When the Bough Breaks

As a freshman in college, I stumbled across a type of newspaper editorial that appears from time to time: the rant against the wayward and wily ways of "welfare mothers." A fellow student wrote this particular article for the college paper. It didn't offer much in the way of original thinking; the editorial simply complained that this student's tax dollars were being used to support the television and Diet Coke habits of women who kept having children so they didn't have to get real jobs.

My initial response was genuine surprise at the writer's naiveté. He painted a picture of well-fed women painting their toenails, sipping sodas, and plotting their next pregnancies. A couple of women watching television together while their meal-ticket children played with all those taxpayer's toys in the next room. The scene he described was that of a small, pleasant community of women and children.

What surprised me the most was the writer's use of the word "women"--the plural--and the connection he drew between poverty and leisure time. As a child who grew up in the hand of those social services he was lambasting--low-income housing, welfare, food-stamps, state-subsidized education for my newly divorced mother--I didn't recognize myself or my mother in that picture. During my childhood, I didn't have what is currently called "a sense of community." Poverty isolates. Poverty takes up all your time.

I remember my mother being busy and being alone--alone, perhaps, because of being busy. My mother's time was swallowed by raising three small children, enrolling in a local college, studying, grocery shopping, cooking, student teaching, cleaning bathrooms, looking for work, hunting for the cheapest winter boots, waiting in a myriad of social-service lines, filling out reams of paperwork for different agencies, and searching the thrifty ads for used household items. Being poor was the ultimate time-consuming lifestyle. There was no such thing as a quick trip to buy a new winter coat or a stop at the garage to get the car tuned up. Because there was so little money, every expenditure was major, requiring research and time: shopping for the cheapest used coat sturdy enough to hand down to the next child, waiting till the car actually stopped running and then hunting for the mechanic who could fix at least part of the problem for whatever money was in the bank. And while mom searched for that cheap mechanic she hoped existed, there was no car: every outing would take twice as long by bus or be skipped altogether. At the end of a typical day --not to mention the days when the car did die or one of the kids was sick or any other ordinary mishap--my mother cleaned, cooked, studied, sewed, and went to bed late. There was no daytime TV, no coffee gaggle with friends.

Over the past year, I've had the opportunity to reap the benefits of having a solid community--the type of support network of family, friends, and neighbors that my mother never experienced. The past year has also allowed me return to, rethink, my ideas about community, time, and money, and what these things may come to mean to my children.

From one December to another, our family experienced a dizzying set of setbacks, surprises, and changes. It started with the welcome news of my pregnancy with our second child: two weeks later, my husband lost his job--and our health insurance. The loss of our family's only income initiated a major reshuffling of our priorities and a reevaluation of our plans for the future. At thirty-five, my husband was something of a working-class stereotype: white male with a high-school education; twenty years experience printing T-shirts; pregnant wife and small child to support. I, on the other hand, had a more employable printout, with a Ph.D. in process and lots more lucrative work experience. But I was also committed to remaining home with our children.

Those first few winter weeks my husband and I talked night after night about our options, dreams, finances, and responsibilities. Although it was frightening, it was also exciting: it was a time to evaluate, set goals, and make some changes. But while we were chock full of ideas, we were desperately low on cash. What wasn't exactly the proverbial dark night of the soul was certainly the dark night of the checkbook.

As we were weighing our options and panicking about health insurance, the help began. A phone call here and there. My friend Deb asking if John had the phone number for a state-run job training program that she'd used with success. Becky called to tell me about options for health insurance and offered a list of local clinics that immunize and treat children on a sliding fee scale; she offered to sit for Stryker if I needed to go downtown to apply for aid. Another friend counseled John about his options. Still another introduced him to possible career choices. Friends, relatives, and neighbors offered all kinds of referrals and advice. Our front porch began to see a steady supply of surprise drop-offs as the news of my pregnancy spread: baby clothes, blankets, a crib, car seat, and more.  

Soon, John began getting reemployment insurance and started training for a new career in real estate, putting those two decades of inks and printing presses behind him. I secured a part-time job. We solved the health-insurance problem. I started shopping at Goodwills and thrift stores in earnest and we ruthlessly changed all spending habits. Understanding that building a business in real estate would take John some time, I returned to my dissertation with renewed commitment: someday soon I could teach and we would need that income.

We started cutting coupons, shopping for that cheapest mechanic, and baking cookies instead of buying them. When I wasn't working or taking care of our toddler, I typed out the dissertation. My pregnancy was going smoothly--and while we had less time, money and security, we felt confident about the future. Almost everything in our lives had changed, but we had a plan: we were in control. In those tightly-wound months that brought me back to the world of social services, I thought again of my mother and my own childhood: the humiliation of food stamps, the cramped shack-like dwelling we called home, and the series of broken-down cars. Not for my children. Our family was walking on the edge of a boundary that separated one kind of life from another--and I knew which side was better. I was determined to help swing us in the right direction.

