When we arrive at my in-laws’ home in Spring, Texas, a charming Houston suburb, I’m immediately hit by the smell of blueberry muffins and laundry detergent. The house my partner, Alex, grew up in is massive compared to any place I’ve lived before.
“Everything is bigger in Texas,” he reminds me, presumably in response to the look of awe on my face.
After Alex’s dad picked us up at the airport, his mom has taken care of everything. There is a spare room with an attached bathroom for us to stay in; all the sheets are freshly washed. There’s a queen-size bed, and a backup blowup mattress in case that’s too small for the both of us.
She’s stacked a pile of fluffy white towels and washcloths in the bathroom; they’re so white I’m scared I’ll make them dirty by using them. Tea tree-scented shampoo and conditioner have been placed in the shower for us. The toilet paper in the bathroom is folded into that little triangle, like at a hotel — a sign that the maid has been here recently.
In the kitchen, his mom shows us three Tupperware bins of Persian polo (rice) and ash (soup) that his grandmother has made vegan, just for us. The fridge is stocked with so many different colorful fruits and vegetables that I’m not even sure I know what they all are.
There’s a separate refrigerator for bottles of sparkling water. Apparently people don’t drink tap water here (“That’s gross,” I’m told).
There are two rooms in the front of the house that no one even uses — they’re gated off so the dog doesn’t make the white furniture dirty. Outside, the lawn is perfectly manicured. The kidney-bean pool glistens under the swaying palm trees. It’s like we’ve stepped into an alternate reality where people live in a perpetual state of vacation.
“My parents aren’t rich,” Alex insists, “This is just how everyone is in Texas. The cost of housing is so low that you can afford a lot of extra stuff. Anyways, they’re deeply in debt. It’s all for keeping up appearances. Persian people care a lot about that kind of thing.”
I’m not sure he understands that families like mine could not begin to “keep up appearances” like this. How do you even get access to that much credit?
A few weeks later, we’re on our way back to Philadelphia for a wedding. We’re crashing at my dad’s place for two nights before staying at the wedding hotel. As we talk about our plans, I find myself apologizing a lot to Alex on behalf of my family:
“Sorry my dad didn’t offer to pick us up at the airport, I guess he’s trying to save money on gas.”
“Sorry that we have to sleep on the floor in the living room. We don’t have a spare room or a blow-up mattress.”
“I don’t know if there will be anything vegan to eat… sorry. We should probably pick up our own food.”
My dad’s townhouse apartment doesn’t smell like blueberry muffins. It smells kind of damp. There are no fluffy white towels in the bathroom, just towels so stained and threadbare I think they’re the same towels I grew up with. There’s a pink one that I swear is wrapped around me in a baby picture from 26 years ago. It looks more tan than pink now, and the edges are frayed.
There is no tea tree shampoo in this bathroom, either.
There’s no hot water on Tuesday night, and the cold October shower really punctuates the experience. Hot water is inexplicably back again the next morning.
“I’m sorry I can’t entertain you more,” my dad says to us, “things have just been pretty tight lately. I had to get the car inspected and it was worse than I thought… it put me out $700. My credit card is totally overdrawn.”
I’m reminded of how 40% of American’s can’t cover a $400 emergency, and I’m grateful that at least my dad seems to be out of that range (although, I guess, not until he pays down is credit card again).
My little sister, 15, mentions that she’s run out of food for her pet bunny. Her friend from school chipped in to place a Chewy order for her.
When we go to the grocery store to pick up something to eat, I buy some extra bread, fruit, and milk for my dad. I ask if he needs any help, but he insists things are fine. I think he’s embarrassed that I even offered.
I never felt ashamed of growing up poor before. As one of six kids, money was expected to be tight — but our house was so full of love and laughter in those early childhood days that I don’t think I really appreciated how poor we were at the time.
We were on multiple lists of “families in need” that other, better off, families were supposed to donate to — both at school and at church. While my parents couldn’t afford more than one or two presents for each of us at Christmas, the church and school community would collect presents based on our age and sex. One year our tree was piled so high with presents opening them felt like climbing a mountain.
My mom knew how to make even poor people things seem extravagant. Sometimes, we would be treated to “British tea sandwiches” (aka butter and jelly sandwiches with the crust cut off). If we were lucky, we would get to eat popcorn for dinner in front of a movie.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized these special treats were actually the times that we ran out of other food and couldn’t afford more. No mother actually thinks popcorn is an appropriate dinner, but she didn’t want us to know we were struggling.
Of course, even as a kid, my friends were often better off than my family. For some reason those differences felt less dramatic at the time — maybe because I was blissfully unaware of what money really meant in the world and how important these differences would become.
The childhood bliss didn’t last forever.
During my freshman year of college, the bank foreclosed on our house. I remember breaking in with my mom after they had put a lock on the door through the basement window (we had been meaning to fix that latch for years…). We grabbed as much of our stuff as we could fit into her van, leaving behind piles of childhood memories that were stashed in the back of our closets.
After that, things were never really the same. The reality of our situation had hit, and my parents bounced around with my younger siblings from place to place — sometimes a house, sometimes a spare room in a shared house.
After spending time with my in-laws, and realizing the blitheness with which they treated expenditures that would have bankrupted my entire family, I found myself apologizing for my poor family for the first time.
Of course, there’s nothing to apologize for. My dad has worked incredibly hard our entire lives to provide a good life for us. After escaping a rural West Virginia coal-mining town and an abusive father, the fact that he’s managed to provide as much as he has for us is a testament to his work ethic. After my mom passed away a few years ago, he pulled everything together to take care of my younger siblings in only a couple of weeks — a new house with a bedroom for everyone included.
My parents moved us out of West Philadelphia when I was in first grade to make sure we got an education at one of the best school districts in the area. I went to college (that I’m still paying for, of course) and got an excellent education and many opportunities that shaped the direction my life would take. I learned to code, got a job as a software engineer, and later started my own business. I have been relatively successful all thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of my parents.
Rather than feeling ashamed of my poor family and apologizing for them, I should be proud.
Sure, we don’t have a spare bedroom, sparkling water, or fluffy white towels — but I learned how to fight against the odds and succeed in the face of barriers. I learned resilience, strength, and the real value of a dollar. I learned not to take what I have now for granted. I learned that love and loyalty can help fill in the gaps.
Those are things I will never apologize for.