Saturday, January 7, 2012

Home Improvement

I grew up pretty darn poor.  Granted, poverty is relative.  I also grew up hearing stories of people starving in Africa, so by comparison to that, we were rich.  But by any standard definition of poverty set in America, we were well within it.

A couple of caveats.  I grew up in a lower middle class environment, and I'm wondering how common it is to actually have been raised by parents, both with college degrees and still live consistently, year after year, below the poverty line.  What I'm trying to say is that despite the poverty, I had a few key ingredients of a typical middle class family that were ultimately vital for me to move on to something more:  my parents hung together, thick and thin, they valued education, and I had a structure - of church and peers - of adult competence.  But no doubt about it, my parents had the education but were simply unable to find a job and stuck in one in one of the worse places to look for a job anyway in this country.

At the time, it was baffling for me, as in awe of my dad as I was at the time.  I still have this memory burned into me, praying that my dad would find a good job and this feeling of utter complete hopelessness not having that prayer ever really getting answered. 

Let me describe in detail, my view of my Dad's career history, my mom never worked (more on that later).  He moved to Yuma to teach school at Yuma High.  That lasted for three years enough time to buy a cheap tract home (brand new) in the late 1970's.  It was a tract home by what was promised to be a park doubling as a water retention basin.  For those of you who know anything about real-estate, this was not a good time to buy a tract home as most of those neighborhoods are now slums including this one.  Well, at the three year mark, my Dad was let go.  At least from the way my Dad put it, after three years, they either give you tenure, at which time it's harder to fire you, or they let you go.

He could have tried to get another teaching job, and he did try.  There was talk of moving yet again.  I was five when we moved to Yuma, so I have only very fleeting memories of anything before Yuma, but apparently, my parents had started their marriage in Bowie, Arizona, left there to come to Chandler, AZ, left there to go to Riverside, AZ (where I was born), returned to Phoenix, AZ, then on to Yuma.  I think everyone was tired of moving and my Dad was losing his confidence as a competent teacher.  I honestly have no good idea what happened, just guesses and suspicions.

At any rate, he tried, in vein, to reinvent himself in Yuma.  I remember a lot of ups and downs, actually that's wrong, it was all pretty much a bunch of downs.  He tried sells - insurance, frozen food - actually that's all I remember of sells.  He worked at a Circle K for a while.  He was unemployed a lot.  One brief high was when both of my parents got hired at this school for troubled teens.  The school administrators were impressed that both of my parents had teaching degrees, looking back they also must have been pretty desperate for help because they hired my parents without really digging into their past.  The pay was really good, and for a moment I was dreaming we could actually own a TV and maybe a computer (we went without a TV for many years, had a tiny black & white for a while; only after I moved out and their expenses dropped enough and TV costs dropped enough, did they buy color).  Well, my parents couldn't hack the work and dumped it after a very short time on the job.  By the way, this is legitimate, I fully believe (now) that they weren't cut out for this kind of work.

Finally, my dad landed a job for the LDS church as its custodian.  My dad the church janitor a source of deep humiliation for me for much of my life.  Even now when someone asks me what my Dad did for a living, my answer is always teacher even though I hardly remember a time he had a full time teaching position, although he did substitute teaching a lot during times of unemployment and after he retired.

He ended up working there for the rest of his career.  He finally retired 13 years ago at the age of 70, right around the time the church decided this job, a job my dad spent at least a couple of decades of his life doing, was so easy church members should volunteer to do it an hour a week on Saturdays.  And in case this is not obvious to you, custodians don't get paid very well.  He pulled in around $10,000/year.  Remember, my mom didn't work.  So, we were poor.  When our A/C broke in our house, that was that.  We did without.  I actually don't remember ever living with A/C to be honest.  I do remember suffering through many sleepless, sweaty nights in the middle of the Yuma summer without one though.  I know I shouldn't complain.  People lived in Yuma and in Phoenix before A/C ever existed.  I'm just sharing my memories here.

But to tell you the truth, my parents never really fixed anything or really cleaned anything for that matter - not really.  Remember at the start of this blog that this house was a cheap tract home built in the 1970's.  The house I spent ages 5 through 18 living in, and for several more years visiting on a fairly regular basis.  Well, things started falling apart pretty quickly and my parents never really fixed anything or really cleaned or really maintained any of it.  The cupboards rotted, the bathrooms were a mess, the closet where the washing machine lived was a disaster.  We shared our space with big cockroaches.  I know I'm complaining and there are many people out there who grew up in worse conditions.

