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This is not about our current recession, but about a “recession year” that I spent in Seattle with my girls. The lesson has held me through all sorts of bounces -- both in the stock market and/or in the emotional tenor of our household. It’s one of those crystallized events that rests in my memory like a pressed flower in a diary.
We’d been in Seattle about six months. I was working at home trying to start a medical writing business, and my partner was busy putting in sixty hours a week at the job she had been recruited to from St. Paul. We were living in a glorious house the like of which I will never inhabit again, and thus were totally strung out with a mortgage. We had no money, the credit cards were maxed from our move earlier that year, and we were beginning to get on each other’s nerves. I think it had something to do with forty-eight straight days of rain.
Both of my girls were still reeling from the move. Lynne was a sophomore in high school, and Micah was in fifth grade. It was two weeks before Christmas, and we were about to set out on our annual Christmas marathon shop. But this year was different, and I had to sit the girls down and explain. Where to start?
“Okay, you guys, we are going to do our shopping today, and it’s going to be a little different than when we were in St. Paul.”
Lynne got that line between her eyebrows that could mean either that she was anxious or that she was about to tell me, once again, how inferior I was as a maternal parent. Micah looked up in curiosity. She was a little more Zen than her sister, but looked to Lynne first before deciding how to feel.
“We can’t do the ‘Toys R Us’ shop this year for a needy child.” I started, and Lynne began to scowl.
“But what about all those ‘children who aren’t as lucky as we are’?” she demanded. This referred to what I had explained to them every previous year when we went shopping for the holidays. After we were done, but before we could go for lunch or a snack in the mall, we would go to ‘Toys R Us’ and I would give each of them $25 to find a toy that another girl their age would like. They could not ask for it themselves, and it had to be something really cool. They would take this very seriously and find something they would love to have (but weren’t going to get) and bring it to the check out. I would pay for both toys (part of the Christmas budget for shopping that we agreed on earlier) and they would put the gifts in the Toys for Tots bin just beyond the cashier. I wanted them to realize that some kids might not be getting what was on their Santa list, so it was a small thing we could do to help. We’d been doing that since Micah was about three, and they looked forward to it.
“Hon, that’s really important, and we will be able to do it again next year, but not this time.”
She heaved an eye rolling sigh and flounced in her seat.
“And the other part is,” I began gingerly, “That you can each only spend ten dollars on each other this year, plus whatever you’ve saved from your allowance. And your Christmas list for ‘Santa’ has to be really small, too.”
“You always say that,” Micah observed.
“Yes, I guess I do. But that’s so that you don’t expect me to find everything on your list. This year it’s because Anne and I don’t have the money. We really don’t. I wish it was different, but this is going to be one of those skinny years.” I tried to make my voice just the right combination of credibly impoverished, yet optimistic.
“What are you talking about?” said Lynne. “Look at this house we live in! We are not poor. Why are you doing this?” At fifteen she was convinced that everything was my personal attempt to not only control her life but to punish her for living in our household.
“Hon, I am not doing this to you. It was expensive to move here. I am not earning money as a writer yet and we are just barely making it on what Anne makes.”
The resignation of my tone stopped her. Nobody likes to see Mom cry. Micah looked up at her sister and then to me. “Let’s go shopping now, okay?” she said.
“Okay” Lynne agreed. Truce for now.
At the Mall
As we drove to Silverdale I explained that they could each shop for each other and remember that there was a ten dollar limit on what they could buy. They could also get something for Anne, and either go together on something or get things separately but they each had five dollars to spend on Anne. I said they were not going to buy for me this year, and that was fine. We would make up for it next year when things were better.
When we got to the mall, Micah ran ahead to get out of the rain. “Mom, how did it get this bad. Really.” She looked at me, judging whether this was one more of my ‘teach ‘em a lesson’ ploys.
“Well, it did cost more than I thought to move, and the mortgage is way more than we were paying in St. Paul. And your dad and I have not yet figured out the child support thing, so I’m not bringing in any money at all yet. All we have is what Anne is making. Hon, it won’t be this way forever, but right now it’s tighter than it’s ever been.”
She accepted this, and ran to join her sister under the covered sidewalk. What I didn’t say was that her dad had chosen this last several months to stop paying us any child support at all. Upset that I had moved the kids to Washington, he would not agree to an extra hundred dollars a month of child support. I had never taken the full amount of support because in Minnesota I had a good job and didn’t need it. Truthfully, I was so happy to be with Anne and in a job I liked that as long as we were making the bills, I was fine with accepting well less than the state formula for child support.
But out here it was different. Between relocation and my having no job, we were really strapped. When he refused to give me the extra hundred, I found a lawyer in Minneapolis who was aghast at what he had been paying for the eight years we’d been divorced. She was determined to get the state-mandated child support. It was formula based, and she said there was really no way to argue it. Ex-man thought differently, and had hired a lawyer of his own. Until the case went to court, he wasn’t coughing up a dime. For the first time in my life I wasn’t bringing money into the household, and for the first time since I’d known him, I really needed to. I think there was some satisfaction for him that in my time of greatest need he held the purse strings. I can’t be sure, though – we didn’t really chat much.
