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Topic: Poor (10/25/04)
TITLE: Bitterness, Poorly Suited
By Melanie Mock
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My mother sewed my dresses and my slacks as she did my polo shirts: lovingly, but badly. Her labors over the Singer always produced nearly-wearable, nearly-in-style attire for school and church. I was compelled to put on these slightly crooked dresses and uneven pants because my mother had sewn them, but also because we could rarely afford much more.
The homemade clothes we wore reflected my family’s desperate economic condition. We were poor. Not poor poor, not so poor that we had to eat cardboard, but poor enough so that my clothes always betrayed our fiscal difficulties. I resented our poverty: resented having to wear ugly clothes, and having to eat federally-funded school lunches. Even more, I resented my father’s employers, who would not pay him enough for our family to live comfortably.
Sure, the church where my father ministered was small, with 150 members. Among these, though, were rich businessmen and wealthy farmers who guided their giant Cadillacs into the church parking lot each weekend. On Sunday, when their designer-clothed kids came to church, I slunk bitterly into my crooked collared shirts, humiliated by what I did not have.
Every year, the church considered whether my father should receive more pay for his leadership; every year, my family was told serving God was enough, and so that my dad’s pay needn’t be increased. The illogic of this argument did not escape my father, merely asking for a living wage, not a monetary windfall. Nor did their specious reasoning persuade me, weary of wearing ill-fitting homemade dresses; of shopping at K-mart and Salvation Army; of hearing my mom say, once again, that we could not afford what I wanted. But my bitterness was misdirected—not at the church who refused to pay my father enough, but at my parents, who had to live with the small income created by their refusal.
I started to hate my parents. I hated my mom’s shoddy sewing, hated her food-on-a-budget casseroles, hated her constant “no” when I asked for money. More, I hated that my father had chosen to be a minister, rather than assuming a more lucrative vocation. When friends or teachers asked me what my father did,I lied; I said he was a professor or, more often, simply “I don’t know.” I acted as if my father were a mafia hit man rather than a pastor, merely trying to do his best for his family and his congregation.
In time I believed only a miracle would make me happy, would save me from the bitterness I felt about our poverty and about my dad’s choice to pastor a congregation unwilling to support him. A winning lottery ticket seemed just the miracle I needed, or a lucrative promotion for my dad, or perhaps even the gift of a bright Caddie, just like those in our church parking lot. Of course, such monetary miracles were not forthcoming. Instead, we remained poor, and my wardrobe remained shabby: by then, my mom had taught me how to sew, so I spent my final year of high school wearing my own badly-stitched, though slightly-hipper, clothes.
As I prepared for college, I discovered I needed $1500 to cover that which scholarships could not. Though I was attending a Christian college, our church would only fund students attending colleges supported by the denomination. Once again, it appeared the Cadillac-driving, designer-clothes wearing people would win. College seemed like a loss, and my aggravation—towards the church, by proxy through my parents—deepened.
Without consulting me, though, my parents sold their dilapidated pickup truck, and raised a little money; they approached my grandparents, and raised a little more. Although my peers could easily take for granted their parents’ assistance in college, I could not, and my own parents’ sacrifice was well noted. On my first day of college, I wore a jumper my mom had sown, with one leg longer than the other. But when I hugged my parents goodbye, I finally recognized all they had given me. And that, in itself, was miracle enough for them and for me.