I was just a little one when I was first told that I was poor. I didn’t know much about that word until I started Kindergarten, not quite a month after my fifth birthday. I remember putting my mismatched self on the school bus one early morning, and a snot-nosed neighbor boy calling me that, right after declaring to the entire bus that I stunk. I burned red as my coppertop hair. It didn’t help matters that I was sporting winter attire atop, and summer on the bottom, and it was just now fall in Michigan.
I slid down the back of the greasy green seat and fought back embarrassed tears.
From that day forward, for a lot of years, I saw myself as that disheveled and ragamuffin child. What made matters worse? I was missing my two front teeth, well before any of my peers were losing teeth at all. Mine had rotted out early from sneaking sugar water bottles from my two-years-younger brother. I hated my gummy smile until my much anticipated blocky adult teeth finally grew in. I always thought it unfair that I lost something so early compared to others, but that was the least of my childhood losses.
Meanwhile, Grandma was always nearby, dropping in and off, picking up and taking out. My mom was just twenty-one and had already birthed three babies. I imagine we were busy, and she was excessively tired. Dad got on at a motor company (a good job) at age eighteen, but I overhead phrases like, “I make too much for food stamps, but not enough to get by.” Perhaps this was just the way it was for kids who married and had kids.
Grams volunteered with a ministry called Damascus House on the other side of the tracks. It was a dilapidated two-story thrift house where the needy could come to gather essentials. The folding tables inside held clothes piled higher than my red head, and it smelled like the donated lives of many a do-gooder. Grams had a bleeding mercy heart, and when she showed up at our place with black trash bags full of clothes, it was like Christmas morning. Used clothes were new-to-me clothes and I knew no different. She’d also come bearing groceries or hot meals at times. She was a saint in my wide green eyes.
Sometimes Grams would take me out to eat, just the two of us. She had a penchant for buffets so she often treated me to the chain restaurant Duff’s. One particular visit, I went all out for our day trip. I remember donning a fancy dress I had found in one of her grab bags. It was baby blue and had lace trim around the bottom hem and sleeves. The best part? I was wearing my prized patent leather dress shoes — never mind some scuffs someone else had left. I felt like a million bucks. Those shiny black flats made all the difference for me that day.
We found our seats in a sea of square tables, and I piled my plate high with fried chicken. In my family, I was dubbed “meat-eater” because I enjoyed meat so much, but not as much as Grams did. I would catch her salting raw hamburger meat and eating it like it was cookie dough. She always acted guilty while doing so, as if to suggest that this should be kept between us.
My favorite part of the buffet was the complimentary ice cream, and I would pipe it high into a warm ceramic bowl. Sometimes I’d make two trips if I had room in my belly. I shuffled back towards my seat with eyes glowing at my man-made mountain topped with sprinkles and syrup and whatever else would fit inside my bowl. As I sat down, I noticed a girl my age nearby. Actually, what caught my hungry eyes was the band of gold shining around her little finger. She was wearing a ring, and it evoked my first inclinations of jealousy.
Yes. Right there, in the buffet of plenty, with my stomach unusually full. Isn’t it always glittering things that draw the eyes away and into lusty slants? I was surprised by my instantaneous covetousness as I stuffed ice cream into my envious mouth. I suddenly felt chilled and deflated from both things.
Here, it seemed my Cinderella moment had finally come, with my delicate lace and faux leather, only to be showed up by my fancy-pants dining neighbor. So, I did what any intimidated gal would do; I turned my ankles outward and instantly began to shine my patent leather on the paisley carpet beneath me. I paddled my feet frantically and polished the black skins until I was certain I had worked up a shine that would rival hers. Then, I dangled my feet out from underneath the table, in her direction, so as to say, “I see your ring of gold, and I raise you a shiny shoe.”
I don’t know that she even ever looked my way. I was probably all alone in my worthlessness and insecurity. I just knew in that moment, I felt regal for the first time, and I wasn’t letting anyone take that from me; certainly not some stranger and her stupid ring.