Fight for the right

This is going to be about another sort of independence, one I’ve been thinking about a lot the last few weeks. But first: let’s dance!

We’ve been slow at work this week, leaving plenty of time for me to sit, think and worry. Sick of stressing out about the future, I starting mulling over my past. Turns out, I’ve come a long way, baby.

I grew up poor, and as my siblings and I got older, our situation drastically improved. We were never well off or even lower-middle class, but we had food and a roof, and lots of little tricks to keep it all together.

A few months before graduating high school, my mother sat me down with an ultimatum: stay at home and get help with college, or move out and you’re on your own. Considering I was 17 years old and knew everything about everything (excuse me while I wipe up my tears of laughter) I decided to move in with my boyfriend and his sister in their trailer and be A Grown Up Person. Three months later, I left him and got my own apartment. It was a 525 sq. ft. studio – one big giant room with a teeny little kitchen, a joke of a bathroom and a walk-in closet. I was thrilled.

Keeping that apartment meant busting my ass at work. I was a payday loan office manager, making just over $7 an hour. Most weeks I clocked over 60 hours at that awful place, and still barely managed rent, nevermind food and other bills. I was 18 years old and scared to death of failing before I’d even left the gate.  I was on week two of eating only canned vegetables and soy sauce when my dad came down for a surprise visit. A few minutes after he arrived, having spent six hours in the car, he got right back in it and drove me to the grocery store. I was so concerned about how much it cost, he practically did the shopping for me. Rotisserie chicken never tasted so good.

I learned a lot that year. I learned how to talk to the credit card companies, so a few missed payments wouldn’t impact my credit. I learned how to make friends with the right people, so a late rent check would be “unnoticed” and car repairs were free. 99% of my furniture was used, given to me as a gift. Especially, I learned about sacrifice, doing without, and how to be humble.

One month near the end of my lease, I had no money.  It was summertime in Texas, my electricity bill was through the roof and I was broke. Literally, I was deciding between tampons or toilet paper, and there was zilch left over for rent. I had just been let go from my job and unemployment hardly covered my credit card payment, my parakeet needed seed and I felt I had nobody to turn to for help. My sympathetic landlord referred me to a Christian charity that ran a thrift store down the street and granted assistance on a case-by-case basis.

I met with a kindly older woman who shook my hand, quietly listened and then handed me a check for $600 dollars, no strings attached. I made it all the way to the sidewalk before I burst into tears. Yeah, I learned a lot about being a Grown Up Person, and my overly large britches shrunk accordingly. I had plenty of other hard times between 19 and 25, but that first year on my own seemed like the toughest by far.

These days, things are better. I never did make it to college, but I’m married to a man who is starting back to University in the fall. I live in a pretty nice place and together we make enough to get by with a little extra for a night out from time to time. I am very grateful.

Had I stayed home, I would have had it hard in other ways, but I would not have gained as much real world experience, and I believe my outlook on life would be completely different. I am proud to be (to quote my husband) ‘a strong independent woman of means’ but no matter how high I climb, I will always remember my father loading cans of soup into my pantry, and the understanding eyes looking back at me as I poured out my life story, overdue bills and overdrawn bank statements.

My independence is one of my proudest accomplishments, but I didn’t win it on my own. To the woman at the charity, the guy at Auto Zone, the manager of that little complex and, particularly, to my parents: Thank you for setting me free.

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