Rich is Relative

With the arrival of tax season come the tax tips. Hey, did you know that you may be able to write off the mortgage interest on your boat? Yeah, like us ordinary mortals have cabin cruisers sitting around to be counted as our “second home.”

When I start thinking about how poor I am, I remember two girls, sisters, who I knew growing up, and I begin listing in my mind what my husband and I have and what we don’t have. We have a home, not a huge home, not in the best neighborhood, but it’s almost paid off. We’ve only taken half a dozen vacations in the last 20-some-odd years, but we have been able to travel occasionally or just take a week off work with pay. We eat at restaurants pretty regularly.  When we need to go to the doctor or take the cat to the vet, we use the credit card and it doesn’t hurt too badly. So, maybe we’re not “poor.” But we’re certainly not rich. Right?

Those girls who lived down the street always said we were. My dad was in the Navy but my parents had built a house in Pensacola before he went back in the Navy (he got out and worked at the local paper mill when they first got married, then he re-enlisted). We ended up living here off and on (my dad was stationed in this area a couple of times, plus sometimes my mom and I would live here while he was at sea for several months). These girls lived down the street and through the woods, and we played together and walked to and from the school bus stop together. Sometimes, if I lamented not having something or said I wished my parents were rich, they would say, “But you are rich!”

Now, my dad was an enlisted man. My mom made me help write out the bills one month so I could see that when all those checks were written and the month’s groceries were purchased and I got my $1 a month allowance (50 cents each payday), they had less than a dollar to last until the next paycheck. We weren’t rich. And I told my friends that.

Uh-huh, they insisted. Your family is rich.

I walked down to their house with them a couple of times. My mom didn’t like me going down there very much, I think because their uncle had some mental problems of some kind. They lived in a shack. I mean, really, a shack in the woods. It was really small with low ceilings. I’m not even sure if they had a separate bedroom or if they all stayed in the one room; I don’t remember.

Our house was made of concrete block with hardwood ceilings and an attic, three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Sure it was built in the ’50s and the paint was peeling in a few spots and the asphalt tiles were scuffed. To me it was old, on a dead end street not too far from the projects. The rich kids lived in the shiny new neighborhoods over by the mall.

My friends were on the free lunch program. My mom wanted me to take my lunch sometimes, and I didn’t want that, I wanted to buy lunch. I said she ought to check into free lunch, and she did but even an enlisted man’s salary was too high to qualify.

The only things I ever had to sell were for school fundraisers. On my street, we had half a dozen poor people. How could I compete with the rich kids who lived in neighborhoods where they had dozens of potential customers right next door? And their parents both worked and could take their catalogs and candy boxes to the office to help them. Me, rich? Right.

My two friends sold things to earn money for their family. They got them through some sort of program. Candles in tall glass jars with pictures of the Virgin Mary on them. Seeds. Sachets. Sometimes we were able to buy something from them. One summer, when my mother couldn’t get me to help out pulling weeds, she hired my friends to pull dandylions. She paid a penny a piece and they earned $10. They were so excited. This would have been in the late ’70s, when $10 was still pretty good for kids. My mom had offered me the same deal, but to me, it wasn’t worth the back-breaking labor. (I still hate pulling weeds.)

Despite having so little, they were always generous, always offering to share the little they had. Always with a smile.

The younger sister, the one I played with the most, married a military man, moved away, then came home with her four kids. She couldn’t bear to be away from Pensacola and her mother. Not long after that, she disappeared. She was from a poor family, some of her relatives had had run-ins with the law, and the investigators brushed it off. Said she probably just ran off. Right, the girl who left what she said was a good marriage to come home to her mom. The girl who loved kids and said she wanted to live in a big house with an elevator, she just left her children and ran off.

Six years later, someone hunting for golf balls found her remains, dumped under some bushes. They eventually arrested someone; he was convicted in 2001 of second degree murder and is still in prison.

I tend to think if I disappeared, the sheriff’s office would have treated the report more seriously. Would not have assumed that I just ran off. Would have done a more thorough search when the first tip came in about a body on the golf course — several years before her remains were found. That the killer would have been convicted of first degree murder and faced execution instead of life in prison.

Because I’m rich.

About Taminar

When I grow up, I want to make movies and write books. Now in my 50s, I wonder if I'll ever really accomplish the dreams of my youth. I have made two short films, one for a college film-making class, the other for an MTV-sponsored contest. I have written short plays that have been produced, and a few short stories and reviews that have been published. I also perform and direct for community theatre. My working life has included stints in local TV news, public relations, retail management and cashier, and for a couple of years, I made the rides go at Walt Disney World. I have two cats and a husband.
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