A pocketbook game

My mom stood over the open dresser drawer, a small portfolio of envelopes in her left hand. With her right, she shuffled them, each with its flap gaping open. She wanted different answers to her question: “How will I make ends meet?” There was nothing in the envelop marked Medical. The Vacation one was always empty. Utilities, Food, Heat were all slim as well.

But I had a tooth ache and decisions needed to be made. She had been rubbing the gum around my sore tooth with a mix of brandy and crushed aspirin for hours with no luck. I needed to see a dentist and waiting for two weeks to get to a free dental clinic was not an option.

Once again we were faced with a decision: Food or lights or heat.

That’s how poverty worked for my family. We looked working class outside the house, but lived poor at times within it. My mother sewed clothes for my sisters and was adept at patching clothes for my brother and me. She darned socks. When my eldest sister got married and quickly had two children, I was exposed to more toys than I had known till then.

At the time, I had no knowledge of my cultural heritage. I just understood that my mom was sad and desperate. She wept while washing and ironing clothes. She was angry leaving for work and returning home. I knew we were white, and I knew that not everyone was. By age 10, I began to ask if we were Jewish, but I was quickly silenced with some homily about being Catholic. It was more than 50 years later that my mother acknowledged her Jewish heritage and the hasty conversions that happened at the beginning of the previous century. She never acknowledged — or maybe didn’t know — that her mother’s family were Irish Travelers, too.

My paternal grandfather crossed Europe as a teen, an unaccompanied minor in today’s jargon. He got to England and then the US, most likely fleeing pogroms in his homeland, an area sometimes claimed as Russian, sometimes Polish. He spoke both those languages, as well as Yiddish. A crushing life of hard physical labor made him silent, sullen, and prone to outbursts of anger, like my dad in the latter attribute.

This early life of mine was challenged by the consequences of poverty, displacement, and injustice. I know that you could not find harder working people than mine. Still, we were not making it.

That realization is at the core of my commitment to ending poverty and mitigating its impact.

  • Today when I am confronted by the assault on families like mine, families seeking asylum at the border with Mexico, I am angry and afraid.
  • When I hear during my regular commute to Chicago on Amtrak, seniors, adults, and children seeking help because English is not their primary language, I become vigilant and worry for their safety.
  • A pair of teen boys boarding a bus in freezing weather, wearing only sweats and wrapped in blankets sets off alarms in my head.
  • A mother peering into her pocketbook a bit too long as her children look up in anticipation, plunges me into the past.

But, because of work being done by organizations like Heartland Human Care Services, I trust that something can and will be done. The work of that agency over the past 130 years has positioned countless travelers on a safer path, provided stability for refugees when that seemed improbable, and partnered with others to point them to long-term success.

Contributing to Heartland, however, has done something for me as well. While I have experienced their work, witnessed their efforts, noticed their successes, I have grown more confident in responding promptly to the challenges I witness. I am less likely to be a bystander because of Heartland. I know I am no longer sitting quietly as my mother cries over the empty envelopes. I know how to protest and write letters, I move toward the confusion and provide encouragement to those who feel lost, I report what seems to be trafficking, I offer to pay someone’s bills.

It would be great to hear how others feel about poverty and our ability to end it. As part of my series of posts about generosity, I want to know that others are reading and thinking about their own giving and what prompts it or delays it.


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