The Year We Grew Up

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It was a snowy Friday in February early this year, Mina had preschool that morning and Benny picked her up. He was unemployed after six years of working on stop-motion movies at Laika and was the main stay at home parent, receiving $400 a week in unemployment checks. That combined with my income from working four days a week at Guero was enough to live comfortably, and we’d been living that way for about nine months. By our calculations we still had three more months of unemployment checks, an amount of time that made us nervous but there was still hope of Benny finding something decent.

I was out running errands and found myself at Target picking out bedding for Mina, in hopes that if we made her bed more inviting it would be an incentive for her to actually sleep in it instead of with us in our bed. I selected a rainbow comforter and lightning bolt sheets and as I joked with the cashier I looked out the windows and admired the magical sight of falling snow. The snow is one reason I remember this scene so well; the other reason is because I was about to receive some shocking news- news that would make buying fun bedding seem terribly frivolous.

When I came home Benny approached me slowly in the living room. “My unemployment money has run out.” He was calm and serious when he told me and I responded calmly and slowly, letting it sink in. I waited for thoughts to come to me, options and ideas, and “okay then, we’ll just ____________.” They didn’t come. I didn’t know where to go from there. “Benny has no income.” The thought was on repeat. My stomach churned with panic. I felt like I was trapped against a wall, or falling down a hole.

I went to work. I felt so low and miserable and I couldn’t snap out of it. This was unusual for me- I’m so good at regulating my emotions, detaching or reasoning my way out of a bad feeling. I couldn’t do that with this, I couldn’t see any path out. We couldn’t just keep sitting around, waiting for Benny to be offered a job. We needed a plan, but what? Whenever we’re in a tough financial spot, Benny’s first thought is always, “We need to sell our house and get a cheaper place!” To me, making such a drastic move when you’re already on shaky ground seems crazy, but I didn’t know what else we could do. I started to think maybe he was right.

I got home late so Benny and I didn’t get a chance to talk. Moving through our dark and silent house I was struck with such gratitude and fondness for our home that offers us comfort and warmth and shelter. I was filled with sadness that maybe we would have to move out, unable to make the mortgage payments. Life at that moment seemed small and tight, locked up like my anxious chest. “Let us stay here please,” I found myself pleading in my  head.

I opened at work the next morning, still feeling sad and queasy. Mario asked me, as he always does, “Como estas?” (How are you?)

“Mas o menos,” I said with a half smile. (More or less, meaning “good and bad.”)

“Por que?” (Why?)

“No dinero.” (No money)

When I said this he simultaneously threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes as if to say, “Is that all?!”

“Tienes salud!” he practically shouted at me. (You have your health!)

“Si,” I said. “Y, el nieve es bonita.” (Yes, and the snow is pretty.)

“Si,” he agreed. For some reason, Mario rolling his eyes at me was the first moment I started to feel some hope.

After work Benny and I had a good talk with my dad and he had some good advice, including the assurance that selling our house would be a terrible idea, and to try temp agencies. Benny got on that and I also applied to some jobs, thinking that if I could get another part time job that could help if he didn’t find anything. The following Monday he started hearing back from some temp agencies and was offered a job at Bob’s Red Mill, packing flour, graveyard shift. That was encouraging but we couldn’t see how that schedule was going to work. He would basically be unavailable 6pm-2pm every day, even on his days off if he wanted to maintain his sleep schedule. I heard back from Sugarpine Drive-In, a cute restaurant in Troutdale on the bank of the Sandy River. After an interview I was offered a part time job, two or three days a week. If I could have gotten more hours at Guero it would’ve been great, but they had no more hours to give me. But even if I worked full time Benny would still need a part time job and it would have to be flexible. He started looking into Lyft and also applied to the Postal Service.

Also at this time we were looking into grade schools for Mina who would be starting Kindergarten in the Fall. This meant researching schools and attending as many open houses as possible, registering and filling out paperwork. Also making sure Mina was up to date on her vaccinations and health check ups, vision and dental.

I started work at Sugarpine. Benny worked hard applying to jobs and going to interviews at places like Target and Fred Meyer. He was also doing one day manual labor temp jobs like unloading trucks. Every morning entailed logistics meeting with the three of us- Benny, me and my mom- coordinating childcare and transportation. Benny and I share a car so often he would need the car and my mom and I would coordinate the use of her car. Because of our ever changing schedules, each day was different and required different logistics. Everyone was stretched thin and stressed out, no one getting what they needed. These scheduling talk were torture to me and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t just use a car whenever I needed it. The Suburu used to be my personal car (the first and only car that I’ve ever claimed as just mine) but after Benny’s car was rear ended (and somehow deemed “totaled”) a couple years ago, it became our car. I started to feel resentful of how enmeshed and dependent our family network was becoming, even at the same time I was so grateful to my mom for her gracious assistance. I even invented a new word- scoobadoop– to use instead of the word ‘schedule’ because I just hated how that word sounded coming out of my mouth.