They did make some fleeting attempts at landscaping their front yard when they first moved in, so we had these two flimsy trees and a patch of bermuda grass.  I don't remember now but I don't believe the trees survived and the grass hung around in patches here and there.  The backyard remained dirt.  There was no backyard fence.

Do you remember that park we lived next to?  Well, it never really became a park.  Just splotch of dirt that retained water (attracting mosquitoes) after a rain.  So, that's what we lived next to.  Yuma was a place struggling almost as badly as my parents to be honest.

So, why were my parents behaving in this way, barely hanging on, seeming to lack the motivation or confidence to really make improvements in themselves.  By the way, when you're a child growing up like this, it's really hard to make sense of it.  My dad would always spin these stories in a way that made him seem like the victim.  And it is a complex story and I still don't really understand it, but he was a victim to some extent, but I understand now a bit better why things went the way they did for him and us.

The main thing is that I'm convinced that my Mom has Aspergers.  If it's not Aspergers, it's something similar and if you had a conversation with her for five minutes, you would agree with me.  I recently saw the movie Adam, and there were some scenes in that movie that were eerily similar to the way my Mom behaves (over and over again).  Her inability to exhibit empathy for another, her social phobias.

What's strange about their marriage, actually, is that my Dad married her at all, and why?  I'm not sure I really understand it except that my Dad lacked confidence.  He was pretty shy and old.  But  maybe he was just put on this earth to marry her.  His favorite story, in fact, was how he felt inspired to drop out of ASU graduate school and drive to Provo to attend BYU.  He met my Mom at a church dance, danced with her all night.  They were married five weeks later, and he stayed true to her ever since, never wavering in his love for her.

But it was actually excruciating to be raised by a mother with Aspergers:
Reports received by people raised by parents with Aspergers syndrome are disturbing. Many children of A.S. parents report that they developed severe self esteem problems because their parent could not give them the warmth, empathy and caring they needed growing up. These same people reported bouts with severe depression from what they perceived as rejection from their parent or parents on an emotional level. The child’s physical needs were well taken care of but they had no emotional support. For people raised by parents with Aspergers syndrome the lack of emotional support hurt them very much.
Well, I came to this blog meaning to post about something completely different than this and now I'm finally getting to it.  So, my Dad is 82 now and is hanging on at a group home a few blocks away.   I moved my Mom in there with him, actually, as well.  It's a small home with only three bedrooms and two other residents.  On of the other residents suffers from dimensia, and actually my Dad is on that road as well.  The dimensia is really difficult for my Mom to cope with.  My Dad is getting abusive with her and she has trouble absorbing it, taking everything he says literally and taking it really, really hard.

I'm now in the process of finding an apartment close by where she can walk over and visit with him but still have her own place.  There are two really close places near by and one a little further away.  One apartment complex is really, really nice the other is basically some buildings in a really big parking place.  I would really love to move my Mom into the nice complex but it's obviously more expensive and we would be potentially be paying for something my Mom really does not want.  I'm not sure we can really afford it anyways.

Additionally, the condo they were living in was in desperate need for repair.  We sold their car and used the proceeds to re-do their bathrooms and to pretty much fix things up.  It's in nice shape now and ready to rent providing a little boost of income to their strained finances.  Their condo is not in a good part of Mesa so we won't get a ton from it.

Tonight, I got off the phone with my cousin who looked into it and discovered a condo in the same complex recently sold for $29,000 and he was wondering why we would spend so much money fixing up a condo worth so little.

Here's why I'm coming to this.  It's not just a condo, it's a home, a place for someone to live, and this place should be liveable.  You either spend money to fix it up, demolish it, or you live in squalor.  My parents chose to live in squalor for most of their life.  They finally got a little money inherited to them when my Grandmother died (on my mom's side) and began fixing it up, but they left too much undone.

It breaks my heart, in more ways than I can count, that we have people living in houses, way too big for their needs, while a the same time far too many others, in this country, have far too little.

We obviously have an inequality problem in our country and it's degrading our social fabric:

So, rather than leaving our poor neighborhoods alone to squalor.  We should be investing in them, cleaning them up. Beautifying.  This is not just about money.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Yikes Scott. I didn't know you went w/out A/C in Yuma of all places!