Then the tree fell. At the end of May, early in the seventh month of my pregnancy, one of the furious storms that ripped through Minnesota last spring deposited a hundred-foot, ten-ton tree into our house. I was nervously watching the weather reports and John was urging me to go to bed when the wind really started to pick up. There were no sirens, no warnings. As John headed upstairs to shut some windows, the man with the map on television announced that a dangerous cell would soon hit West St. Paul. Since we're blocks away from that suburb I jumped up thinking: flashlight, Stryker, basement. In that second, it happened--sudden darkness, a dense roar, glass breaking, blast of wet night air, indistinguishable crashes and groans. John and I were both screaming different things at each other--all revolving around getting Stryker, the dogs, and ourselves to the basement. We scrambled with leashes and blankets and flashlights through broken glass and branches and the terrifying crush of wind.

And when the storm died down and we dared venture up, that's when it started again--the help, that unbeatable thing we call community. It started within seconds. One quick tour of our home told us we needed to get out. John stayed with Stryker and I went to a neighbor's house, soaking wet and blabbing something about a tree. I ran back home. We wandered around gathering things in the darkness, shocked and not functioning very well. Our neighbor Dirk appeared with his heavy-duty flashlight and emergency mentality. He took over, grabbing a bag, leashing up the dogs, and hustling us to his house where his wife and son were waiting with hot drinks and blankets.

Our neighborhood, a few blocks high above the Mississippi on the West Side of St. Paul, was hit hard. As soon as the rain stopped, everyone came outdoors. Flashlights streamed. It was the middle of the night and people were knocking on doors, checking on friends, and wandering through the streets. The steady, unsettling sound of distant sirens droned in the background. A handful of people gathered at our house before John and I returned to check out the damage. Someone had already been through the unlocked front door looking for us. We stopped in at our elderly neighbors', the Kueppers, to use the phone and check on them before we spent a sleepless, nerve-wracked night.


Daylight. Our neighborhood woke up to a tangled mass of broken trees. The ancient tree that hit our house had been wildly effective in its carnage. From trunk to tip it now lay across the Kueppers' garage, our garage, backyard, and roof. The last few feet of several parts of the tree had lodged into our house in three places, coming through the roof, an upstairs bedroom, and dining room. We didn't know this immediately because the entire back half of our house was buried underneath the tree. The garage and backyard were completely invisible. John and I stood alone in disbelief and horror in the early dawn before we called a couple of friends, our families, and our insurance company and started the search for chain saws.  

By noon it was a party. At least thirty people helped by perching high on limbs with chain saws and hatchets or sorting through debris in the bedroom or boarding up windows or sweeping up glass or handing out Cokes. Someone ordered and paid for a dozen pizzas. A chain of folks swooped up Stryker, passing him from house to house so he could play, eat, and nap with his neighborhood friends. It was a dirty, noisy, chaotic, and uplifting scene. Tom, our fire captain friend, took charge of the tree and sawed and directed from a branch leaning out of the roof. The tree swarmed with men as the branches fell steadily. We didn't even know some of the workers: neighbors we had barely met before simply showed up with saws and stayed for hours. A cheer went up when we could finally see the garage. More cheers came an hour later, when they were able to prop up the ailing garage and roll out both cracked-up cars.

As dusk settled, the chopped up branches lined half a block as people continued to saw and stack. People dropped off tarps, lanterns, and coolers filled with food and drink. Neighbors offered their homes. The tree remained lodged across the garage, resting on the roof and in the house; a professional tree cutter miraculously (or strategically) cruised through the neighborhood and left his card. Two days later, the enterprising tree cutter and a crane spent an afternoon wrenching the tree from the house while a bunch of neighborhood folks took in the show on lawn chairs and blankets across the street. That's when the real work started.

Strapped and stressed before the tree, we were now counting the weeks before the baby was due and faced with major reconstruction on top of the other duties we were already juggling. As anyone who has cleaned up after a disaster knows, the list of details requiring attention can be mind-numbing. And while our insurance company carried the brunt of the costs, there were things not covered or irreplaceable. Because John's new commission-based job required long hours and constant attention, I took on the house. Just at a time when my pregnancy demanded nesting, I was gearing for a roof--forget folding tiny onesies and mopping floors. Our house was a construction site. We were stretched to our limits in every way.