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Another factor was that it had been my plan for several years to start Cosmetology school as soon as Mina started Kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to start on this new career path that would mean moving away from food service and towards a craft that I was truly passionate about. But if Benny wasn’t working a full time, dependable, well paying job, could we even afford it? Starting school would mean me working less and having to make tuition payments. I stubbornly kept making steps towards it and hoped I wouldn’t have to further postpone my plans.

I also started to develop a new fear, a fear of being poor. I could clearly see a future where, instead of moving forward and upward- building a savings account, paying off debt, being able to take vacations, buying a second car- we take a downward route. I saw us both working low paying jobs, living in a shack in Gresham, toiling away for years without making much progress. My panic was very real and I expressed it by trapping Benny into little “pep talks” about dreaming big and taking this opportunity to “create” his own future as opposed to choosing from the available options. Benny never responded to these talks well as to him it sounded like I was being critical. I was trying so hard to be supportive but underneath it all I felt like he could be doing more, should have been doing more all along. When I found out his fellow Laika ex-coworkers were having just as much difficulty finding work I became a bit more accepting.

About a month after the unemployment ran out, Benny got a job with the Postal Service. We were all thrilled! We were so stoked that he got a solid, well paying job, and as a mailman! I quit Sugarpine but kept my four days at Guero. He went through a month of training, and then started routes. Unfortunately, the way it works is they put the new mail carriers in wherever they need coverage, which means you have no set schedule and no set route. Benny tried his best but kept getting feedback that he needed to move faster. But it’s hard to become efficient when every day is a new route. After a few weeks of this he came home dejected, telling me that he had been “forced to resign.” His mailman days were suddenly over.

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Through the temp agency, Benny found work bottling sauce at a factory for minimum wage, mostly sauces for Panda Express. The job entailed heaving forty pounds bags of sugar and other ingredients and emptying them into enormous vats. When he came home after work his boots always attracted ants which earned Benny the nickname “Daddy Sugar Shoes.” It was tiring work but not the worst because he had a boss who was appreciative and respectful, unlike his superiors at the postal service. He worked alongside some interesting characters, many who had spent some time in jail.

Our friend Pete was between living situations and was sleeping on our couch. We decided to offer him a room- Mina’s room- in order to bring in some more income. Mina wasn’t sleeping in her room anyway and, although it was a little sad to give it up, it was a great decision and has been a big help for us and for Pete.

Then we had a stroke of luck- Benny told our friend Alex that his mail carrier job hadn’t worked out and Alex mentioned that his full time nanny was quitting and would Benny be interested in a job doing childcare? Alex and his wife Amisa have two daughters- Mazzy, age four, and Trini, one year. Our daughter, Mina, and Mazzy get along great so we figured it was a good idea. Plus it meant that Benny could be on dad duty and be getting paid at the same time, meaning that Benny and I could both be working at the same time. Benny was a little wary about watching three kids at once, but since Mina and Mazzy keep each other busy, they kind of “cancel each other out” as Benny said.

The first week of his new gig went well. Sometimes he took Mina to their house, sometimes they dropped the kids at ours. The kids got along great together and Benny felt like he was getting the hang of it. Then he heard from Refuge, an animation and editing studio that he worked for briefly a couple years back. They needed him immediately for a project, but they couldn’t tell him how long the project would take but it would probably be a week. We sat down and had a scoobadoop talk about how this could work. We decided he should take the opportunity and I would step in to help out with the kids. We didn’t have time to give them notice to find someone else, plus we wanted to keep the gig for when Refuge work dried up. I remember saying I could help for a week, but Benny only remembers me saying I could help. What ended up happening is that Benny and I juggled the nannying job for a couple months.

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Usually Benny would go to work and the kids would get dropped off at our place around 9:00 am. I would watch the kids until 4:00, and which time Benny would come home and I would go to work at Guero until 11:00. Alex or Amisa would come pick their kids up around 5:00. Some days Benny had them all day, some days I had them all day. The fact that there were three kids meant that we couldn’t take any trips in the car. Most days we walked to the nearby park with Mina and Mazzy in a wagon and Trini in the carrier. My mom helped out a lot too, hanging with the big kids while I got Trini down for a nap or coming with us to the park.

