old (2008), Uncategorized

on not freezing to death

For me there is nothing worse than being cold. Experience has proven I can handle hunger and homelessness and violence and terror and not knowing how I’ll live to my next paycheck, but a lack of warmth is the one thing that remains intolerable. In order to understand this, you need to see from whence I came, which is why I’ve included these two photos. The first one shows the structure I lived in from age 12 to 14 (the tiny blue garage-shaped building in the middle), and the second shows the trailer I lived in my freshman year (and part of my sophomore year) of high school.
My parents — mostly my dad, but my mom went along with it — would always get these wild ideas to build houses on property in the country. I think they bought two or three pieces of land before we moved to New Braunfels in 1983, but it wasn’t until 1984 or 1985 that they actually bought land upon which any plans came to fruition. The idea was to build a small structure that would eventually become a garage, but in the meantime it would serve as an apartment of sorts for our family. Guys my dad worked with came over for the pouring of the foundation, and we had an old-fashioned barn raising of sorts. I learned — as best a 12-year-old could — how to dig for a foundation, lay rebar, frame and raise walls, hang sheet rock, run electrical wiring, roof a house, install siding, and paint a house (inside and out). And into this “garage” we moved — all five of us — as a “temporary” measure while my parents would save up money to build a house on the property.

When we moved in, there was no running water. My brother and I would walk down the hill to the well to pump water that would then be boiled on the stove (we at least had electricity). Not too long after, we had water, but it was months before a septic system was installed. At first, we used a porta potty but after one time of having to clean our shit out of it, my dad decided we could only pee in the porta potty. If we had to “do No. 2” my mom would drive us to the Stop-N-Go that was three or four miles away. Once, when she wasn’t home and there wasn’t anything else I could do, I shat in a paper bag and put it out with the trash.

Beyond having to share a 400-square-foot space with my parents, brother, and sister, and shitting in a paper bag, there wasn’t much heat in the “garage” space. There were lots of blankets, but I remember being very hot in the summer time and very cold in the winter — and that lasted the entire time I lived there, a little less than two years. Because despite the living situation having been marketed as temporary, it was years before the “big house” was inhabitable, and to this day — more than 20 years later — that house remains unfinished and is now vacant. My father, I think, simply grew tired of trying to make it work.

Before all that, though, my parents were divorced and I had a falling out with my dad and I moved in with my mother, who — having spent the better part of 15 years as a housewife — had neither money nor a job and, therefore, was forced to find Section 8 housing. In her case, it was a trailer at the top of a hill where my bedroom was so small that I didn’t even have room to sit on the floor — a twin bed and a dresser were pretty much all that would fit. My mother and sister each had larger rooms — they were living there for a while before I moved in — so it wasn’t a horrid place, but it was the kind of place I was embarrassed enough of that I had people drop me off at the bottom of the hill or — if I was brave enough to have them over — made all kinds of excuses about how this was a “temporary” situation until my mother got back on her feet.

More than I remember being embarrassed by the shoddiness of the whole thing — trailer parks in Texas aren’t as necessarily low-class as they are here, and it’s more the quality of the trailer that was cause for shame — I remember being constantly cold in that trailer. The heat was run by some sort of gas — I don’t know if it was natural gas or kerosene — but whatever it was, my mother often didn’t have the money to fill up the tank and we would simply go without. While life in the “garage” wasn’t all that great, we at least had some heat to carry us through, but this was something else. And, yeah, I can look back and think, Well, how cold can it possibly have been? It was Texas, after all… but as a fourteen-year-old girl who had lived in Texas since she was eight years old, it was damn cold (the Weather Channel tells me the average low in January there is 34 degrees, so it wasn’t exactly tropical). And I remember piling blanket after blanket on my bed and still not ever being able to feel warm, a chill completely through to the bone that I was terrified would never completely go away. And in a very real sense, it never has.

I never really remembered all of this until I took W. to Texas at the beginning of the summer of 2006, and we took kind of a tour of all the places I’d lived as a girl. And as we went from one depressing place to another — we never did live anywhere with any sort of longevity of value — I began to remember the humiliation I’d felt my entire life, the feeling that once I was an adult, I would never stoop to that level. I would never make my children poop in a bag (or hold it in until we could make it to the gas station) or live in a space where they had no room to stretch their legs or pile blankets upon their beds because I didn’t have the money for gas. Not that my parents wouldn’t have made it different if they could have, but in retrospect that’s a horribly large “if” to contemplate. And it sounds strange, but until W. was a witness to my geographic history, I had completely forgotten those promises I’d made to myself, that things would be different for my children.

Except I’d never forgotten about being cold. It would be difficult not to remember, living here in Chicago. And since last summer, cold weather reminds me of all those other things that had slipped my mind. I don’t think I’ll ever be proud of where I’ve come from — if I can’t feel pride showing my first-born son, how much is there? — but I do feel a deep and enduring sense of accomplishment at how far I’ve come. Of all things, cold toes in the winter bring that feeling straight to the surface. And so even though there is nothing worse than feeling cold, I am eternally grateful for the snow.