The other day I was talking with a friend and ended up revisiting our favorite topic. We talked for over an hour, but the short version of the conversation goes something like this: “Having 2 people bringing in money has got to be awesome!”
Being African American, my friend and I have always been kind of amazed at the thought of two paychecks. We’re used to the single-parent home where Momma had to make it happen on her own. In fact I remember thinking at one point how unfamiliar the word “parents” was to me. There was just Mom. For me and my friends and anyone else I could think of off the top of my head. Sure there were some “Fathers” around. But it always seemed to me that they didn’t do much. And all the Mom’s were mad at them. So pretty much anything we got came from Mom. We got new school clothes and birthday parties and Christmas presents like other kids. But these weren’t a given.
I can remember the first time I thought Christmas was canceled. I was that magical age where you’re young enough to still be excited about presents, but old enough that they don’t necessarily come in giant gift-wrapped boxes. My Mom had been doing this thing for months where she was warning us that she wasn’t able to get us anything this year. There were three of us (me, my brother and my cousin) and she told us she didn’t have the money for gifts. Plus we were too old for Christmas right? We all put on our most mature looking faces and told her that it was fine. We didn’t need gifts. We understand money is tight. We weren’t expecting anything. Plus, we’re too old for Christmas anyway…
I slept late on Christmas morning. The house was still silent when I got up though. I got out of bed and walked downstairs (not ran, no need to get over-excited right?) I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes when I realized that they were playing tricks on me. The tree was empty. It was a nice tree. A real one that smelled like fresh pine. It was all done up with multi-colored lights, ornaments and tinsel. But at this moment it was utterly worthless. There was nothing under it.
I’m not really sure how to describe the feeling. The closest thing would probably be that wrench in your gut that happens when you go down the big drop on a roller coaster. That seems dramatic, but this was a defining moment for me. Kids get presents at Christmas. It’s a well known and undisputed fact. So how was I supposed to process what seemed to be the exact opposite of that? To be clear, I wasn’t upset at Mom. Instead I was worried. She really didn’t have the money even for one gift? Were we really in trouble? Was it because of me? Did I spend too much money?
This internal line of questioning went on for a long while. But honestly there was no peace of mind to be had. I didn’t know how much money my Mom made. I didn’t know how many things she had to pay for. I just know she’s at work most of the day Monday thru Friday and sometimes Saturday. She’s always really tired. And if you don’t turn the light off when you leave a room then you’re in trouble. Electricity ain’t free. Nothing is free.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this is my story of learning the value of a dollar. It wasn’t immediate, but that was definitely the start. I found out how much my Mom made. I found out how much electricity costs. And it probably started my long-standing tradition of telling everyone that I don’t need or want anything for Christmas. So these days I shop for clothes on sale, I have a high yield savings account and I filled out my itemized taxes just to make sure it wasn’t more cost-effective than the standard deduction.
So what if my dad was around? What if we had two paychecks and the second one had bought me my Christmas presents that year? I’d probably be less responsible with money. I’d have way more crap and way less cash on hand. I’d be a lot less self-sufficient. While Mom was at work I fed myself, washed clothes, did the dishes and cleaned the house. In hindsight, I feel pretty good about the way things turned out.
Anyway, I feel like I should put a happy end on the story. Turns out we did get gifts. There were three Looney Tunes watches sitting under my tree. I just missed it because I was too busy being traumatized. Mine had the Tazmanian Devil on it. Those watches were hot. My Mom is the best.