When I Was 10, I Paid the Bills
It started when we -- my mother, brother, and I -- moved into an apartment. Up until that point we'd been living with my grandmother, and my mother hadn't had to be financially responsible for nearly ten years. (In truth, she'd never had to be financially responsible. In truth, she'd never had to be responsible.) She'd divorced my father and come to live with her mother, and there we'd stayed, through weeks that unnoticed and unmarked turned into months, then years.
Now I was ten years old, my brother twelve, and my mother forty-one, and she'd never worked a day in her life. Nor would she have to, if she planned carefully. She'd inherited a lot of money from her father, my grandfather, who had been a producer.
Vividly I remember the first night we spent in the new apartment. My mother was frantically anxious. She wanted to do all the unpacking in one night. Utterly unrealistic, but then she was always utterly unrealistic.
I watched, horrified, at this new incarnation of my parent, tearing open box after box, furious tears spilling unchecked down her cheeks and staining the cardboard. I was supposed to be sleeping, but how could I sleep when she was unpacking boxes in my bedroom, and crying?
That night my education began. The mother I'd known at my grandmother's was carefree and young, because she'd had no obligations, no worries. My grandmother had allowed her to remain a child. A child, with children. But when my grandmother met a man and fell in love, and decided that it was time for the two of them to have a go at making a life together, the chips had to fall somewhere.
Did my grandmother know how terrible it was going to be for us three? If she were still alive, I'd like to ask her that. I think that she may have entertained the most upsetting scenario, but that eventually she persuaded herself that my mother was not so damaged that she couldn't manage two children on an allowance. Denial's grip is strong.
We are sitting at the kitchen table. My mother has called me in. "It's time," she's said, and I've understood, without her having to elaborate. She has in front of her a small pile of bills. She hands me the checkbook. I start writing checks and sliding them back to her for her signature. I do the math as well. She licks the stamps.
We go on this way for a time. There aren't many bills; the task takes all of twenty minutes. She's spent a week worrying about the bills, and a week telling me that this time, there are more than we can handle, and we are going to go broke. I've believed her, and I've envisioned this job taking hours. It doesn't; we have enough money (we always do).
I am ten years old and paying the bills. But here's how I see it: This monthly session is at least time my mother and I spend together. I begin to look forward to it; what else should I do? Of course a game or a movie would be nicer, but I know not to be choosy. It's true that most fifth graders do not write checks; I know it already. I have begun the process of keeping my mother sane. I will spend years keeping her sane.
And I will tell no one.
I am older now than my mother was then, in 1977. This past Monday, I held a check in my hands. I stared at it longer than was strictly necessary, but it made me swell with pride, and something else, too. Yes, it was the first real money I'd earned since giving birth to my eldest child. Yes, it was empowering for that.
But the something else? That was the exorcism of yet one more childhood demon, of a fear that like my mother, I wouldn't be able to work, or manage money, or deal with this most fundamental part of adult life.
I am able to work, I am able to earn and manage money, and I am not afraid. My boys do not pay, or even handle, bills; nor do they know how much money is in our checking and savings accounts. At some point I will teach them about money. That's important. But not yet -- they are still children.
On Monday I claimed a victory. Small to most, unfathomably large to me. Today, two days later, I am still grinning, not because of the victory itself (I got paid, and it wasn't a hell of a lot of money), but because, after everything, I found myself strong enough to claim it.
Photo Credit: Chris Young.