In the mall, the girls and I laid out our battle plan. They would go together and find Anne’s gift, and then shop around for each other. At the appointed time they would come back here (I would wait on a bench outside Cinnabon, reading my book.) and I would take each in turn to get the other’s gift. Okay, synchronize watches. See you in an hour.
Almost an hour later, Micah came running up to me. “Lynne’s in the bathroom. Mom, she really wants these great boots at Hot Topic. They are so perfect and they have her size. Use the money Lynne is supposed to spend on me and get her the boots. She can tell you what to get me, and then I’ll keep her busy while you go get the boots. Our secret!” She was so excited.
“Oh, use this too.” She handed me some crumpled dollar bills she had saved from her allowance for Christmas. “She thinks I’m getting her a lame bracelet – she’ll be so surprised!”
Lynne came up behind her and said, “Micah, they have pugs over there at the pet store. Check it out!”
A pug puppy was the one thing Micah wanted more than anything in the world. There was no way I could see my way clear to adding another little creature to our household. Not until things were more stable, and not until she was taking better care of the cat she already had talked me into and was now faithfully neglecting.
When Micah was out of earshot, Lynne said, “Mom, never mind my present this year. We’ll get stuff at Dad’s. Get Micah the pug slippers at The Bon. They are forty-five dollars. It’s perfect. She’ll love them!” With that she then handed me a twenty dollar bill that she had stashed from her babysitting money. "Use this too, and they can be from both of us."
Forty-five dollars for pug slippers. In budgetary terms, ‘yikes.’
“But Hon, then there will be nothing under the tree for you.”
“Mom. I’m fifteen.” As if that explained everything.
“Exactly my point,” I thought.
When Micah got back from looking at the pugs, she and Lynne looked at each other as if on cue. Uh oh. They were cooking something up.
“Mom. Um. We need to get a gift for Dad. And for Teddy and Will.[stepbrothers] And for Amy [stepmom].” Micah had a pleading look on her face.
They were flying back to Minnesota on December 23rd, at their own request. They wanted to be with their Dad on the first Christmas since we moved. It was important to him.
Spending money I didn’t have on my ex-husband and his family was not in the budget. It was not in the plan. It would happen over my dead body.
“Oh, Sweetie. Your dad knows we don’t have money for gifts this year…” I started. I wanted to say, “The cheap bastard is the reason we’re in this pickle and if I could draw and quarter him right about now I’d consider it an honor.” I held back, taking a deep breath.
“Mom,” Lynne had her I’m-the-boss tone, “We can’t go back there without presents. It would be so insulting, and besides we love Will and Teddy, and we have to get something for Dad. We have to.”
Micah nodded violently in agreement.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. I’ve got your list for each other and I’ll go get those things. You both go get a coke, and then we’ll go to Target and you can find inexpensive gifts for Dad and his family.” They beamed.
I went off to get boots for Lynne and pug slippers for Micah. I had them double bag everything, and told the girls that I bought something for Anne while I was shopping, so they wouldn’t start trying to guess what was in the bags.
We went to Target and I sat reading in the café until they came to say they were done shopping. They had chosen carefully and thoughtfully, but not as economically as I would have liked. They protested loudly when I tried to talk them out of any of the gifts, and finally I relented and bought presents for my ex-husband’s Christmas celebration.
We were saving our own family Christmas until they got back on the 31st and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself about now. I wouldn’t have the girls for Christmas, and now I would be overdrawn to pay for gifts for his step children. Shit.
On the other hand, each of the girls had been willing to give up her own gift so her sister could have something nice. I tallied it thus:
Gas for a trip to Silverdale Mall: $15
Boots with metal studs and vicious looking blade-like attachments: $60
Two synthetic pug dog slippers, size 6: $48, including tax
Gifts for ex-husband, his wife and two stepsons: $96
Amount overdrawn in my savings account: $108.46 (Plus $35 bank service charge )
Knowing what kind of children I have: Priceless
When we finally had our family Christmas on New Year’s Eve, there were plenty of surprises. Lynne loved her boots. (“Mom! How did you know?”) Micah grinned at me conspiratorily, and wore her slippers from the moment she opened them through the entire day. (“Just what I wanted!”).
Anne and I did not buy anything for each other, and were both much relieved by that restraint.
From two really sheepish daughters I got a very old KC and the Sunshine Band CD with “SALE” on it. Lynne teared up and said, “I’m so sorry Mom. Dad wouldn’t let us shop for you. We had to talk him into even getting that.” She was mortified.
“Honey. It’s great. Let’s put it on and dance!” so we put it in the CD player, and turned up the volume full blast.
“That’s the way uh hunh, uh hunh, I LIKE it…” and discoed our way around the dining room table.
My lawyer fought until I was not only getting the maximum allowed by Minnesota law for child support, but back support from the previous eight years. It pretty well recession-proofed us until Micah was eighteen. I wrote my ex a letter and informed him that, in the future, if he wanted the girls to purchase gifts for his family, he could sponsor their shopping trip.
I suppose it lacks a certain grace to admit it, but in my most honest moments I freely acknowledge that: that’s the way uh hunh, uh hunh, I LIKE it…