With just the 3 of us at home, Mom did her best to keep going, but I think once the financial burden took over, and she wasn’t able to cover the bills, she started to lose hope. The court demanded that she pay back money she inherited from her Mom’s death, and since Dad declared bankruptcy, she was responsible for paying for all the bills, including the house payment. She didn’t even have a steady job and no one would give her credit or a loan. She never shared this information with me at the time and she always made us feel like we had enough. I don’t know if she shared her burdens with John or not, but it’s possible he knew what was going on. He always had a way of finding things out.
I noticed that Mom was sleeping in later on the weekends and even started to skip church on Sunday mornings. There was something about missing church that was sending a red flag to my heart. Dad never went to church except for Christmas and Easter, and to see Mom slip away from it didn’t feel right. Something tugged in me to wake her up on Sunday mornings. John begged me to let her sleep. He didn’t like going to church. I’m sure sitting still for that long was very difficult for him. The urge to wake her up was stronger than his begging me to let her sleep, so I went in her room and gently shook her until she woke up. I gave her just enough time to get up and go, so she could sleep in as long as possible. Surprisingly, she listened to me and we went to church each time. I did this for about 4 or 5 Sundays, and then she fell back into the routine of going. Years later when I was an adult, she confessed to me that she was contemplating suicide during that short phase of her life. The only thing that kept her from doing it was going to church, and the thought of John and I having to live with our Dad. I was so grateful for God’s grace. I would not be who I am if she had committed suicide. In fact, I’d be willing to bet I wouldn’t still be on this planet if she had.
Mom didn’t want to go back to waitressing, because she wanted to be with us at night. So she applied for secretarial jobs. She could type well, but she didn’t have the experience. She found out there was a job in her hometown for a secretarial position to the vice-president of a company. She went in for the interview, and told me later that she begged him for the job. She explained that he “took pity on her” and gave her a chance. She had to take a course in shorthand, which she studied continuously until she mastered it. It was interesting to me to watch Mom do homework. She was a hard worker. And even when she became frustrated and wanted to quit, she would take a break and get right back to it. She did master it, and impressed her new boss. She now had a full-time job, and we became “latch-key” kids. She was no longer home with a homemade treat waiting for us after school. Watching her gain personal strength was empowering and a wonderful thing for me to witness. But experiencing what it was like to have her gone most of the time was a big contrast that wasn’t pleasant. It was hard to be that young without an adult around as much as I had her around previously. I really appreciated the time I had with her and all that she had done for us. I made a decision even at that young age that I would not be away from home while my kids were in school. The difference in the way I felt about my environment with her gone versus when she was there was huge. Sometimes it was very lonely, and sometimes it was scary. Either way, it felt like there was no one in charge. I began to rely even more on God and continued to talk with Him every night.
I also began to rely more heavily on my brother. Even at the age of 11, he took charge as far as our meals when she wasn’t there. He could make a great bowl of cream of wheat and a perfect macaroni and cheese. Mom still made our lunches for school, but John was able to fill in when needed.
With Mom at her full-time job and John and I on our own after school, I had a couple of experiences that magnified my loneliness.
I usually rode the bus, but for some reason, I had planned on staying late after school one day. There was a program or event that I wanted to be part of. Mom explained that I would have to walk home from school since she had to work (25 minutes away), and I said I would be fine. It was warmer weather, so walking the 2 miles home wasn’t going to be a big deal (even though I had never done it before.)
She drove me to school making sure I knew the route home. Part of the walk involved a 4-lane highway with a boulevard in the middle. I was confident I could do it.
The timing of this walk home was ironic. That day at school we had a presentation about how you shouldn’t talk to strangers. It was a well-meaning school assembly, but it instilled fear in kids, with the intention of protecting them. Basically they said, “Don’t talk to strangers, or take candy from a stranger.” The implication was that they will offer it to you as a trap, and then kidnap you. And I learned all of this on the day I was walking home by myself.
It was a warm day, and by the time I managed the busy highway, and got on the grassy boulevard, I was tired and hot. I was also surprised how uneven the ground was, and found myself stumbling several times, burdened by my school bag that was loaded with books and my lunchbox. I was feeling very vulnerable with all the cars rushing by and the words of the school presentation spinning in my head. I kept my eyes down avoiding any eye contact with the drivers, and wished that I was home.
Suddenly I noticed a car pull over going in my direction, next to the boulevard with the flashers on. A woman got out of her car and called to me. “Little girl! Little girl?! Are you okay? Do you need a ride?” Terror struck in my heart. I imagined a man hiding in the back seat with a gun. They were going to get me! She was probably a compassionate woman who saw a little girl walking by herself on a road that was completely inappropriate for a 9-year old. My heart was about to beat out of my chest. “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?! I so wanted someone to help me get home, but I couldn’t go with a stranger. I had just learned what they did to children. I was utterly terrified. I knew I couldn’t keep walking toward her. If I got too close, she or the imaginary man might grab me. My mind reeled. I suddenly came up with a plan. I pretended I just realized I was walking the wrong way. I looked behind me, and then in front of me. I looked around as if I were looking for landmarks. And then I gave the facial expression of, “Oh yea, I’m supposed to be going this way,” and starting walking in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to go further from my home, and I didn’t want to add steps to my journey, but I had to get out of there without looking like I was afraid of her. If I ran, she might run after me. I knew I had to keep my cool. (Now that I write this, it feels strange that I felt that I had to look like I wasn’t scared. Probably part of my training with my older brother picking on me.)
Just before I turned around to walk in the opposite direction, I noticed the woman putting her hands up in frustration and went back to her car. I kept walking for about 5 minutes until I knew she was gone. Then I backtracked again, and eventually made it home. I was still so frightened by the time I got home, I raced through the house, heart still pounding, looking for my mom so I could tell her what happened. I needed to run in her arms and be assured that I was safe. She wasn’t there. My brother was there and I didn’t dare tell him about it. I didn’t want him telling me I was too sensitive – a phrase I heard often growing up. I went into my room and cried. I promised myself I would never walk home from that school again.
In the 2nd grade (a year earlier) I belonged to a summer gymnastics program that lasted for 2 or 3 weeks in the summer. Mom used to take me and drop me off. I loved being there. We did mats, balance beam and the trampoline. I wasn’t nearly as good as my sister, but I loved every second of it. At the end of the program, there was a mini competition. I got a 3rd place trophy. I was thrilled!
The summer after 3rd grade, I wanted to do it again. Mom said she wouldn’t be able to take me. It wasn’t too far away – a couple of miles? – so I learned the route on my bike. Riding my bike in the summer was a joy for me. I was feeling a bit sad though that my mom, once again, wasn’t there for my final performance. I watched her go to everything my sister Leslie did, but she wasn’t available for me. I didn’t feel like I did very well, but they announced my name and I received a 2nd place trophy. I was actually shocked that I won anything. I was very pleased, but at the same time sad that there was no one to share it with. I remember feeling exhausted riding my bike home in the rain with my little trophy in my bag. I kept those two trophies on my piano until I was 18 years old. They represented something very important to me. They told me “I can do anything.” Not only that, but I’ll get recognized for it. I loved gymnastics, and I was being rewarded for it. Those trophies also said, “yes, you’ve had to do this on your own, but you did it.” It was better than not doing it at all.