Until I was 13 years old, I never thought of us as being poor. Despite the blocks of government cheese, the roadkill deer we ate and the donated clothes, it never occurred to me that we might have much less than others. Sure, there were the kids who we occasionally went to church with in the next town over who had pierced ears and wore jeans, but I just figured these were stylistic choices that our parents didn’t want us to have. There was a camaraderie in all of us from The Community being in the same boat and it offered us a certain type of naïveté. Our donated clothes were a testament to our willingness to cast off things of the world, the block cheese a reminder of the generosity of those more fortunate, the venison a sign that God provides. These were choices we -our parents – made and though I fantasized about being best friends with the two girls from church with perfect curly bob haircuts, I knew we were different, but only because we were holier; more devout.
Even when we left The Community and became refugees for a time, staying with friends and grandparents, in rectories and lake houses, I still saw our actions as choices. These choices set us apart and made us somehow better in God’s eyes. The teasing that I endured because I wore only out-of-date skirts to school was not even a shadow of the pain Jesus went through when he died for my sins.
The year I turned 13 we were just beginning to get back on our feet. We were staying in my grandparents’ summer home as they were in Florida for the winter. We belonged to a nearby parish. I went to middle school in a town further away – a private, Catholic school – but I was becoming very aware of stares we received when we went to church. I felt as though I was being sized up by all of the strange teens and pre-teens. All of them wondering who I was and me, just terrified of them. I would try not to make eye contact, hoping that if I didn’t, they’d be less likely to notice me. Each Sunday my parents would insist on marching to one of the very front rows and I would stand there feeling as though I were on display, paranoid that my skirt was tucked into my underwear or that my period had arrived with a vengeance without me noticing.
That Christmas the church placed two trees in the back with paper ornaments on them. Each of the papers had the gender of a child, the age and the item requested. These were called “Giving Trees.” At the end of mass on the first Sunday that the trees had appeared, my parents led us to them. They explained the concept and then each of us picked an ornament – we were to help those in need by getting these items. Over the next few weeks we helped our parents pick out the items, wrapped them and then attached the paper ornaments to the packages. Before church we then placed the presents under the tree. I felt very pious and selfless.
Finally it was Christmas Eve. We had music and our stockings and my little brother and sister were eagerly awaiting Santa the next morning. My mom sent me out to the garage to get something and as I did I noticed something sitting in the front seat of my parents’ van. I hesitantly opened the door and lifted the blanket covering the suspicious mound. I almost couldn’t believe what I saw. Underneath there were piles of presents. I was thrilled and though I knew I was better off not looking, I began hurriedly searching for names on them. And then my heart sank. Taped to the box I held in my hand was a paper ornament stating “girl, age 13, snow boots.”
I was confused for just a moment, hoping that my conclusion wasn’t true. Perhaps my parents had gotten more presents to put under the Giving Tree. Or they were delivering the presents for the church. But I knew the truth: I was a girl, age 13, who needed snow boots. We were a Family In Need.
The next morning most would argue that we were blessed. We opened many presents, one of mine was a pair of snow boots. I feigned excitement with the big white pair of Michelin man-style boots. My parents made me try them on and then we moved on to the next present.
On Sunday I was sick with worry. I was convinced that if I wore the boots to church, someone would recognize them. I tried to wear different shoes but it was cold and snowy and my mother insisted. I put them on, nauseous over the thought of being branded as part of a Family In Need. When we got to church my dad marched us to the front row as usual where we would be on stage. I tried to hide my feet in the folds of my skirt. My face was hot with shame. I knew everyone was judging me. The idea of having my skirt accidentally tucked into my underwear was preferable.
And of course nothing happened. No one noticed or cared. But it was the first time I realized that we wore hand-me-downs and ate donated food out of necessity. No longer did I feel protected by our faith or by the idea of choice. My view of the world had expanded and I felt like I was floundering.