And if we had thought our community of friends and family was supportive when I got pregnant and John lost his job or the night the tree fell, the next weeks showed us just how pivotal that support would be. It was a privilege to be the beneficiary of such an outpouring; it was also a humbling experience and a lesson. Not a day went by when someone didn't stop to lend a hand with some task or take Stryker or drop off a meal. There were offers for cash loans, help finding a new car, assistance navigating the world of insurance and contractors and cement pourers and fencers and roofers. Our neighbor Maria posted a food sign-up sheet at a barbecue and friends slotted in nights to supply us with dinners after the baby was born. We shared costs and construction crews with the Kueppers, whose property line bordered ours and whose garage was also leveled. We picked out new fencing with them and created landscaping that would work between both yards. As my pregnancy eked into its forty-second miserable week and the roof still wasn't finished, the moral support and tangible aid remained steady. At least one nice thing happened to us every day, and it was the constancy of that support that lifted our spirits and hopes.

But how could I ever "repay" such kindness? We were so busy trying to keep our household afloat --literally and figuratively--that we let birthdays slip by unrecognized, missed family events, said no to baby-sitting requests, skipped the block club meetings, passed on volunteering, and basically failed to lend a helping hand because we were so busy receiving help ourselves. We had tapped into something apparently unstoppable and endless, and I felt an increasing sense of indebtedness, a responsibility to make myself somehow worthy of all this attention and concern.

I fretted about this to my husband and a select friend. I remembered how my mother plucked through all of her own crises absolutely alone and in conditions far worse than mine: there was no home to rebuild in the first place, no friends bringing over food, no steady supply of children's clothes, no parenting partner with an income. Was it weakness to accept help? Why was it being offered? Although welcome, this communal response to crisis was foreign.  

Two things became clear: first, communities don't just magically appear. A community is a network of relationships and is as strong, or as weak, as those relationships. As my husband pointed out, the people who helped us were people whose lives we had been involved in as well. Maybe it was watching their kids or providing a ride to the airport or helping with a resume. Maybe it was as simple as a stroll to the park or a dinner invitation or an open door after a long day. My friend Becky was surprised to hear my sense of indebtedness; she rattled off a list of ways in which I had been a good neighbor and friend to others.

Here's where my personal history with poverty and its isolation sheds a little different light on John and Becky's explanations. Okay, maybe I had a hand in creating this great thing I was calling community; I was willing to concede that John and I had built strong relationships with a solid group of people. But, remembering my mother's life, I knew that having the resources required to build those relationships was a luxury and privilege in and of itself. For several years, my mother was so utterly consumed with the feat of survival that she didn't have time, energy, or emotion left for anything else--for anyone else. My experience had been quite different. I had the advantage of a college education and a decade of being single after that to build a network of friends--and later, I had a husband with an income. I had time to build new relationships and sustain old ones. I had experienced the psychological and physical freedom that a solid income can provide; I could recognize and appreciate the magnitude of this because I also knew what it was like to live without those things.

My second lesson was that I have a responsibility to extend myself to others even in times of my own need. There are times when life's daily demands are so depleting that there's nothing left to give. For my mother, those times were a way of life. She closed in when times got tough--battened up her personal hatches and forged ahead alone. She had no models for acting otherwise. This was her survivalist mentality. I guess my instincts for survival have led me in another direction, one that calls for opening a door and taking on a task even when I feel stretched myself. Although I don't have the time or money I had two years ago, I can still whip up a meal for a neighbor. If someone needs a hand with their kids for an afternoon, what real difference would another toddler or two make at my house?

It's much, much easier to be generous of spirit--to be a good friend and neighbor--when you know your bills have been paid and there are spare hours at the end of your middle-class day. But this past year has taught me that it's important to offer whatever I can, whenever I can, without worrying about how little that might be or whether I have enough for myself. Maybe if my mother had had a model for this, she would've forged ties with the other single mothers who lived in the low-income housing project. Maybe she could have borrowed a car when hers balked or loaned hers out when it worked. Perhaps her life would've been less lonely if she'd been able to give and receive more freely. It certainly wouldn't have been a life of welfare leisure, but maybe one of camaraderie and support.

At Christmas this year, the Kueppers' son Jim gave us something that nicely represents what I've learned over these months. He took a chunk of the tree that fell on our house and painstakingly carved and shaved and painted, ending up with a gorgeous piece of art, a wall-hanging of an old elf that looks suspiciously like a renown symbol of giving: Santa Claus. That carving will always remind me that with a little effort and the right attitude, we can use whatever raw materials are at hand--whatever resources we have--to offer something beautiful to someone else. That tree keeps falling and falling, and we keep receiving so much. I hope that Stryker and Scarlett grow up with that sense of community I was lacking, and understand that survival is so much more than securing a roof or paying a bill. There is indeed a boundary that separates one type of a life from another, but it has nothing to do with money or security--it's a boundary around one's own self and concerns. Building a life on the other side of this border would mean attending to the concerns and cares of a community, creating a life measured in terms of our connections to the many people we choose to call our own.  


Mary Petrie is a St. Paul writer whose award-winning essays have appeared in a variety of publications. Her essay, "Our Fears, Ourselves," appeared in the November issue of Minnesota Parent.

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