I didn’t really know we were poor until I went to college north of New York City, where I saw snow for the first time. Money lived in my eyes for most of my childhood. Watching TV growing up, watching other families spend money without looking and without a second thought. I compared those families to my own, watching and learning how to blend in, and how to make certain truths, like our lack of money, invisible. Using my eyes to try and change my world, I was always painting it, rearranging it, trying to make order and sense and beauty out of so little.
I grew up poor in a paradise town in Southern California. The ocean was an equalizer. The sun made me feel rich. The sand made it easy. The salt made me smile.
But all of the cars of my childhood would break down and shake violently when started. In the 1981 Volvo, only the passenger door opened. My mother would have to crawl over to the driver’s seat each morning. The food bank at Christmas. Gifts from strangers. My mother’s white Pennsylvanian genes dominated my father’s brown Venzuelan ones. Each child my mother gave birth to looked progressively white like her. I was the third and final child to be born, so my brownness was almost imperceptible. When we escaped to a domestic violence shelter we were chosen by one lonely woman who volunteered at the shelter, to be her new charity project. After we left the shelter she continued to give us gifts on holidays and take us on trips.
On one trip to Sea World and Disneyland this woman was newly pregnant and had such bad morning sickness as she drove us there. My brother wouldn’t stop spitting out of the car window which, she noted, was not helping her sickness. She ate Saltines poolside at the fancy hotel in San Diego and we swam until another hotel guest pointed and screamed, “There’s shit in the pool!” Everyone jumped out of the fancy pool as quickly as they could. At the Disneyland Hotel, the headboard of the bed broke in the middle of the night and started to fall on my sleeping teenage sister’s head, but she reached up because of the creaking sound, and stopped it just in time. As a family we always talked about this headboard episode later on as a missed opportunity for a lawsuit that would have made us rich like the lonely woman. That, and the time I found rat shit baked into my McDonald’s ice cream cone. When Christmas came around the lonely woman bought us a tree that was way too big for our tiny apartment. Its top had to bend to accommodate the low ceiling and it refused to drink water. We had to buy it a tree-IV in order to keep it fresh until Christmas Day. My mom and I worked as nanny and nanny jr. for the lonely woman’s baby when he was born, and until I went off to college.
That first winter at Vassar, the rich kids came prepared. They were born ready for snow and success. I had a full scholarship but it didn’t pay for shoes. I wore my shoes from home which were black high top converse with holes that let the snow in. Lucky for me, everyone, even the kids from Tribeca were wearing clothes from a thrift store, but they had the right shoes. My mom mailed me a winter jacket. It was a blue down jacket she had found at a garage sale. I liked it, it was cool and from the 1970s or 80s. I named it Big Blue. She wrote on a note, “The zipper was broken so I sewed it together at the bottom, you’ll have to pull it over your head like a sweater.” That proved difficult. I found myself stepping into bathrooms, anywhere out of sight to step in and out of my winter jacket like you would a skirt. Often I would keep it on too long indoors if there was nowhere to hide this humiliating maneuver. Announcing a broken thing upon arrival to class, or dining hall, or party.
One day I got so fed up, I undid the stitches my mother had sewed to bind the bottom of the jacket zipper halves to each other. Stitch-free, I put the two pieces together. The zipper worked. Nothing was broken. I realized in that moment that my mother had sewed herself into the jacket. The thread she used was infused with a preemptive kind of love, a love that is always preparing for things to fail. The sutures were put there so I could not forget where I came from, even at the fancy school in New York among the beautiful trees and the kids with the good shoes.
Elana Margot is a writer of poetry, autofiction, and creative nonfiction based in the Bay Area. Her writing has been published in The Goose: A Journal of Arts, Environment, and Culture in Canada, and Undercurrents: A Journal of Critical Environmental Studies. Her work centers the practice of writing into grief, embodiment, childhood subjectivity, queerness, and animality. Follow her on Twitter: @ElanaMargot