The Life We Pay For

My sister and I both grew up in poverty. Why have our lives turned out so differently?

Aimee Flom

My sister, Missy, was humiliated in Fred Meyer a few months ago. She was using her food stamp card to purchase donuts and was judged by other people in line. As children we lived together in the indignity of poverty. Today my sister lives there still. 

Rebecca Solnit tells us, “Empathy is first of all an act of imagination.” My sister has a big imagination and an excess of empathy. I believe empathy and imagination are both vital to citizenship, because while those in power work to pit the poor against the middle class, and the poor of color against the poor white, stories help us imagine ourselves into one another’s lives. So I have resolved to be brave, to write beyond my shame, to tell stories that might help the people in the grocery line understand the tattooed single mom buying donuts with tax dollars the way I understand her.

I wonder to myself, what would I say to those shoppers if I could show them any image of my sister? 

I might tell them about Missy’s birth. She was one of the first babies in Oregon to survive untreated RH factor. She was even featured in the Oregonian. When she was little, Missy would ask us to pull out that carefully folded-away evidence of her miracle. She loved hearing about the doctors and transfusions it took to shepherd her safely into this world. Maybe I’d tell the shoppers that I taught Missy her ABCs and how to write her name before she started school. Or that she sucked her two middle fingers when she was sleepy or afraid, a habit she continued until her fellow kindergarteners shamed her out of it. Since I was six, I have been watching over my baby sister. I carry her stories with me everywhere I go. 

If I could tell only one story to the people in Fred Meyer, I would tell them about my sister’s talent for Rollerblading. Missy was really good at Rollerblading when we were kids—I mean ridiculously good. This was back when teenagers were into Rollerblading. Missy was a child, so she was a novelty. Imagine this awesome little kid zipping around on her shitty hand-me-down ’blades and showing up the high schoolers who had better gear and worked hard to maintain serious ’blader personas. 

I love this image of my sister. She liked her dark brown hair cut short and preferred to wear our brother’s old clothes so she looked like a little dude skating around. She had this graceful athleticism that made her look like she had been in training with a Rollerblading coach. Soaring through space on wheels was so natural to Missy that I think she couldn’t imagine what it was like for the rest of us. When her body was in motion, the laws of physics conspired in her favor. Every shift of her hip, every bend of her knee seemed to call forth the forces of nature. Gravity and air worked to support her, to create effortless beauty. It was truly a gift.

My mom, a receptionist at the local emergency room, insisted on elbow pads and a helmet. Missy shed them as soon as she was out of Mom’s sight, which was most of the time. Missy enjoyed her badass reputation in the neighborhood, and the helmet showed weakness. Safety gear meant crashing was possible. 

I enjoyed skating casually but didn’t like Rollerblading with my sister because she was far better than me. We’ve never been good at allowing one another to change the roles we’ve played since she was born. I was supposed to be better at things. She ran around, explored, fell, cried, and got up again. I chased her with Band-Aids, cleaned and organized, tried to teach her about sitting still. I admit I was jealous. It can be hard to see someone so free in her body, doing something that comes naturally, when you have never found anything like that for yourself.

When Missy was in her Rollerblading prime, we moved to the east side of The Dalles, something my mom had been saving toward. She wanted us to go to school in D12 (District 12), where there were fewer fights and more kids with dads. Many of our new friends played organized sports, went to church, and had parents who owned their homes. We rented a house from a woman who lived in California but came to town every summer to windsurf. She offered our mom affordable rent. In exchange, she moved in each summer, displacing Mom to my room.

Despite the stigma that followed kids from the west side, we made friends. Still, most parents preferred that we come play at their house. We were used to that. Our house had an aura of danger. Our single mom was rarely home; she worked at the hospital during the week and at JC Penney on weekends and evenings. She smoked, and we carried the smell around with us on our clothing. She visited local bars. I would call the Shamrock or the Spillway on her night out, forcing the bartender to holler, “Arlene, is there an Arlene here? Your kid’s calling.” When she came to the phone I’d ask when she’d be home or tell her my brother hit me, something totally unimportant. I did it to make sure that anyone hanging around would know she had kids. I had trouble letting my mom take any time for herself. 

