I’m not sure how to start this piece. I’ve never written about this part of my childhood in a direct way before, and I think I’ve kept it in a strange shame closet (even though I am not ashamed of it). I’m not even sure why. I may have grown up poor, but I’m not sure I’d change it if given the chance; I think it gave me an appreciation for so many things I might not have otherwise.
I was born in 1977. I have two older brothers, eight and nine years older than me. I was an accident. Not that it matters, but I was.
I don’t care how I got here, I’m just glad I got here.
Life was not easy for my parents and brothers before I arrived. Shortly before I was born, my parents moved to the Pacific Northwest from California. A while before that, they had lived in a tent for a year; the only option at the time.
The house I grew up in was 250 square feet. If that sounds impossibly tiny, it’s because it was. I shared a room with my parents (my bed was a small couch that had been made into a bed) until the summer between my fifth and sixth grade year. My brothers lived in the attic where they couldn’t stand up all the way. We all shared one small bathroom. We had a wood burning stove. A small television. And a usable, but barely functioning refrigerator and oven.
I remember the refrigerator.
When people find out I was poor growing up, I’ve never really been able to impart how poor we were.
The refrigerator is the first clue.
For years, many years, our refrigerator was broken. It didn’t work. Outside in our shed, there was a large freezer and I’m not even sure where it came from.
Twice a day, every day, we would “change the jugs.” In the shed freezer, there were old two-liter bottles and gallon milk jugs filled with water. We would take the frozen ones inside to keep the refrigerator cool, and take the melted ones back outside to freeze again.
For so long I’ve carried shame about that. But thinking about it now…it just was. It wasn’t ideal; it was reality. No matter how hot or cold it was outside, twice a day, every day, we changed the jugs. When we eventually moved to a different house many years later, I remember marveling at a refrigerator that actually worked. It had lights inside and everything. I was blown away.
Our oven also didn’t work. I believe the stove top worked, but the oven did not. I have a distinct memory of my mother being very sad and upset one night. I was in kindergarten. I was supposed to bring cookies for something the next day and we didn’t have the money to buy any, and we couldn’t make any because the oven didn’t work. I remember my mother sitting in the kitchen in tears because she couldn’t do anything about it. Not the situation, not the teasing I’d endure, nothing. I can almost feel her pain thinking about it now.
There were times in school when parents would be invited to participate in things, and times when it was harder than others to do so.
In kindergarten, around Valentine’s Day, our teacher, Mrs. Frasier, had us create a post office where we put our valentines for each other. She had asked the parents to mail a valentine to the school for their child so she could give each of us actual mail in class.
I knew my parents didn’t have money for that sort of thing, and I remember that sinking feeling, day after day, watching other people get their mail while I knew I wouldn’t have anything. On the last day, a valentine came for me from my parents. I have no idea how they managed it, but they did.
I had a wonderful teacher friend named Mrs. Williams (she babysat my brothers while I was being born). She smelled nice. All these years later, I still remember exactly how she smelled. Once in a great while, I will smell someone’s perfume as they walk past, and it’s like she is there, sitting next to me, talking about books.
Smells are a time machine.
Mrs. Williams knew I loved to read. She knew I had taught myself to read well before I was in preschool, and that I consistently had the maximum of books checked out from the library.
She also knew I loved stickers.
She told me that for each book I read, if I brought it to her and told her about it, I could choose a sticker from her amazing sticker box in her classroom.
Well that changed so much for me.
Nearly every morning before school started, I’d go to her room, take my stack of books in with me, tell her about them, and carefully choose my stickers. For me, to this day, stickers still hold a magical place in my heart. I always associate them with caring and kindness.
She was a generous soul in a time when that seemed unreal.
Our house may have been tiny, but our yard was quite large. I’m a terrible judge of size, but I imagine it was around an acre. Perhaps two. My father was a master gardener, and a large part of our yard was a garden filled with food. We had all kinds of fruits and vegetables. We had a rose garden. I remember spending most of my time outside, watching things grow. I was so excited when I could harvest the bounty. I remember when the corn stalks got so tall I could get lost in them. When the vines of tomatoes and snap peas wound up well over my head. My favorite thing was digging up the potatoes; it was like a treasure hunt. I remember pulling carrots out of the ground and rinsing them in the hose and eating them right then and there.
