Government Peanut Butter
A friend of mine asked me to share this story again. Growing up poor is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to a person.
I am writing this story after reading a moving story about growing up poor. Because I think I am terminally unique, I like to imagine that my experiences have never happened to anyone else. In reality, I know they are different, but certainly not anymore trying than those whom have grown up with little. As a teenager and young adult, I always created a very different upbringing, one with parents that were together, plenty of food to eat, suburbs, girl scouts and more. I never told anyone the truth because I was always too ashamed. It is a blessing today that I am not ashamed of these events anymore, but rather pleased that I have lived a “lot of life” in these 48 years.
I shared in another story about being different and this is a continuation and addition to that story.
My mother and father divorced when I was 5 years old. Prior to the divorce, we were far from rich, but lived in SF, they owned their own home (bought by my grandfather) and from what I understand were getting by quite comfortably. This way of life ceased to exist within months after their separation. I have little memory of those early years, but some which I am sure I will share somewhere else at a later date.
Funny how food seems to play a major role in a lot of my stories; kids remember the strangest things. My mother was on welfare by the time I was 6. She was a struggling artist who stayed true to her love, but brought little economic security to our household. The men in her life are another story, but save to say, they too had little in the way of financial support. We lived in so many different homes, that it is difficult for me to remember them all. Four that stand out are 1st, the illegal apartment with the toilet in the kitchen and 2nd, the railroad flat in the Mission District, 3rd the converted school bus placed on the Truckee river in Northern California, and 4th, the cement house with no electricity or heat, but that was situated on 20 acres of gorgeous property also in Northern California.
The apartment with the toilet in the kitchen was one of the strangest places I have ever lived. My brother and I shared a room that had a dirt floor, my mother’s room was also her art studio and at night, she converted her work table into a bed. Thankfully, she was creative and our house was filled with color, many strange chochkees (don’t know how to spell this word) and a lot of art supplies. We lived in that apartment for about 2 years (it was in Bernal Heights for those of you that know SF) and in spite of it all, I have some lovely memories. My best friend lived next store and we played outside until well after dark (a much safer place back then). The neighborhood hadn’t been developed yet and we actually had a hill behind our house that had trees and many places to hide and play in. We had a rope swing on a big tree and all the neighborhood kids would gather there. I remember having a visit with my dad where he bought me an 8mm movie camera from a pawn shop. I had so much fun with that camera. Many a movie was made on the back hill with all of my friends being stars. I wish I still had those movies. I could go on and on about the games we played/created, the struggles we faced and the love we shared, but as mentioned often, for another story.
The railroad flat in the mission district – wow, I thought we were living the lap of luxury when we moved there. I had my own bedroom, the apartment was legal even though run by a slumlord, and we had a hallway that you could do cartwheels down. The downsides – the carpet looked like something was growing out of it, there were tons of roaches and it was across the street from a mortuary. It also had another unique feature – downstairs there was a little voodoo shop that sold various religious candles, incense, spells and other strange things. We were scared to death of the place and the people that ran it and patronized it. As a child, my view may have been exaggerated, but it felt very scary. The people that ran it were always trying to get me and my friends to come in – we never did, but certainly made up plenty of stories about what we thought was going on inside of that shop. The Mortuary game was another strange one – we witnessed so many funerals, that we played a game counting the number of cars for each funeral; who the person was that died and most importantly, how we thought they died. Pretty dark stuff at such a young age.
Since this story is becoming much too long to hold the interest of any reader (but very cathartic for me), I will save the other houses/buses/apartments I lived in for another story. I will however, share the reason I titled my story “Government Peanut Butter”.
Food was always an interesting part of our lives. My mother was constantly trying every hippy diet that came along in the mid 60’s and 70’s. So, I imagine it was difficult for her to incorporate the government food that we were given. For those of you that grew up in the 60’s and 70’s on welfare, you may remember the government supplements that were given with food stamps. I will never forget the huge metal tins of peanut butter, blocks of Velveeta cheese, and powdered milk. My mother would try and trick me by putting powdered milk into regular milk containers. To this day, I always smell the milk before I drink it; I didn’t eat peanut better for 20 years and I will never, ever eat Velveeta cheese in this lifetime again.
On a more positive note, even in the midst of the poverty, clear dysfunction and a very young mother, we had a lot of love and fun in our household.