Monday, October 25, 2010

"There is no shame in poverty"

ESC told me that last night when we wanted to charge our debit card and I told him the last balance but cautioned that it may be less due to banks fees. I asked him if he wasn't nervous about the possibility of of embarrassment if the card got declined. It was then he looked into my eyes and spoke with the wisdom of someone who had made peace with his reality. When I heard it, it took me a while to allow it to settle in my consciousness. Very strange it seems for a girl who has for all intents and purposes, grown up under very humble circumstances.

It seems that even though that has been my reality, I have never really owned up to it. I have always wanted and worked for more. I have made certain to put myself in a position to rise from my paternal middle & maternal working class family backgrounds, especially in the light of having attending some of the most prestigious schools in my country and having a "First Son" as a boyfriend.

I used to walk with a calculator in my handbag years after giving up math as a subject. I am the college student who would walk to the supermarket adding up the few items in my trolley, making certain to account for taxes, just so that I would not be embarrassed at the counter. I would also meticulously check my balance ahead of purchases so that I wouldn't have to suffer the embarrassment of having such declined- especially in front of other customers.

I know... I suffer from a lot of pride. Maybe I should add that to my other weakness- impatience. Good thing I don't seem to suffer them with any severity as that would probably mean that I would have been doing underhanded things to get ahead.

Seriously though, when my hubby said that to me last night, I feel like it just went and lit up my entire existence. "There is no shame in poverty."

Ever since I was a child, I was told that I had a "high chest." In other words, I had an affinity for the niceties in life. It didn't help that I went to the schools of the privileged and was surrounded by others who had only what I could dream of. But, by far the worse part is the very dichotomy I often speak of that is my family. I was smack dab in the middle of both a middle class and working class background with parents coming from worlds that never should have collided.

My father's family accepted me but only barely tolerated the fact that I was clearly a mistake from an era before widespread use of prophylactics. My university student father was smitten by the country cousin of his neighbour who was living with that family as a sort of nanny to the sons.

My father's parents were the principal and the arts/craft/social studies teacher. (Though the circumstances of my father's birth was also the fodder of soap operas, that is another story). My mother's parents were the subsistence farmer and the lady who sold excess foodstuff from the farm at the market. My mother did not complete secondary school, having dropped out like most of her 9 siblings.

As much as they tried to do right by me, they really couldn't overcome the disparity between them. They never got married, even though they tried to prolong a relationship. Daddy rented us a house but never came to live with us, even though he was there every morning and evening, picking me up and dropping me home and overseeing my homework. Then he found a woman with whom he could relate - a teacher whose mother was also a teacher.

They married and I went to live with them after my father threatened to take my mother to court for custody and she relented, knowing that he would be better able to give me a life that she would fall very short in providing. It was a painful separation and it made me unstable for very many years to come. Initially I would live with my mother during the week but have piano lessons at my father's on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I would spend the night and would also spend weekends. When people would ask me where I lived, at 8 years old I would say "On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Weekends, I live in Spanish Town with my father and stepmother and on the other days, I live in Portmore with my mother." When I moved to Spanish Town during the week and Portmore on weekends, things never got any less complicated.

As I grew older, I could see the difference between how I lived when I was with my father on weekdays and how I lived when I was with my mother on weekends and it troubled me deeply. I started to hide in closest on weekends when it was time to go to Mommy. It was too much for me. It was two extreme worlds and I was identifying less and less with hers as I grew.

So by the time I won a space in my 90 average high school, I was really muddled. When others spoke of parents who were doctors, lawyers, teachers, housewives, and other semi-important-sounding professions, I could relate from my father's side but my mother at this time had gotten in a relationship with a no-good Rasta man and had become a fishmonger who sold fish on the street side. I could never say that to myself, much less to my classmates. To them, my father sold insurance and had a farm on the side and my mother was a teacher. I adopted my stepmother as my mother, using her life to replace my mother's. I thought it sounded better and it was less confusing.

Things changed as I got older and got closer to my mother, who seemed to understand me better than my father or stepmother. I grew increasingly rebellious and hated my father and started to idolize my mother and her family, seeing the purity of their humble existence while magnifying what I considered to be sheer hypocrisy on my father's side. Daddy became the evil one and I shunned him.

It has always been either or for me where my parents have been concerned. Ever since I was old enough to recognize that there was a huge difference between them, it seemed impossible to balance them equally on a scale.

I still identify better with my father's side than my mother's side but recognize that I owe her side a debt of gratitude for the authenticity that I strive for daily.

