics of math).

            However, when my teachers spoke of there being a party on Valentine’s Day, I was quite excited. With wide-open eyes, I chose the cards that I thought my classmates might like and then dutifully addressed each one. I believed that I would receive an equal number of cards. After all, the teachers said one for each student in the class.

            The big day comes. We’ve had sweets made or purchased by parents. We’re given a lunch bag to put on the front of our desks. One by one we get up and walk about the room, dropping cards in each bag. As time passes, my eyes pool with tears: over and over I was being skipped. Not one student put a card in my bag.

            When my turn came to distribute cards, I hid them in my lap and pretended as if I had none. I understood that I was beneath consideration; my standing was such that I didn’t warrant a cheap paper card.

            Perhaps it was an anomaly, perhaps it was intentional. What was important was that my teachers did nothing to address the discrepancy.

            When Valentine’s neared the next school year, my mom insisted that I prepare cards. Once again I chose the ones that I thought were the best, addressed each, then brought them to school. I was now in a Catholic elementary, so I figured things would be different.

            My teacher told us to put the bag we’d brought on the front of our desks. I’d decorated mine in bright colors and happy symbols. I was proud of the effort I’d put in and hopeful that it would be filled with cards.

            As the rows of students were told to distribute cards, I leaned forward, excited to watch cards drop in my bag. But something went horribly wrong. Just like in Kindergarten, my bag remained empty.

            The same thing happened in second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth. Every year my mom insisted in buying cards, having me address them, and forcing me to bring them to school. Every year my bag remained empty. Every year my eyes filled with tears.

            By this time I hated the day and wished it had never been created. Obviously Valentine’s Day was for special people, not everyone. It was a happy day for kids who had friends, but for loners like myself it was just one more reminder of how isolated we were.

            Thankfully when I moved into middle school, the day took on less importance and was essentially ignored for the rest of my school years.

            When I became an elementary school teacher I distributed written instructions before the day. All students must give cards to all students. Period. Cards could be homemade or store-bought, but there must be one for each student in the class.

            To decrease the chance of embarrassment, students did not roam the class giving out their cards. Instead my instructional assistant collected the cards, sorted them, counted them, and filled in any gaps when the numbers were not equal. She was the one who carried the cards to the desks and placed them in the bags. All students got the same number of cards. No one was made to feel less-than.

            Lessons learned when we are small are quite powerful. I learned that it hurt to feel excluded and that when my teachers did nothing, I understood that I was truly alone. Not wanting my students to experience what I had drove me to be a better teacher.

            With Valentine’s approaching in this year of COVID-19, each of us needs to ensure that everyone feels cherished even if cards are distributed online or through drop-offs at school. Children who are different-than average must not experience a harsher exclusion or differentiation then they already know.

            Find ways to show love that encompass all those in your social circle. Be kind to even the most difficult person in the group. That’s a hard challenge: forcing yourself to put aside angry or hurt feelings in order to be inclusive.

            This is my Valentine’s Day lesson: how we treat others at a young age affects how they see themselves later in life. Children who are ignored or isolated grow up feeling ignored and isolated. Addressing cards to children who are not your children’s friends might make the lonely kid’s day. The smile on that child’s face might change her way of looking at herself, leading to a life of successes.

            Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be inclusive.  

Looks Can Be Deceiving

The author in 1968.

            I recently came across my high school graduation photo from 1968. Granted, it was taken a long time ago, but I still recall how I felt. That time in my life was filled with confused emotions. I was excited about college, but knew nothing in my situation would change because my parents would only allow me to attend the local community college. That meant continuing to live at home, which was not an experience to look forward to.

            I’ve shared stories of what my life was like back then. Let’s suffice it to say that I was miserable. I understood that something was wrong at home, but I lacked the words or experience to understand what it was. As I aged and my knowledge base expanded, I learned the words.

            My mother smothered me and my dad terrified me. I was a middle child, close in age to an older brother who tormented, teased and at times, physically hurt me. I was many years older than a sister who commanded my mother’s attention and could manipulate mom into believing fantastical stories about the evil things I did when mom wasn’t looking.

            My sort-of-safe world was school. No one teased me there because I was invisible. My clothes were made from recycled material, pieces cut out of hand-me-down clothes. My mother chose the styles, so everything was old-fashioned and ultraconservative. I wore saddle shoes that had gone out of style years earlier but they were the only ones I was allowed to have.

            When I look at that photo I see a young woman with a forced smile. She’s showing just enough teeth to categorize it as a smile, but not enough to show joy. The woman is wearing wing-tip glasses which were in vogue back then and her hair is teased and lacquered in a somewhat popular style.

            When the photo appeared in the yearbook, anyone flipping through the pages might stop for a moment and wonder about the pearls. Would they think my family had that kind of money or that they were a gift from a relative? Or would they correctly surmise that they were a studio prop? Assuming they guess correctly that I never owned something so fine, then they might be able to see through the mask.

            I walked the high school halls as a nobody. Academics distinguished me from my peers, but in a social world, I blended into the bricks. To the best of my ability I styled my hair in a contemporary do. I was allowed to choose glass frames similar to what others wore.

            However my physical presence exacted no reaction. No smiles, nods, or words of greeting. I was alone. For four years.

            Is that loneliness reflected in my eyes? In the fake smile? The tilt of my head?

            I think it is, but then I walked in those shoes. All I wanted then was for someone to see me as a valuable human being, worthy to be called friend. Because of my poor self-esteem ingrained and reinforced at home I lacked the ability to initiate a relationship. The person would have to speak first, look my way first, nod first, wave me over first.

But who would want to do that? In high school you are who you are friends with. Anyone wanting to be known would not have called me over. You don’t invite a nobody into your social circle if you’re hoping to rise the ladder. My presence would either have knocked them down a rung or held them on the floor with one foot raised.

You didn’t know me then, so when you look at the picture you see a happy soon-to-graduate girl who’s got her hair done, a smile on her face and a glint in her eyes.

Looks can be deceiving.

The Cat

The tuxedo cat sits outside my door again

like it does almost every day

her (at least I think it’s a female)

expectant eyes and heart

waiting for the welcome in

 

She doesn’t ask for much:

clean water, shelter from the weather

food and a few kind words

 

sometimes she comes inside

just long enough to lick

a morsel left behind

by our resident cat

 

then off she goes

tail held high

into her cat world

 

How different are we, really?

Sure, we want shelter, food,

a few kind words and

water to refresh ourselves

but our desires go beyond

those of the simpler cat

 

For us, bigger is better

more is not enough

assailed by ads for food,

clothing, technology

we sense an inadequacy,

a hollowness that cannot be filled

by shelter, food, water,

and a few kind words

 

I want to be like the cat.

Pat me on the back and I’ll sing

a song of exuberance

that rocks this upside-down world.

 

Come, on, cat.

I’m ready!