I've been watching American Idol. As they do every year, the producers select certain Idol hopefuls to share their life stories so you get to know them on a more personal level. Not all of them make it through to the final round, but that's not the point. The point is to make you feel a connection with the person, with the show. There was one particular contestant this year who shared about what it was like to grow up in a poor family. One line she said struck me. She said, "There's worse things in life than doing without. Much worse." And it's true. Doing without is easy; it's everything else that's the kicker.
It's the waiting for two weeks by the mailbox for the food stamps to come so you can buy milk. It's not having money to join the school band cause your family can't afford the instrument. It's having to wear ugly clothes that are one size too small. It's standing in line on Saturday mornings so you can get your allotment of government cheese (which is surprisingly tasty, by the way) and government peanut butter and government powdered mashed potatoes. It's getting a "Free Burger" coupon from Burger King and then when you get there, your dad stands at the counter counting out pennies for a milkshake but he doesn't have enough money for it so he has to tell the lady "Never mind," all the while some kid from your school just happens to be there and makes fun of you cause your lousy dad can't even afford a milkshake. It's that kind of stuff. Not bad enough on it's own to be something to make you cry, but just bad enough to make you feel like you could.
But being poor is no crime, and there's no shame in the fact that my dad couldn't afford milkshakes. I never faulted him for that, even once. There are worse things in life than going without. Much worse. No, not having "stuff" was not an issue - It was the lack of care, the utter neglect that was worse. After Frances left, Bud almost totally checked out of parenting.
For starters, I would go weeks (even months) at a time without bathing. You could have taken soil samples from the layers of dirt under my nails and around my neck. Our clothes were always filthy and reeked of cigarette smoke. I didn't brush my teeth which was obvious from my black, rotting smile. I got head lice a number of times and I remember my grandma cutting my hair so short that I cried. It was ugly hair and I looked like a boy, but short hair doesn't tangle and it would help keep bugs away so short hair it was. I was the smelly kid. The kid everyone makes fun of.
Our house was equally horrific. There were never any chores done in our house except dishes. Vacuuming? Never. Sweeping? Never. Mopping? Never. Change the sheets of my bed? That's a joke, right? We never cleaned our toilet. Layers and layers, years and years of grime and dirt clung to every inch of that house. We nailed dingy, stained bedsheets above the windows for curtains. It was the most oppressive and disgusting house you can imagine. Eventually the stench and gross-factor reached an all time high and relatives stopped coming by to check on us. It was their way of dealing; if they never entered the trailer and saw the foulness firsthand then they could pretend it didn't exist thereby excusing themselves of having to take action. Out of sight, out of mind.
The only times we had food in the house was after the first of the month when Bud received his food stamps. Bud had no cooking skills, no thoughts for ingredients to purchase for future meals, so when we grocery shopped we piled our cart with cookies, ice cream, chips, liters of soda, Kid Cuisine meals, cans of Denti Moore beef stew, Chef Boyardee, pickled pigs feet, sardines, Spam, and whatever else you can think of that is the opposite of food. Then we would spend the next week in a sugar and caffeine induced haze. After a week of gorging, all of the food would be gone - no food again for another three weeks. One time I remember foraging through our house during one of these food stamp droughts and after looking through our entire refrigerator and all of the cabinets the only edible thing I came across was one tub of Crisco. I do not recommend eating Crisco. However, as bleak as it sounds I never once went to bed hungry. My grandparents next door were my saving grace. On Crisco days, I could just walk over to their home and find something in their cabinets to satisfy my growing belly.
Bud's apathy for our care didn't stop with hygiene and food. His careless attitude carried over into my education. From first grade to eighth grade, I never did homework, save maybe a few times here or there. My second grade teacher kept a log of turned-in homework for each week. At the end of the week she would give whoever had turned in every homework assignment a special apple to put on the front door of the classroom and then she would hand you a homemade cupcake that you could eat in the breezeway outside class. Mmmm. I spent every stinkin' Friday staring at those cupcakes, licking my lips. So one week on my own accord, I decided to make one of those cupcakes mine. I did every homework assignment that week. I made sure I turned in everything just as Mrs. Dillard wanted it. And when Friday afternoon came, I waited for her to pass out cupcakes with unparalleled eagerness. You are mine, Pillsbury Confetti Cupcake. She began calling names. "Okay, Sarah So-So. Come get your well-deserved cupcake." I waited for her to call my name. I knew I would be last because my name was at the end of the alphabet. She called more names. It's getting close! I can already taste you, cupcake! A few more names and then... she closed her notebook. Wait. You didn't call my name. How could she not have known I turned in all of my homework? I had worked my little seven-year-old butt off all week! I earned a friggin' cupcake! WHERE IS MY CUPCAKE?!!
As fate would have it, she asked those of us remaining in the classroom (the homework non-doers) "Do any of you think you deserve a cupcake?" She asked it in such a condescending tone. She was mocking us, taunting us with her cupcakes. I raised my hand meekly. "Crystal, you think YOU deserve a cupcake? Well, let's SEE." She was mean. She didn't think I deserved a cupcake. She hadn't even noticed all of the effort I put into doing my homework all week, and it is not an easy thing to motivate yourself to do homework all on your own when you're just a little kid. She checked her notebook. She looked surprised when she realized that she was so used to not calling my name that she had overlooked me this one time. "Oh. Well, I guess you do get a cupcake." No apology. No enthusiasm or pride for me in her voice. She gave me a cupcake and I went outside to eat it with my classmates. By this time most of them were finished eating and were returning back inside. There was no shared common moment in rejoicing over our sweet reward. What should have been a delicious, victorious cupcake turned out to be a hollow, tasteless victory. This cake did not taste like the cupcake of a smart, hard worker; it tasted like a handout to a kid no one thought much of. And when I walked back to class, I noticed that she hadn't even bothered to put my apple on the door. What should have been a moment to praise me and encourage me, turned into a moment of humiliation and a realization that the grown-ups in my life already knew what I secretly thought in my heart: My successes or my failures didn't matter because I would grow up to be no one special.
In kindergarten I had been hopeful about school but now I was repulsed by school. I was the student no teacher likes to have. I made F's. I didn't do my homework. I didn't pay attention in class. I didn't study for tests. My desk was a mess. I didn't take care of my books. I skipped so much school one year I had to go to truancy court. When it came to school, I was a failure. But in my defense, how could it have been any other way? There should have been an adult at home saying, "Okay, it's time to do homework." And when I finished homework, there should have been an adult there to say, "Okay, let me check your homework." And when I had an upcoming test, there should have been an adult there to say, "Okay, now it's time to study for your test." But there wasn't. There was no guidance. There was no instruction. There was no accountability. No praise for a job well done or consequences for a job left undone. Bud's attitude about my schooling was like testing to see if spaghetti noodles are done - just throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. I didn't. I flopped.
It was a world without rules. I was abandoned by my mother and abandoned by my father. Bud was there, yes. He was present in body but there is certainly more to parenting than just being a warm body. I needed structure. I needed boundaries. I needed love and praise and firmness and consequences and... soap. I needed soap. But there was none. I skipped school when I wanted. I slept when I wanted. I woke when I wanted. I ate what I wanted. I watched on TV what I wanted. I listened to inappropriate music. I was exposed to inappropriate language and images. I cursed and yelled at the drop of a hat. I was a filthy, undesirable little creature.
These were sorrowful days, but dark as these circumstances were they would not be the darkest shadows to make their way across my childhood landscape. Something far more sinister, something wicked and vile, was cloaked and lurking in the deep waters, watching me from below and waiting for the perfect moment to snatch me and drag my soul away from any chance of ever being rescued.