On one hand it was great because it meant that for a couple months we had three incomes and we tucked quite a bit into savings. On the other hand, I was losing my sanity. One day I went to work and a coworker asked me casually how I was doing. “Pretty good,” I said, “except I’ve lost my will to live.” There was a day when I was on the verge of crying all day and it was also the day of a big storm. Pete said, “it looks like the sky wants to cry,” and I wished I could release everything with winds and rain and lightning and I felt jealous of the storm. When I got home Benny was still up and we had a good talk and I was able to cry. All these feelings of being trapped by circumstances, suddenly becoming a nanny in addition to being a mom and food service worker, feeling like I wasn’t making progress with my goals, like Benny will never have a solid career that enables us to be financially secure and plan for the future in any significant way. So weary of our shifting situations always, logistics always at the forefront and if we let up on it everything falls to chaos.

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Benny got home from Refuge one day in July and announced, “I got rolled off today,” which means no more work. I was caught off guard and all my feelings of prosperity that I’d been quietly cultivating threatened to just drop to the ground. We had savings but I wanted to hold onto it, keep it as a long term cushion. “What next?” I asked Benny and got a vague, tired response which frustrated me. “It’s your attitude that bothers me,” I told him. “You’re so passive, just waiting to hear back from people. I want to see some fire, some motivation, some kind of PLAN.”

And I realized soon after, what this is- he’s used to this uncertainty, he grew up with it. To him, this is normal. To me, it’s not normal so I feel panicked, wanting to fix it quickly and permanently. But this is common for Benny’s line of work, this might just be how things are now. We were lucky before. For so long I kept waiting for our troubles to be over, for things to go back to how they were. When I look back on the beginning of the year, I was so whiny and resentful, wanting my freedom, wanting to get away from my family and all the stress that being around them brought. I kept feeling like I was a teenager again, dying to get out of the house and be independent, but before I could do that I had to come up with a plan, run it by the family, work out car logistics, be back by a certain time. Measured freedom. But now I understand that my family is here to help me, they want the same things for me that I want for myself. We’re better at working together than we ever have been. Benny and I learned a lot about functioning as a team, and how to look at things from each other’s perspective and be appreciative of everything the other person is doing. I learned how to stop bitching about making decisions in a group, how to breathe, and do the next thing that needs to be done.

We gave up a lot during this year of survival. We passed up hangouts and parties, we didn’t really see family, we were as frugal as we could be, we kept our focus narrow and moved with purpose. But we still fit in a lot of good times- trips to the river, playdates in the park, berry picking, swimming at the pool, one camping trip, dates once in a while- life didn’t stop because things got challenging. I’m starting to realize that this is what real life is, and up until now I’ve had it pretty easy.

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We haven’t solved all our problems. We’ve made some progress on some things, Benny has lucked out with work through hopping around a variety of studios, and I was able to start Cosmetology school. Mina got into the school we were hoping for, and she loves Kindergarten. But Benny has some health stuff we’ve been looking into and medical bills are expensive. Our cat is close to death. But this year has helped me stay positive when everything isn’t perfect, to notice for a moment what’s going right and to treat those around me with kindness because we’re all going through hard stuff. I’ve learned to plan ahead and also to try not to freak out when tomorrow is such an unknown there’s no way to plan ahead. Keep moving through the fog, hoping elements will align in your favor, and influencing those elements whenever possible.

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote recently:

Eating a big, round, shining

pink apple I realize

what a lucky coincidence-

That this apple is perfectly ripe

and ready to eat

at the same exact time

I am ready to eat it.

 

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1 thought on “The Year We Grew Up”

  1. “The Year We Grew Up,” such a personal microcosm view of what is happening in the macrocosm of the USA touched my empathetic heart. Your story of frustration and negotiation then on to resilience and gratitude pulled me in to feel what this has been like for you and family. Your telling took me back to some of my own days of similar fears about stability and wondering about the future while desperately wanting to hold on to freedom. Even now as I exist with relative security in our ever-changing world I still wonder, “how’s this all gonna work out?” Will there truly ever be a day when work can cease and every day is mine, all mine? Hmm, something I have not experienced since before I was 16 years old, 48 years. Thank you for your vulnerability in telling your story and letting us all hear how you made it work and stuck together no matter how difficult.

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