Government Cheese

“Remembering sitting outside the armory waiting for Mom who was in line for government cheese and butter?”

My two-years-younger brother and I have never talked about our childhood growing up outside of the stuff that was happy.   Sure we would talk about the sports we played – the successes we both had with them.  We would talk about the time he and his friends caught gophers at a local park, brought them all home, only to be bit by them as they were splitting up who would get which one as a pet.  We would talk about sledding in the snow. We would talk about the pets we loved – the great black lab we had who would convince everyone he was starving or thirsty by dumping his water on himself than carrying around the water dish.  We would talk about the cats we had during the winter – the cats whose jobs it was to catch the mice coming into the house.

But we never – ever – talked about the government cheese, the reduced school lunches, the stress we felt if we were told to bring that “$5 for the field trip tomorrow”, and the times we prayed we didn’t need to tell Mom and Dad we needed new shoes for a sport we were playing.

Until the other night.

My youngest brother’s recent lectures to us both about hanging on to the bad things in the past – instead of letting it go – caused him to mention these things.

“If we needed a specific color shirt for something at school, I would lay awake at night afraid of what Mom and Dad would do.”

Yeah. I know.

While some people will talk about advantage and race/sex, I can’t help but wonder why they miss the big one – economics.  I was from a family who defined working poor.  We had house keys around our necks. And we had full run of things in the summer because – while considered too young by today’s standards – my parents had to risk it.  They couldn’t afford babysitters.  We had a huge garden for one simple reason – we needed the food – and we had freezers full of it.  Combined with my dad’s hunting and fishing, we had food in the winter when the cost each month to heat the house would rise to the $300-400 range….in 1985 to offer some perspective.

“I wonder if he realizes that the only reason neither you or I could do what he does for a living is because we need that security – that security that someone isn’t going to walk into the place one day and decided to escort you out because they are going a different direction.  We have at least forewarning unless we truly fuck up.”

Yes. Both he and I did the contract gig for a while – but neither could handle it.  The uncertainty almost killed us from the stress.  So now, he does the contract gig on the side – and I won’t do it.

“I mean, think about how easily it is for us now to decide the kids need something for school.  We don’t have to sit down and wonder what isn’t going to get paid this week – or hope that Pepsi we have will give us enough calories because that’s it for lunch. While it isn’t always easy, it is no where near our life then.”

We both incurred a huge amount of debt to go to college.   Mine was close to $30k for four years.  His was about $20K.  When I paid mine off (and my dad’s too because that was the agreement), I did it in 6 years instead of the 10.  I hated having it looming over me.  He paid it off early too.  Both remembered my mom getting excited when my ear surgery bills got paid off – a surgery I got when I was 6 – paid off when I was 17.  She did it $5 at a time.  All incurred because they found a good doctor who took on the debt because it was more important I got treated than it was my parents had insurance.

“Knowing the collection agency woman by first name was something I never wanted” he commented.  Yeah, me neither.

When my youngest brother goes after my parents – criticizing the life they lead now – it drives me fucking crazy.  He has no idea what their life was like – three kids, three jobs, and a desire to make sure we didn’t know how bad it was financially.

But we knew.  We just pretended to not know.

They deserve respect for where they are on their life journey.  They own a house. They own decent cars. They don’t fret about food. And they have insurance so even my mom’s medical craziness is a bit less stressful.

Where people are at right now, you do not know their journey.  Sure I may be considered upper middle class while he is solidly middle class – but we both know what it’s like to be working poor.  We both worked our asses off to get the lives we have today.  We both worked our asses off to get the money to make our journey out of that when in high school. A senior in high school working 30+ hours a week while going to school full-time, playing sports, and taking advanced classes  – yeah, my senior year was far from typical.  We cannot be judged by our today as it was our journey that defines us.

I remember my dad before my brother’s wedding getting all teary beforehand.  All the kids were there – me back with the family from Oregon – something that wasn’t always able to happen given costs.  And my dad took us aside and apologized.  He apologized for the life he gave us – he apologized for the stresses and the rough times when his anger and stress would overshadow everything in the house.   After his heart attack and other issues, he felt like he had to say something – he regretted and did not want anything left unsaid.

My youngest brother was moved, but not like me and my younger bro.  We both reassured him over and over again that there was always more laughter and love in the house than anything else including stress and money.  We told him that we are who we are today because of where we came from. While nothing is perfect – life rarely is.

We only have here and now – and living in happiness and joy – living in good memories – well, that’s why we never talk about the government cheese…..because in the end, it doesn’t matter.

What do you think?

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