Money Where My Mouth Is, and Other Bullsh*t

I haven't spoken to my mother since Christmas break.

She has a t-shirt that reads "Mother and Daughter by Chance, Friends by Choice", and she would wear it every time she came up to visit me.  We've spoken on the phone at least once a week for almost all of my adult life.  She had me when she was seventeen, and we grew up together, she and me.  She had foster children when I had toddlers, and we would talk about what it is to be a parent, now, when there are so many rules and so much judgement and such a competition to Do it Right.

We talked a lot.

At first it was me calling to rant because there was no one else in the world who understood me quite as well.  There was no one else in the world who had my back, all the time, no matter what, and would just let me be FURIOUS over whatever petty thing.  And laugh with me when the mad was gone and I could see for myself my own ridiculousness.  But then, my mum, whose life has always been a roller-coaster sinking to Incredibly Bad and then rising again to Tenuously Good before rocketing straight back down again....  My mum had a bad year.

At exactly the time that I was accepted into graduate school, with all of its ancillary expenses, my mum's bad year turned into something horrific.  It sucked the air out of our lives and made it hard to breathe.  It left her, in her fifties now, without an employer or any prospects, with a stack of unpaid bills long past due and a rent payment that had been hard to make when life was Mostly Okay.  It's that part of the rollercoaster where you really start to wonder how well this rig had been tested, you know?  Where the speed and the force make you wonder if your heart could actually stop this way, right here, before screaming back up the rise, again.

Except, of course, the ride has slowed down.  No one makes a rollercoaster-type recovery from something like this.  It's slow and incremental.  The air is viscous.  The wheels are jammed.  The motor is straining, gears are slipping, and it's hard not to wonder if today is the day it just.  Stops.

But we were still talking.  And Christmas was wonderful.  We had the most relaxing holiday meal together that any of us have enjoyed in a lot of years.  We laughed, together.  We felt like a real family, together.  We talked about getting together again, soon, for skating and fun just hanging out.  For a family like ours, having gone through three deaths in a year, and one major crisis....  Making plans to hang out together just for fun was a very big deal.

My sister called me out of the blue a few days later.  She lives at home, and neither of us are phone people, so our lives get communicated to each other through social media unless it's really important.  We exchanged pleasantries while I waited for her to tell me Mum needed more money.  I was sure that was why she was calling.  And my stomach tied itself in complicated knots while I tried to figure out how I was going to answer that.  I could do it, if I had to.  But that debt-of-gratitude resentment had already started to build between my mum and me, you know?  Because when you're an independent woman, when you've been a single mother just-barely-hanging-on for more than thirty years, calling to ask your daughter for money is hard.  And when you're forced to do hard things too often, well....

So, when my sister finally came out with it; when she told me that she had decided to leave college I just about fell over.  With only a single two-week practicum between her and the end of her program, it was the absolute last thing I was expecting to hear.  But when she explained that she had finally landed a decent job, and that she'd been refused the time off to complete her practicum, I understood in a way that made me fall into my chair.

She was closing the door to keep the house up.  She was working her part-time job, plus two paper routes, plus helping our mum out with childcare contract work.  She was turning her back on almost two years of post-secondary education because her household needed the money.

That was hard to hear.

I've always believed that education is our best bet for breaking the poverty cycle.  Whether or not you buy into the "culture of poverty" or "learned dependence" or any other label defining the ways that poor people stay poor, you can't argue that education doesn't at least give us a chance.  So when my sister mentioned, "Mum thinks she's holding me back", I shouted, "SHE IS!"  Because as much as I want my mum to feel the comfort of security – as proud as I am of my sister for making this difficult choice for the good of her family, I hate that she had to make this choice.

And, of course, Mum knows that.

I haven't spoken to my mother in over a month because I'm not ready to talk about this in any rational way.  Because if I call right now I'll say things that are hurtful, accusatory.  And we'll have to talk about how we failed, my mum and me, to get my baby sister that better life we promised her when she was two and I was fourteen and her father walked away forever.  Because I just spent another $1500 on grad school, and even though I know this is the best thing for me, for my kids and my little household, I also know how much that money could do for the family that raised me.

I haven't spoken to my mum since Christmas because we are both passionate women who will say things that can't be unsaid.  I hope we're ready to talk, soon.


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