Somewhere along the way, I became infested with the need to have the right things–nice things, new things–which are always more expensive, but not necessarily better than no things or old ones.
My grandmother was a tough, unsentimental woman from Butte, and she gave me the postwar toys my mother played with when she was a girl. Barbie from 1955. Cracked, plastic dollhouse furniture, but not the house. Eyeless teddy bears. Broken-armed babies. I begged for shiny, name brands, but whenever my parents saved up or borrowed to splurge–on that Baby Alive, or the racecar track– it didn’t quite turn out. The Baby Alive writhed with a battery-driven whir and scared my parents, so they returned her. The racecar track just didn’t work, and neither did the one for which we exchanged it. So maybe it’s better, in some ways, to have nothing, or at least not much, because things always disappoint, but not having them comes with its own price.
Do you remember patched jeans that were patched because they were worn out? Or shoes that had to be taped together? What about the winter coat that didn’t fit and haircuts on the back porch your mom was only kind of good at? Back in the 70s and 80s, Missoula was still full of rundown bars, the streets were dirty and full of glass, sidewalks were old and cracked, and it was better in some ways, I think, when it was undecorated and inexpensive, and existence was easier to earn. But even then, it was changing.
The school I went to was full of kids who had stuff–new stuff, right stuff–children from the subdivisions, and I couldn’t fit in or compete with their mall-bought clothes, until my mother took out a credit card when I was in middle school, out of pity, perhaps, to buy me the things I thought I had to have. I regret that, but it was more important to me not to stand out for my parents’ poverty than it was to keep my parents out of debt.
No one likes being poor, and there’s nothing of value to be gained by that kind of trauma, but if I had to respond as creatively to my life now as I did then, I’d be a better writer and probably a better person. I made things, invented them, and filled the gaps in my make-do creativity with imagination.
Tin cans and string were my walkie talkies, or sometimes I just shouted into an old dresser wheel salvaged from the junk drawer. I made ships and sails out of broadleaf dock, dolls out of clothespins and rickrack, and mud-and-water medicine in old glass bottles that turned purple in the sun. I remember the beautiful imperfection of unmown lawns strewn with dandelions, of overgrown gardens and wild, yellow alley roses, falling-down fences, unsupervised summer nights, and late-evening tag. I remember running and screaming and laughing and crying and everything I was that was both free and free of charge. When I hiked in the woods, alone of course because alone was possible if not always safe, I crawled through fences that said private because I didn’t believe anyone could own the no things and the old things those fences contained.