After work, our mom often sat at our laminate faux-marble kitchen table with the radio on, smoking cigarettes and drinking Natural Light while reading romance novels with glimpses of breast or thigh on their covers. She might start to sing along or engage in a sort of conversation with the radio. I remember once hearing Lionel Ritchie sing, “Hello… Is it me you’re looking for…” and she replied out loud, her voice suggestive, “Why yes, Lionel, it is you I’m looking for.” This is a sweet image of my mom. I can remember her feathered hair, the slope of her freckled shoulders, her feet up on the next chair. Today I know lots of upper-middle-class moms who think it’s clever to sneak wine or cigarettes in the afternoon. Back then I felt relief that my friends’ parents didn’t want their kids to come over. My family, my house, our life embarrassed me. I was shallow like that. But Missy never was. She skated along being herself. 

There were benefits to our way of life. We had freedom to create educational mischief. We were pretty good at fixing broken stuff and maintaining our own bikes. We could get around town on our own and break into the house when we locked ourselves out. We occasionally adopted stray cats while Mom was at work and wore her down to let us keep them. We made creative meals. Missy and I invented this recipe where we removed the crust from white bread and rolled it around, adding water until it became like dough. We would flatten it out, slather it with peanut butter and jelly, then roll it up into a ball. Basically, we did a lot of work to eat PB and Js. We mostly stayed in line. We gave each other wounds; we patched each other up.

As Missy began adolescence, our mom had a devastating breakdown. We became temporarily motherless. This was problematic since she was a single parent. I’m reluctant to tell you this part because I’m afraid you’ll judge my mom. She was an excellent single mother, and this episode was beyond her control. Bad things happen, things that we wouldn’t choose. Everyone miscalculates. The consequences are just greater when you don’t have any money or social support.

My sister and I tried to be a family alone for a while, but it wasn’t working out. At some point a teacher figured it out and told me she’d have to call children’s services. I called Missy’s dad and asked if she could live with him, and I rented my cousin’s attic. That was the end of my childhood, but not Missy’s. I was seventeen. She was only eleven. Missy was passed around among increasingly less stable households for about eighteen months. The school system was no help. She passed sixth grade despite having attended only twenty-nine full days. Stepping into a school was an opportunity to be mocked or alienated for her haircut, her clothes, her chronic tardiness. She kept plugging along, being empathetic and generous. She walked alone to the high school to support me when I graduated.

An illustration of a girl with scabbed knees inline-skating on a street lined with flowers.
Aimee Flom

 

Over the course of her life my sister has often bankrupted herself for the sake of others. She once let a homeless woman stay in her garage to try and kick heroin. The woman appealed to Missy as a mother, saying all she wanted to do was get clean and see her kids again. Instead, she came into the house while Missy was at work and took the Christmas fund my sister had stashed away from cleaning houses on weekends. Missy once used her last twenty dollars to buy diapers for a stranger who made a plea on Facebook because it wasn’t enough to pay any of her own overdue bills anyway. My sister believes the world is better when she helps people out. 

I will never forgive myself for leaving Missy. I was choosing freedom and I felt relief. I had the excuse that it was out of my hands, but that’s not really true. I could’ve found a way. I was tired of keeping tabs on her. I wanted to stay late at school for play practice, invite friends to our mom-free duplex to drink Mad Dog 20/20. I felt guilty partying in front of Missy. With her, I wanted to be responsible, to make her do her homework and take baths. And, because it was her nature to burst through barriers, she was hard to control. She was like light, always slipping through my grip to touch whatever she wanted. So I let her go.

Telling me that it wasn’t my fault, or that children shouldn’t have to worry about raising their siblings, doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me painfully bitter about the blind spots of privilege. This family dynamic is a reality for many children in this country. And if you’re feeling nothing but judgment toward their parents, you’re part of the problem. Generational poverty is far too complex for us to blame purely on individual choices.

When I was younger I wanted people to tell me it wasn’t my responsibility. Now I want to live with my guilt because I am sitting here in my office, a room of my own, typing on my MacBook, drinking organic fair-trade coffee with soy milk while my Shih Tzu–poodle mix sleeps at my feet. Meanwhile, my sister has been pushed out to the margins of society, a very hard place to raise kids.

I know that I don’t deserve stability any more than she deserves instability. In reality, my being middle class is as much a happy accident as it is due to any merit on my part. In reality, I could easily be where my sister is today. And so could you.

My sister’s husband asked for a divorce when her daughter was four months old. Since then she’s struggled, but she did well for ten years, bobbing beneath the poverty line but keeping her head above water. She volunteered in her daughter’s classroom and with her Girl Scout troop. Then she had a manic episode that lasted months. I have tried to puzzle out the trigger. The medication cocktail her doctor prescribed? Undiagnosed bipolar disorder? Substance use disorder? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is she lost her job, her insurance, her house. This episode resulted in pregnancy, and now I have two healthy, lovely nieces. 

