Being both a writer and a woman who was once a teenage mom, I’m often asked: “If you could write a letter to your 16 year old self, what would it say?”
The answer is always the same: “Don’t worry. You’ll own your own washer and dryer one day.”
No. I never want to tell myself about living fairy tales—whether involving Prince Charming stories or Ugly Duckling tales. I always default to self-reliance, and simply finding that place in life where I’m finally “okay”. This probably all seems strange, but when you’ve been where I have, you understand the glory of doing laundry.
See, I spent a great deal of my life lying to folks about my financial status. Not because I wanted to mislead anyone, mind you. Just because I was raised believing “Poor” is a self-chosen social disease we should look down upon. When I fell squarely under the heading myself, shame overcame me. I told the tales of my “having” days, but rarely did I speak of when I was a “have not”.
My childhood was privileged with private schools, all the nice clothes and toys, boats, new cars, nice homes, and upstanding parents. This changed during my parents’ divorce when I was 13-14. My mom left with little or nothing. When my father decided it best for me to live with her, I shared in her nothing, and we ended up on public assistance. Shortly thereafter, due to my parents being the typical divorced parents in the mid-1980s who only worried about one-upping each other and who they were dating/marrying, I led a mostly unsupervised life. My son was born 5 days prior to my 16th birthday.
Dad refused to provide any level of support to us, financial or otherwise. Mom moved out, and there I was, son in tow, with absolutely nothing. No phone. No cable. No car. I had my feet and determination, but that was about the extent of our resources.
Our apartment, rented in my mother’s name, but occupied only by my son and I, did not include a washer and dryer. There was a common pay per load laundry facility in the middle building. When you’re living off $3.15 an hour (minimum wage then), even trying to pay the meager amount of rent, electric, and still buy food takes every dime. I really didn’t have the dollar or so it would have cost me to wash a load of laundry. I realize that seems silly, but it’s one of those aspects of poverty one can only understand when they’ve been there. If only I’d been taught this in childhood, maybe the shock wouldn’t have been so bad, but I digress. Washing laundry, then, was a matter of physical labor only women pre 20th century might understand.
Each night I would kneel at my bathtub, fill it with water and pink, generic dish soap (rarely could I afford laundry detergent) and dump our small basket of laundry in to soak. After they’d set for long enough, I’d begin the job of scrubbing each piece of clothing by hand, rinsing, re-rinsing, and wringing out the water. It was a painstaking process. My fingers often became so dry they’d bleed from doing something that, in 1989, most people did without even a thought, let alone physical effort. On the weekends, the laundry included towels and bedsheets. By Monday, my hands would look like I’d spent a month in the snow sans gloves.
When the day finally came that I could afford the laundry mat, I felt like a millionaire. No joke. I loved going to wash clothes because that meant the skin on my hands would remain, and my clothes wouldn’t be stretched out and sour smelling from hanging on the shower curtain rod to dry overnight.
Eventually, I moved out of an apartment, and into my own home. My very first home purchase was made at Sears with an unbelievable amount of joy: A brand new washer and dryer! Yes. I could simply walk down the hallway, drop clothes in the top, push the button, and trot off to help my kids (3 of them by then) with homework. I could even afford laundry detergent. Liquid laundry soap, even! Queen of Sheba!
My life has changed so much over 43 years. I’ve gone from being part of a family with more money than most, to abject poverty, to doing okay.
I own my own little piece of the Earth, now. It’s meager and small, but I it’s mine free and clear, and I love it.
I’m doing what I love most: Studying. Momming. Writing.
Although I’ve long since replaced that first washer and dryer, I’m still doing laundry in the manner I’d dreamed. I even have a clothesline so, in the summer, my bed linens smell fresh and nice. My kids are happy, healthy adults. I’m a grandma now. Life in general is pretty great. I’ve even almost finished my college degree.
When people ask me what that degree means to me, I never answer status or fulfilling a family legacy.
I simply say: It means I’ll be able to leave a legacy for my kids—to show them that just because you’re skinning your knuckles today doesn’t mean you always will. With enough hard work and determination, you’ll realize your dreams, too.
Hard work and determination are the two resources we Poor People will always have. They can’t take those from us, mostly because they never believed we had them to begin with.
(image source: http://www.howtocleanstuff.net/how-to-hand-wash-clothing/)