We had rabbits and chickens and ducks. One of my most vivid memories from childhood was when several baby birds hatched seemingly at the same time and I woke up to many yellow sentient puffs darting around the yard. I remember pulling my jacket sleeves over my hands to protect them from the chickens pecking at me when I went to collect the eggs.
At one point, as you can see above, my parents gave me a section of the yard and made it “Rebekah’s Garden.” When that picture was taken, I’d just started it, but you can see the marigolds at the beginning. Later there would be strawberries and edible flowers and all kinds of other things, but having my own garden was an entirely special experience. I spent so much time out there. I spent time at that fence to the left. My dear friends Heather and Jennifer and I would sit at that fence for hours and play with dolls and anything else we could think of. I wasn’t allowed to leave the yard much, so that’s where we would stay. When I tried to learn how to ride a bike, I wasn’t even allowed to go to the church parking lot next door, instead I had to teach myself on the gravel of our driveway which was painful and frustrating but, ultimately, successful.
I think back to certain experiences, and I wonder how the money was found to do certain things. I had a glorious Halloween costume in grade school (around third or fourth grade) where I was Jem from Jem and the Holograms. My mother made the costume. I remember feeling impossibly fancy.
The summer before I entered sixth grade, my parents went looking for a refrigerator that worked. They wound up at a garage sale…which wound up being the house they would first rent then, years later, buy. That was the shift in things going from our being poor to being okay. We were never middle class, but we weren’t anywhere near where things were before. I missed the gardens. I missed the yard. But I had my own room for the first time in my life, even if it never had a door (that’s a story for another time).
For so long, I’ve felt I needed to keep all this secret. I have no idea why. I’m not especially ashamed of it. If anything, I feel it has given me an intense appreciation for anything and everything. I try to keep a spare environment (books are the exception) and, even then, I feel I have an embarrassment of riches. I’m not well-off by any means (I’ve been trying to pursue writing for the past several years and my partner has been solely supporting us), but I look around, and I never could have dreamed of this. I’m so fortunate in so many ways. I wonder if I’d still be as grateful for every tiny thing if I’d grown up differently, but I’ll never know so it’s only worth pondering in passing. I sometimes think back to those “simpler” times and how hard it must have been for everyone involved. I’m sure my parents wanted more for our family, and I know it was difficult for my brothers, being in junior high, then high school, in our situation. Kids can be kind, but they can also be cruel. I think they saw far worse than I did. It has rippled out differently for all of us. My parents hold on to far too many things, even when it suffocates them. My brothers both have a penchant for buying much of certain things (tools and such for one, fine things for the other). For me, I know I buy more than I should. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I’m still not as good at it as I’d like to be. Honestly, I just like doing nice things for people, even if those things are small. I like letting people know I’m thinking of them, and if I see something I know someone will like, I get great pleasure out of obtaining it for them when and if I can.
When my partner and I got together, I was poor. So poor I often had to choose between having food to eat or paying my insurance or car payment. The job market at the time was sparse, and I was taking as much work as I could get with a temp agency. I rented a small room in a house. The window in my bedroom had a large hole in it in the middle of winter. My bed was a sleeping bag on the floor because I couldn’t afford to buy a real bed. A friend offered me work and paid me enough to buy a bed; I’ll never forget that kindness. I’ll never forget the kindness of the person who loaned me the sleeping bag and pillow because I couldn’t afford them, either. Both of those people used to buy me food during times I literally couldn’t afford to eat. Their generosity was blinding.
I may have experienced some terrible times in my life, but I have also experienced such pure kindness, it humbles me. Over a decade later, and it still humbles me. I know what it is like to go without. Profoundly. I also know what it is like to have. I think, if anything, all of those experiences have taught me to extend kindness where possible. What may seem small to you may seem monumental to others. I think we should do what we can, when we can, because this life is all we have.
With that, I say thank you for being here and being you. I feel privileged to interact with you. You do me an incredible kindness by reading my words and allowing me to be a part of your life.