The other day Noel and I were taking advantage of a warm, sunny day by having drinks on the deck. It was one of those magical days in May when the sun was at a perfect angle, the temperature was just right and the conversation bubbled easily. I can’t recall how the topic came up, but I told him the story of the book money and I think it occurred to us both at the same time that it was a worthy essay topic.
My ex-husband Jon and I struggled through the University of Montana together. I’m not saying that we did poorly in school; we both actually excelled. I am saying that the whole process of going to school was a struggle. We decided to go back to college after Aubrey was born even though we really didn’t have the money. I think it was my idea. I’d always loved school and I had let myself and my parents down by quitting when I got married. Our son, Joe came along right after we got married and then Aubrey quickly followed. Somewhere in there Jon and I took a night class together at our church and it reminded me of how much fun learning can be. This was during our “back to the land” phase and we tried growing our own vegetables, milking goats, raising chickens and heating our house with wood. I also cooked on a wood stove. It was kind of fun for a while but the novelty soon wore off. Mostly I remember that it was a lot of work and that we had to support ourselves by being custodians. We rarely had any extra money and lived paycheck to paycheck.
My parents watched this whole process with a mixture of interest and horror. Joe would run by on the linoleum floor and Mom would plead, “Put some shoes on that baby. His toes are blue!” They would help us in small ways. Several times they came bearing a gallon jar of milk from the dairy near them. One autumn they presented winter coats to the kids. Dad wanted us to come down to the ranch as much as possible, but it was difficult to leave our livestock. Once, they wanted me to come down so badly they allowed me to bring our large cardboard box of baby chicks because I couldn’t leave them unattended. The box sat near the wood stove at the ranch house for our entire four-day stay. I realize now that when we visited they could watch over us and not worry that we had enough food or that Joe was running around on a cold floor with no shoes. For my part, I think I didn’t quite realize how close to ruin we were. We really were barely eking out an existence.
The discontent with my life didn’t happen all at once. It rarely ever happens quickly, I think. Instead, it builds slowly and insidiously until one day a threshold is reached and you say to yourself, “I simply can’t do this anymore.” I think of the steps of that process for me. I remember staggering out to the back porch in August to get more wood to stoke the cook stove fire. I was canning peaches and the house must have been well over a hundred degrees. I sat wearily down on the steps and thought, “There must be a better way.” I also remember the sinking feeling when I heard Jon tell someone, “I think I’ll probably be a janitor for the rest of my life.” Really? Was that what we aspired to? Now, being a custodian is an admirable job. It’s just not the life I had envisioned for myself. And then I recall trying to sell spices and extracts. It was one of those companies where you make money by signing up other people to sell. We were entranced with the promise of thousands of dollars per month by basically doing nothing. And the assurance of a luxury car once we reached a certain level in the company left us reeling with desire. That car would be a leap up from our old, mint green wreck of a pickup. Well, about the only thing that happened was that we lost a bunch of money that we didn’t have. Oh, and the cupboard was full to overflowing with spices.
It reached a crisis one evening when we balanced the checkbook. Well, actually the checkbook was far from balancing. We’d hung on by our toe nails for months and finally we reached the disaster level. I broached the subject of selling out and moving back to town and the more we talked the more it became a reality. As I look back, it really took no time at all to get rid of the animals, sell the house and find a place to live in Missoula. Moving into a townhouse apartment from the country was a huge shift, but it was fun to be able to run to the grocery store or see a movie at a moment’s notice. And then we took that class at church which awakened the desire for more. We moved closer to the university and again, it all flowed along. I know now that we were on the right path, and when that happens it does flow along. It was definitely not easy, but we just kept going.
I’m pretty sure that Mom and Dad did a little dance in the dining room the day we told them we were going back to the university. They continued to watch our struggle, but now the whole process took on a different slant. We had goals and the future looked so bright. They continued with the small gifts of milk or vegetables from the garden. Dad fixed the cars when they broke down. Mom sewed outfits for the kids. Casey came along during that time and so we all tumbled along quarter after quarter. We couldn’t afford daycare, so Jon would take an 8:00 class and then I would meet him at the edge of campus with the kids so that I could go to my 9:00 class while he took them home, only to return at 10:00 and we would repeat the whole process. He delivered newspapers in the afternoon, he worked as a physical therapy aide at the local hospital on weekends and we both worked as custodians at night often alternating shifts. We still lived far below poverty level, but we knew there was an end in sight and that made all the difference.
We spent many an hour dreaming of the life to come. We talked incessantly of how our lives would change. We took walks in the university area, admiring the old architecture and wonderful yards. We yearned to move our family into one of those houses and spoke about it as if it were already true. To a large part, it was the dreaming that got us through. And then there were those small gifts from Mom and Dad that often showed up just in the nick of time. The gifts were always unexpected and so were cherished all the more.
We never asked them for money, but one day they came into town and sat us down at the kitchen table and presented us with five one-hundred dollar bills. I think it was during my last year of school and Jon had just been accepted into physical therapy school. I really don’t know what prompted the gift, but that was a whole lot of money thirty years ago, and it still is. Dad said, “You can spend this money if you want, but we would like it if you could save it for emergencies.” Maybe they wanted to sleep better knowing that we had a little bit of a cushion. I don’t know. I do know that it made me feel rich. We put the bills in an old book and hid it on the bookshelf. It seemed so much more real than putting it in the bank and also we could pull it out whenever we wanted just to gaze at it. It made all the difference realizing that if the kids needed to go to the doctor or the washing machine needed to be replaced we wouldn’t be propelled into crisis mode. And we kept the book money for a very long time. Having it was so much better than spending it.
Gradually, school ended. I graduated first with a degree in education and got a job as a teacher. Jon continued for another year and a half until he got his degree in physical therapy. He got a job at the same hospital he’d worked at as an aide. And eventually the day came when we moved our family into one of those grand old Craftsman houses in the University area. It was one of the homes that we had strolled by many nights on our “dream walks.” I often sat in the living room overcome with awe that I actually lived there. Sometimes it felt as if I were still dreaming.
So, I think about what the book money really meant and I think about my parents and their gifts of love and support. I know now that it was difficult for them to watch our struggle. They could have stepped in at any time to rescue us. They certainly had the means to do so. But, I am so glad they didn’t. I think they knew that we needed to prove to ourselves that we could make it on our own. There really is something to the old maxim that people are like steel…they’re both made stronger by fire. I think about how those years helped shape the person I am today. I know that I can do anything that I really put my mind to. I can rely on myself and that knowledge feels so good. And I know that having a nice house or cars or clothes is great, but I don’t need them to be happy. My parents, in their wisdom, helped teach me that peace of mind is more often about having some money squirreled away in a book than it is about having things. But when those things do come as a result of hard work they are so, so sweet.
And I’ve watched my own children struggle from time to time. I don’t know if my gifts of love and support were as well-timed as my parents’, but I’ve tried to carry on their legacy. And I think the kids are stronger because I haven’t rescued them. They’re all independent and proud of their accomplishments, as well they should be. And I know that as my parents gaze down from above, they are well-satisfied. Even though they can’t come bearing gifts of milk or book money they know that we can make it on our own. And more importantly, we know that we can make it on our own.
Thanks Mom and Dad. We’re doing fine.