No Strings Attached
I felt sorry for her so I sent her $40. I didn't really have 40 extra dollars because I was only making $5.70 an hour then. Forty bucks represented nearly a whole day's work, several tanks of gas, a week's worth of groceries.
It was 1981. I was a single mother with a nine-year old daughter living in an upper flat in the working class area of a not so bad suburb. With child support and my job at an anti-poverty agency, I paid my bills. I didn't save anything or ever get ahead. I just paid my bills. I sat down at the kitchen table after my daughter went to bed and I wrote checks and put them in envelopes with their little payment notices, the coupon for my car, the one for my school loan.
I was conscientious about this part of my life. Other parts were ragged, in various stages of unraveling, getting patched over, ripping apart. My emotional life was a mess. My relationships a nightmare. But my checkbook balanced.
My friend from college seemed to be in a different place. She'd made a drastic decision to leave her life in a small town to go to graduate school, cramming herself and two children into married student housing, only not being married, being separated.
She called and wrote letters, complaining about her situation and asking for support and affirmation. Was going back to school the right thing? I thought so, even though, in her making this decision, many lives had been changed. I was all for independence and self-reliance, though, so setting out on one's own with a goal and purpose seemed a good idea, one I could get behind. I encouraged her.
Leave. Start over. You can do it. I said to her all the things I told myself every day.
She wrote to tell me that life in married housing was intolerable. There was not enough room for her furniture and her children felt out of place. There was no way to arrange things to be comfortable, everything in her life was makeshift and unpleasant. And she had no money. Would I give her $40, she asked.
Would I give her $40? I thought about it. I thought about her needing to buy groceries or make the rent, thought maybe she needed the money to buy books for class, or winter coats for her kids. She didn't say why she needed $40 and I didn't ask. It seemed to me to be a low thing to ask, judgmental. Who was I to say that one use was worthy of $40 and another wasn't?
I sent her two $20 bills in a letter.
I didn't hear back from her. Several more letters were exchanged and a few phone calls. We talked about school and children, what was happening with her ex and mine. But she never mentioned the $40.
Finally, one night on the phone, I asked her, "Did you get the $40 I sent you?"
"Yes," she said. "I bought the cutest pair of shoes." She went on to explain that all she had were boots to deal with the hard Midwestern winter and boring mom shoes and how buying the new shoes that really weren't good for anything but dressing up and feeling special again had really helped her emotionally, brightened her outlook on everything.
I was upset about the shoes because in my mind I saw the $40 buying something that she had to have, like food or mittens. Then I thought that maybe my thinking was too simplistic and I wasn't thinking of the therapeutic value of $40, how buying cute shoes could be a legitimate use of a friend's gift. But I didn't say, 'here's $40, go buy yourself some new shoes.'
But I didn't tell her to go buy peanut butter either. Because, remember, I didn't think it was my place to tell her or ask her or expect her to qualify in some way for my charity.
She was my friend and she asked for $40. That should have been enough for me.