Now Missy is trying to claw her way out of the hole she’s in. Some days the depression is so heavy she can barely get out of bed. Her girls are her motivation. It’s hard to resist the bright smile of her new little girl, an easy child with an incredible personality. She brings light, but each day for my sister is still a slow, exhausting climb as she tries to carry her two children with her.

The social safety net is part of Missy’s tedious journey. She receives food stamps, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) vouchers, and housing assistance. Applying for and maintaining these benefits is like a job in itself. I imagine the system keeps people from finding jobs because navigating the system itself is so much work. I can tell you that welfare does not keep people from finding jobs because they are comfortable on it. Nobody can live comfortably on welfare. 

The child support my sister receives goes to the state so they can factor it in as income before doling out benefits. After a nine-month wait she received a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) voucher, but landlords set rent just above HUD limits to avoid renting to poor people. Missy asked me to ride around with her one day so she wouldn’t have to pull the car seat out each time she stopped to drop an application at a low-income apartment building. The baby was little, not even crawling yet. She was walking by the time Missy’s name came up for project housing. She and the girls moved into a small apartment where they are subject to regular inspections. If she accepts any work, her income will reduce her benefits and increase her rent. The subsidized childcare available to her has a six-month wait list, and she can’t put her name on it until she has a job. 

WIC will pay for milk, cereal, baby formula. But she needs to be careful when buying groceries to make sure the WIC-approved items are paid for separately before the cashier runs her food stamp card. Otherwise, she won’t have enough left at the end of the month. The incident in the grocery line was a result of her effort to manage these parameters. The cashier ignored her request to ring up separate orders, so the cost of the baby’s formula pushed her grocery bill past her remaining food stamp balance. 

 

 

The cashier’s irritated instructions let everyone in line know that the holdup was welfare related. Missy became uncomfortable with the attention. Formula is expensive, and since she didn’t have enough credit on her food stamp card to pay for her order, she put the most expensive item back. It was the quickest way to get the line moving. 

One man in line offered to pay the rest of her grocery bill, but she thanked him and said she’d be back to take care of it. The woman directly behind her huffed a comment about the fact that she put back the formula and not the dozen donuts. Another woman followed her out as she left the store, trying to tell her about all the programs available to help her feed her kids. The entire episode was one humiliation heaped on top of another.

I want those people to see Missy in a moment of strength and pride. To watch her doing something far better than most of us can ever hope to, and to see her as capable and generous. I want her to see herself that way, too. Because right now she’s caught in the shame of pushing her grocery cart while holding back tears. 

But first, I might tell them that my sister irritates me, too. Sometimes I am exhausted by her, frustrated with her decisions. When she’s feeling nervous, as she was in Fred Meyer that day, she gets twitchy. Her eyes dart, her speech becomes a staccato of self-consciousness, her left hand begins a frantic migration, tries to rest at her side, moves to scratch her chest, lifts to her forehead to adjust her hair. It makes me so uncomfortable that I want to grab her and force her to be still.

My sister is the first person I ever felt unconditional love for. I held her when she was a baby, dressed her up. I have cared for her after surgery, changed her girls’ diapers and fed them while she worked. I sat with her when she heard her cancer diagnosis and calmed her angry tears after the clerk in a store that sells expensive baby goods made her feel like trash in a scene right out of Pretty Woman. But I have also questioned her parenting and weakened her confidence in herself. 

My sister is a living, real person to me, not some abstract Dickens character. Fallout from her life impacts me daily. I impose my opinions on her all the time. I give unsolicited advice on how she should spend her time and money. We have a brother, too, and I don’t inflict my judgments on him. Why do I do it to my adult sister? Because she is poor, and I perceive that she needs my wisdom because I am no longer poor.

Scrutiny is a consequence of having less in America. Those who have more feel it gives them the right to decide what is best for you. It’s even worse if you receive benefits because then others feel you owe them, or they own you. Yours is a life they pay for. Politicians and fellow citizens decide what treatments your doctor can offer. They dictate the groceries you’re allowed to buy. Your children are on a wait list at the rare dental office that accepts state-covered patients. When your daughter finally gets seen, that dentist refers you to an orthodontist where they ask you to sign a predatory contract. You pay nearly double because lawmakers don’t consider braces medically necessary, though there is no way they’d let their own children go without them. 

