by Jeanette Lukowski

Growing up, I never considered my family to be poor. Living in an apartment building rather than a house like my neighborhood friends didn’t mean anything when I was eight years old, because kids talked about making mud pies, playing freeze-tag, or getting our roller skates on, rather than the economic value of rent versus mortgage payments. When my peer circle expanded at ten to include teenagers from television programs, Sean Cassidy, Jan Brady, Michael Jackson, and Donny and Marie Osmond became my peers. Although I didn’t know them personally, these teenagers exposed me to an even wider variety of lifestyles. For me, the only difference between us was that those kids were on television while my family wasn’t.

Like the Partridges, the Jacksons, and the Osmonds, my mother, sister and I sang—every Sunday in church. Like the Partridges, my mom took care of running the household.  My older sister even looked a lot like Laurie Partridge, if Laurie wore glasses. Perhaps the difference was no one in my family danced. Perhaps the difference was my angry and mean dad.

Somewhere between puberty and high school, my blinders began to slip. I began to see the financial differences between my family and other families. First, I noticed how the Brady family had a live-in maid, while my sister and I had weekly cleaning chores. Then, I noticed how the Partridge family had a bus, a house, musical instruments, and lots of food.  We were a family of four, living in an apartment building, owning one car, and sewing our own clothes because homemade was cheaper than store-bought (my dad was out of work, again).

In spite of these differences, I still didn’t think my family was poor. I could always find someone who had less than we did.

***

I started to think about financial differences after I got married. My dad had basically been unable to hold a job after the aneurysm in his brain popped when I was ten, so I grew up in a single-income home. My mom worked two and three jobs to pay the essentials of rent, groceries, and utilities; I babysat and worked at various part-time retail store jobs to provide for my wants. I thought a two-income home was going to be my promised land. I didn’t count on my husband’s drug addiction draining the finances as much as it would.

Still, I was happy. We were able to buy a house, thanks to his time in the Army. We had a car and no reason not to carpool to work together. I had credit cards, which allowed us the false comfort of not worrying when my husband would repeatedly lose his job. And vacations? My childhood understanding of those were the two times a year we drove from Chicago to Minnesota, to visit my grandparents and aunts and uncles. It was only when our married friends would take vacations to exotic places—and fly there—that I began to wonder how they could afford something my husband and I couldn’t.

My real concern for our finances started when the first child was born. I didn’t want to go back to work but could see no way around it. One of our incomes paid the mortgage every month, and the other income paid for groceries, utilities, insurance, and daycare.

And then I got pregnant with our second child.

After we divorced, I struggled to pay the bills alone. Again, believing in a promised land of milk and honey, I returned to college full-time (student loans), completed my bachelor’s degree, and realized how much money had been wasted when my husband and I had two incomes.

***

Fifteen years later, I still struggle with finances. I’m still a single income, paying a mortgage, groceries, utilities, and insurance every month. Although the divorce court judge awarded me child support, I do not receive monthly payments; my ex-husband keeps himself off the grid most of the time. The state keeps track of how much I’m owed in past-due support, but I feel my chances of recouping those funds are less likely than winning the $350 million Power Ball lottery.

I don’t think of my family as being “poor,” though.

At least, I didn’t until this past Christmas.

We were visiting my sister in Chicago and staying with her in her apartment. Since this was the first time in perhaps ten years that all five of us were together for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (Mom drove to Chicago with the kids and me), my sister planned on cooking all weekend with us. On Saturday, December 24, my sister, my son and I left the apartment as though it were a workday and began shopping for food.

First stop: the fancy bakery by church we had spent years walking past. We bought an authentic German Stollen, and some other “fun” (my sister’s word) kinds of breads to build sandwiches and eat with soups. It was too crowded for my taste, so my son and I lingered on the fringe and made up funny scenarios about the policeman who missed hearing his number called.

Second stop: the fancy European meat market that is all the rage with the city’s fine food lovers. My sister, mother and I had spent many years walking past the meat

The clerk turned away to wrap the items in the thick, white butcher paper I remembered from my childhood.

market because we couldn’t afford to go in. As we pulled up, my sister and I saw the line of customers stretching around the corner, waiting for the market to open. My sister dropped off my son and me while she went to park the car.  We pulled number 76 when we entered, and heard number 21 called out from behind the counter.

Having no other choice but to wait, I began browsing through the store. As I read some of the package labels, I was thankful my daughter hadn’t come along—she would have been horrified and nauseated by some of the meats being sold. Strolling, I picked up two small jars of specialty jellies, and one bottle of specialty grilling sauce. I wanted to grab the package of four specialty sausages I saw in the freezer as well, but the ten dollar price tag made me walk away.

When the numbers being called from behind the counter reached seventy, I moved back to my sister. I still wasn’t sure what we were doing in this particular store; I had simply accepted her invitation to go grocery shopping. Growing up, our Christmas dinner’s main course was the frozen turkey my mother purchased at the grocery store, and decades later, my own Christmas dinners aren’t much different. Were we getting a fresh turkey? I hadn’t seen any turkeys during my stroll through the shop’s aisles. All I saw were cases of meats I didn’t recognize. Waiting for my sister’s number to be called, I began watching the action at the counter.

There were about a dozen employees working behind the counter, wrapping and ringing up customers’ purchases. Although I couldn’t quite see or hear what people purchased, I was able to see the totals reached on the cash register. One couple’s total was $147.93, and I heard the man speaking to the woman next to him as they passed me on their way out of the store: “Okay, that’s steak and lobster, now we just need….” Another man’s total was $89.34; a woman’s total was $122.70.

Then it was my sister’s turn. She purchased a beef roast for Christmas dinner, and a quarter-pound each of several specialty deli meats and fancy cheeses for our weekend of soups and sandwiches. As the clerk turned away to wrap the items in the thick, white butcher paper I remembered from my childhood, I turned my attention back to the cash register area. An impeccably dressed older couple, perhaps in their late fifties or early sixties, were standing at the counter listening to the butcher behind the counter explain how to properly cook the meat he had just finished packaging for them. Wrapped in the same white butcher paper as our meat, it looked about the size of a rolled bologna seen in the deli of any grocery store. I tried to inch my way closer, to hear what kind of meat was being purchased, but only got close enough to have a clear sightline to the cash register: their total was $436.09.

What in the world kind of meat does one purchase to total $436.09? I might have thought it was a restaurant order, but wouldn’t the purchaser know how to cook the meat? Or, if you were buying a large quantity, like a side of beef or a whole pig, I imagine the total would be that much. My grocery budget only allows for about fifty dollars of meat per month, so I honestly wouldn’t know. But the butcher behind the counter placed the four rolls of white paper-wrapped meat into only two plastic bags, and the couple exited the store, each carrying one of the bags.

Two plastic bags. I’ve been getting upset over the years at the shrinking amount of bags my $100-a-week grocery bill is netting for my family, but two bags—and plastic ones at that—means there is no concern about the weight of the contents ripping the bag while walking from the store to the car. All that money spent, just for Christmas dinner.

My sister spent about $70.00, which included her gift to me: the sausages I had admired but couldn’t afford.

***

I used to think I was part of the middle class. December 24, 2011, showed me I’m closer to the people who live in poverty than the people who recently ran for political office.

Jeanette Lukowski was born in Chicago and followed her muse to Minnesota in 1991. Ten years after the move, she began teaching college writing classes. She earned an MFA in 2011. She enjoys teaching, writing, driving around the continent she calls home, and spending time with her two children.