As a result of the diversity in my own family life, I am able to dine with kings and yet enjoy the company of their humblest servants. I am able to see people for who they really are and not only for what station they have in life. I married for love. I picked out a man who had good qualities and lots of ambition, with whom I could strive to build my own wealth. I became a better journalist and interviewer, learning to observe and listen keenly to people of every age, station and culture because each has a remarkable story to tell and each has lessons to give. But all this has not come without struggle. And I still struggle to accept what really is.

So when ESC said to me "There is no shame in poverty," it took me way back. I may be a fishmonger's daughter, but I took my time and observed that he was signing the charge receipt before I switched off the engine and joined him. I still have a little of that high chest in me.


JL said...

Our high school was quite unforgiving when it came to money or lack of it.

The one thing I enjoyed there though, where it really didn't matter who came from where or how much money was in our parents' bank accounts, was choir. Once you could sing or you were willing to try - it was good. :-)

Anonymous said...

Anwers more of my questions. WOW! After all these years

Anonymous said...

Cuz, this post was truly introspective and again, I applaud you for being bold enough to confront your thoughts head on PLUS put it all out there while you're doing it. Do me a favour though, please? When you have a minute, research the story of Oseola McCarty. I trust it will have as powerful an effect on you that it had on me when I heard it.

I'm not discounting your story by any means because it is YOUR OWN and I am sure I cannot begin to understand the struggle you must have faced as a child and subsequent teen to find your "true reality". All I am saying is, I've heard you refer to yourself as a "fishmonger's daughter" more than once and I'll be honest, it irks me a lil bit. Why? I can't settle the question in my head of whether you merely use that term for dramatic literary effect or if you truly see it as a "stain" on your life's canvas.

At one point in her life, your Mom sold fish yes, but it was something she did to make a living - it wasn't a part of her DNA. It wasn't ALL she is, was or can be. Oseola will be remembered for her good works, not for the work she did.

Don't forget, your great grandmother on your PATERNAL side walked miles upon miles each week with goods stacked atop a donkey to sell her supplies at the market to get the money she and her husband needed to feed and clothe their children. Children that had to wear hand me downs from the older siblings and share the little they had with each other. They were poor, country mice even, but they had quiet DIGNITY. It was one of those children that turned out to be that principal that brought your father into the world. A father who was able to go to university and eventually carve out that middle class life for himself that you often refer to.

Maybe their differences were not that great at the onset after all? Whatever the final answer, bottom line is they brought YOU into the world and I am sure at the end of the day, they are happy that they did.


Sheer Almshouse said...


I appreciate all that you have said. And yes the story of Oseola McCarty and countless others, including our own forebears provide inspiration that propels us forward to improve on the lot that they have bequeathed to us through blood, sweat and tears.

I think though that much of my struggle lies not in poverty itself but in the reality of living between two different poles. If both my parents had the same experience themselves, ie.. were the same place in that post slavery evolution, it would be different. If I had only one experience, then I would have felt more stable and secure in my singular reality. What has occurred is that there is a duality in my experience. If my parents were together, even if they were from different generations in the evolution, it would have created a solid platform. Since they weren't, I had to jump from one to the next. I stood out in both places because of the influence of the other.

I am from two different worlds, and yet I am trying to be one person. One authentic person who can relate to both worlds and take the best of each. It doesn't come without struggle. I have always felt like an outsider.

When I say I am a fishmonger's daughter, it is as much me trying to accept what is. I am still a fishmonger's daughter and my mother is still singularly the hardest working woman I know. Her work ethic and entrepreneurship has positively influenced me to define my own destiny.

I feel that trying to make peace with all this holds the key to me really accomplishing all that I was put here for.

The Cloudcutter said...

This has been, by far, your best post. Probably the best blog post I have ever read! It was so wonderful to read about where you've come from, like a window into your beautiful soul.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up hon. I get you.


Sheer Almshouse said...

Coming from you, who I can only aspire to to write nearly as beautifully, I am humbled. I didn't know where I was going with it when I started but I couldn't stop until it was all out. It felt like a purge.

I know high schools are probably the hardest places ever to navigate. I used to think that high school was a cross between a soap opera and a sounding board for real life.

Thanks so much for taking the time to get me. It is isn't easy to articulate but I feel that speaking my truth is the only way for me to grow. I thank you for forcing me to clarify what the core issues are.

MisMoy said...

Your writing does your soul justice.

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