Chatter about the poor is almost always negative and feels more acceptable as long as we replace the word poor with other words. White trash, tweaker, felon, welfare mom, deadbeat dad, dropout, addict, crack baby. As a child, I internalized these negative images and turned them into weapons against my own people. Only four members of my family are in my life today because my singular goal was to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I wanted to wash the dirty feeling off, be clean of the accusation of laziness and self-indulgence. Now that I am in the middle class, I notice that lonely single parents here go out to the bars, too. They just have babysitters who will make sure their kids eat an organic snack and do their homework before bed. 

From this side of the poverty line, I’ve seen marriages fall apart in spectacle, people neglect their children and abuse substances, teenagers sell cocaine and crash cars. None of it comes with the same stigma. In the middle class, we consider these misfortunes a rough patch, a temporary setback. We give people privacy around them.

We recognize the mistakes of the poor in bold print, but not those of the moneyed. Inversely, we do not usually acknowledge the merits of the poor. The way they take care of each other, how they get by with so little. Why is it that financially secure people need to shame the poor? Why do we make those with less feel shitty about their circumstances? Our childhood had beauty, magic, and poetry. Why diminish it? We should get to keep that. 

Every day my sister straddles the border between what she wishes she could give her kids and what she actually can. Often, she ends up giving them what you might consider the wrong things, like donuts or an American Girl doll. Using her tax refund to buy her daughter a hoverboard made my niece smile when orthodontia was unattainable. And being the kid who brings a box of donuts to the Girl Scout meeting buys her a bit of the social currency she’ll lose when she’s the teenager with crooked teeth. 

You may think it’s wasteful. I see my sister trying to give her kids a taste of what she had when she was a little Rollerblading badass, something that elevates them and makes them special, or at least as good as others. My sister no longer moves through the world with speed and grace. Each day is a slow struggle. Her choices are limited, and every decision results in some sort of loss. The other day she texted me, I don’t think this is the life I paid for. She’s right. 

Comments

10 comments have been posted.

If I didn’t have to go to work right now, I would write an essay right here, right now, about why this is the most important piece of writing I’ve read in such a long while. Thank you, for your insight, and most of all your honest, beautiful heart that allowed these words to be written.

Marlis | May 2019 | Portland, OR

What an eloquent and sensitive story. My heart was deeply moved by your love and compassion. You are an exceptional sister and an admirable woman. Deepest bows to you and Missy.

Lorie Hull | May 2019 |

This is so beautiful Tina, and yes Missy has been through so much and I feel so bad for her. You are right, she needs lots of encouragement and Love to get better. I Pray for her all of the time that she see's she is worthy of love and respect.

Hazel lLoper | May 2019 | S

Tina, I know you probably don’t remember your old aunt Cynde y’all were very little the last time I seen you guys . I want you too all know how much I love y’all and am proud of all three of you kids . Life is hard for sure auntie had to learn the hard way but as you know it does get better . I love your story it’s beautiful for sure and I miss y’all and your mom . Just know y’all do have family that loves you and is very proud of y’all !

Cynde Glass | May 2019 | Alabama

So lovely!

Jennifer Hanlon-Wilde | May 2019 |

Thank you for sharing this beautiful picture of your sister. Thank you it made me cried, she is so lucky to have somebody like you as a sister. Really love it!

Maria A Peña | May 2019 | The Dalles

Tina, this is a touching, important piece of writing. Somehow, somewhere it should be required reading. I feel for your sister. I also feel for all you have accomplished, and we are lucky to have you as a faculty member at Columbia Gorge community college. I am just finishing a memoir, and basically it is and homage to friends, family members, teachers, mentors, dumb luck, opportunity, and (drum roll, please) white privilege, all of which have benefited me in so many ways. I only wish your sister could have had the same.

Tom Kaser | May 2019 |

This is beautiful. You captured your sister exactly as i remember her as a child... it made me cry. Thank you for writing this!

Karren Hanson | May 2019 | Somewhere, USA

This is a powerful piece of storytelling. I can empathize with the writer and the sister.

Rob Kovacich | May 2019 | Mt Hood

I cried so much while reading this. Missy spent many days and night at our house. ( 1 block away from Cornel Wright elementary) to this day I love Missy Sue with all of my heart.This is a beautiful eye opening testimonial.

Lynita Allen | May 2019 |

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Editor's Note: Pushing Forward, Holding Back

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Opening up Empathy

From the Director: Paying Attention

Process and Privilege

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Reflections on an Icon

Drill

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