Friday, May 18, 2007

Colored Threads

[Editor's Note: This was an essay I submitted this term for my writing class. It received an A, so I thought I'd share it here.]

I didn't know that I grew up poor until well after the fact, having been blessed with very resourceful parents. For most of my childhood, my father was a pastor serving in small churches in rural communities in Oregon and Idaho, and I don't ever remember a time when he wasn't doing other odd jobs to supplement the family income – grocery clerk, electrician, day laborer. My mother often worked outside the home as well, and in addition, she was a wonderful homemaker. She sewed clothes for us, gardened and canned the fruits of her labor, and was an extraordinary bargain hunter. My parents' deep faith and dedication to their congregations made them respected in the community, and people often expressed their appreciation with material and financial help in times of need. The combination of faith and resourcefulness meant that we always had our needs met, and often enough, would manage to squeeze out just a little bit for fun. And sometimes, what seemed like enough to get a little ahead turned out to be just what we needed to get by.

I remember the year the congregation passed the plate to give my father a Christmas bonus. The bonus was around three hundred dollars – not a lot, seemingly, but for a poor family in the late 1970's, it was enough to make a difference. Just what kind of difference, we would soon find out. We were heading to San Diego as usual to visit my grandparents, and the extra money meant a visit to an amusement park and perhaps a nice restaurant for my parents. Somewhere on I-5 south of Stockton plans changed when the family station wagon stopped running. We managed to pull off of the freeway and came to a stop at an abandoned gas station, which thankfully still had a working pay phone. After a phone call and a “quick” tow into the Central California town of Firebaugh (several miles off the freeway), we soon learned that the timing gear was shot, and we'd be spending the afternoon there. While my father stayed with the car, my mother looked after me and my sister. That day happened to be the day that Santa Claus visited town on the back of the town's fire truck, the closest thing Firebaugh had to a Christmas parade. He was passing out brown paper lunch bags filled with candy, peanuts, apples and oranges, and my mother managed to wrangle several extra -- that was our lunch. The repairs to the car took most of the afternoon and the exact amount of the gift from the church. There wasn't a penny of that check left, but it got us to San Diego and we had a grand time nonetheless.

Perhaps part of the reason my parents worked so hard to not only provide for us, but also to conceal the lengths they had to go to in order to do so, had to do with my father's own youth. His mother had died when he was five, and his father, heartbroken, took to the bottle and to the road. The family lived in countless places all up and down the West Coast, practically homeless an often hungry. Life didn't get much better for my father and his siblings until his teenage years when a family in Lorane, Oregon, took them in. The Rothages gave them love, a home, and responsibility, and my father and my uncle especially became fine young men thanks to it. But his childhood influenced my father's outlook on poverty for the rest of his life, and he did his best to make sure my sister and I were shielded from it.

The signs of our own humble upbringing were there, but my parents went to great lengths, even sacrificial ones, to downplay them. Every year when school started in the fall, my parents bough us new clothes and school supplies. Christmas and birthdays, while never the extravaganzas of excess we expect today, always included enough presents, both from my parents and maternal grandparents, to ensure a happy day. We had wonderful family vacations, we went to the fair, we even occasionally went to see a movie. What I didn't see were the sacrifices my parents made – doing without luxuries that they might have wanted, even making their own necessities stretch further, to give us kids what we needed (and sometimes what we wanted, as well). As a child, I didn't recognize the significance of the multicolored thread I noticed on the inside of my father's suit jacket. But I understand now. Instead of buying a new suit to wear to church, he had had my mother mend his old one numerous times, the money that might have gone to a suit instead going to God only knows what – trumpet lessons? Cub Scout dues? Groceries? Just what I had because he went without, my father never revealed, and I'll never know.

I was reminded of all of this when I was called upon in an earlier writing assignment to submit a photograph and write about what it made me think of. The picture is from a year ago. In it I am standing in my grandparents' house in Southern California, holding my son who was at the time fifteen months old. On the wall behind us hang several pictures of my ancestors. In that picture, I could see myself making a connection with them as I held my own son. Seeing them recalled to me my own father and reminded me of what he had done; seeing my son reminded me that I now understand why he did it. As a parent, I would willingly, gladly make the same kind of sacrifices for my child.