Like many people I know, I grew up economically disadvantaged. It wasn’t something I was aware of at the time, because everyone around me lived under the same circumstances. We were a proud group of poor people though. The lawns on our street were always well manicured and my mother always took the time to make sure my homemade dresses were clean and pressed and my hair looked nice. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have a late model vehicle and that steak was never an option for dinner. At least it didn’t matter to the children. We were more than satisfied with taking turns riding up and down the street on the one bicycle owned by the little girl next door. When we tired of that, jump rope was always an entertaining backup.
My mother could make a miracle out of nothing in the kitchen, and I certainly inherited that skill from her. She would boil a box of noodles and mix them up with a little olive oil and whatever spices she could put her hands on and the flavors always ended up being nothing short of amazing. She was proud of her resourcefulness, and had every right to be.
One day I came home from school to see her staring blankly into the refrigerator. I stepped from behind the door to see what had captured her attention so intently. There was nothing inside but a jar of mayonnaise and an empty ice cube tray. For the first time, my mother couldn’t make a miracle happen. The look of defeat in her face was palpable. Her normally twinkling brown eyes were dark and sad, and it was difficult to look into them. “Keta’s mom got a bunch of food at the pantry the other day,” I told her. She slammed the refrigerator door shut. “I am not feeding my family from somebody’s handouts!” She paced back and forth through the kitchen, checking and re-checking every single cabinet and drawer. She let out a sigh of defeat. “Put your coat back on,” she told me. She slipped on her heavy coat and put a pair of Daddy’s socks on her hands, then we headed out the door.
She was completely silent on the way to the pantry. I was, too. There was nothing I could say to make her feel any better about what she had been reduced to. As we trudged through the snow, I could see her out of the corner of my eye, looking around as if to make sure no one could see where she was headed. The pantry was in the basement of a church a few blocks away from the house. I stared at the mint green colored cement block walls as we waited in line for our package. My stomach growled, and I shuffled my feet around to keep anyone from hearing. Mom stepped up to the table with her head hung low as a heavyset woman with beautiful chocolate skin handed her two brown paper bags. I grabbed the lightest one, and we headed home.
Dinner that night was the best we had in a long time. Mom made beef stew over rice, and there were canned peaches for dessert. I’ll never forget how well I slept, having gone to bed with a full belly for the first time in quite a while.