I hesitate to write this story. Not because I can’t handle telling it, but rather because it’s not solely my story to tell. Much of it belongs to my mother. I can’t tell the story without crossing over into her story, but I also can’t paint her in the light the words would. So I’ll provide a summary to be scattered throughout my own.
My mother had me when she was age 16; my father was age 18. Kids having kids. But my mother also wouldn’t be confined by the structures imposed upon her by cultural stigmas and societal expectations. She was very much a free spirit. There was drinking and there were drugs. At the age when many of us were doing some or all of that in college, she was raising a small child. Me. It’s easy to judge a mother, but I urge you to withhold judgement. She’s my mother, I love her, and I do not judge her. She did the very best she could do, and I love her for it.
Parents across the country take pictures with their children on that first day of kindergarten. My mom was no different. I have that picture. I’m dressed in a blue dress with white lace around the edges. I’m snuggled into my mother’s side. Her arm around me, coffee cup in hand, smile on her face. Our backdrop is green canvas. On the floor behind us is a makeshift pallet and beside that is a 5 gallon bucket. These details evidence our home. The pallet is mine. The bucket is our toilet. This is where I lived.
We traveled across states as migrating workers. We picked strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. We never stayed at one location for long, yet we ran into the same people along our path. When we weren’t living in the tent, we were living in the van. Until recently, I wouldn’t even step foot in a berry field. I did enough of that as a child.
Have you ever been told your memory is not the most reliable character? It’s true. For years, I imagined my mother tying a five gallon bucket around my neck to pick berries. The deal was I had to fill the bucket before I could play. Obviously, you can’t tie a 5-gallon bucket around the neck of a small five-year-old child. It was a much smaller bucket. Once filled, which often took too much time because I’d eat the berries, I was free. I could go find the other children with parents like mine. We would run through the fields, climb the pallets until the workers screamed at our dangerous antics, and play imaginary games. We would laugh and smile and enjoy the moments we had together.
I can’t tell you being homeless was a terrible experience. It wasn’t. I would never say it was great, but there were moments of greatness in it. You see, that’s the wonderful thing about children. We are resilient. No, I didn’t want to sleep in a tent. And no, I didn’t want to pick berries. But those aren’t the things that define much of that time. I was fed, I was clothed, and I was most certainly loved. You can see that love in my kindergarten picture. Maybe my food was cooked on a Coleman stove, or better yet, ate straight of a can, but it was food, and it was nutrition, and I never went hungry. Actually, one of my greatest memories was eating chicken noodle soup straight from the can. I can tell you that I don’t care for too much salt, but I can still eat soup this way. But only chicken noodle.
As a teacher, I give my students an analysis assignment where they have to discuss how an image speaks through rhetorical appeals. It’s visual rhetoric. I give them Dorothea Lange’s picture of the mother with two children hiding their dirty faces and a baby in her arm. It’s a sad image from the Great Depression. Some students say it’s just an image. Others say they are compelled to do something. They want to help. Others admit sadness and pity. I then ask them to imagine the picture is staged and the husband is just outside the image. The children are hiding their faces because they can’t stop laughing. The mother is intentionally posed. I asked them to discuss how that changes their perception or their feelings about the image. I’ve been doing this for many years, and most students will state anger at being tricked or no longer feeling that sadness, pity or compassion. Many will say that if the kids are laughing, they must be fine. I am summarizing.
I challenge that idea. I challenge it because during my homeless days as a child, I did laugh. I did play. I did find reasons to be happy. And maybe I haven’t made it sound all that terrible. That’s because the actual “homeless” part wasn’t. The drugs, the alcohol, the physical abuse the adults in my life wrought upon each other? Those images exist in my mind. And no child should have those images. Those moments were not happy moments. Those moments were scary. In those moments, I cried.
The thing is I didn’t realize that being homeless as a child and traveling and working in fields and doing all those things weren’t okay until I was older. Because as children, we’re pretty damn simple. We want to be loved by the people we love the most. And I was. It wasn’t until later that I realized and thought “What the hell?” It wasn’t until I was older that I became angry about this life and my experiences. And bitter. So bitter. It wasn’t until later, as an adult, that I was able to reflect and understand that my mother did her best and that out of it all came some of my most cherished memories. Moments that I wouldn’t have without that experience.
I am a mother and a wife, and my kids, hopefully, will never know what it means to be homeless. I am thankful for that. As I look back at that time, I know it shaped me. But I also know I draw strength from it. Had I told this story ten years ago, it’d be completely different. I would’ve railed against it. But I am proof that we can continue to be resilient and we can continue to become better than we were. And I know this experience and knowledge of what it means to be homeless gives me compassion for others. It makes me a better mother (although I have some serious growth to do there) and a better teacher to my own students who have experienced or are experiencing hardships. Because I also know homelessness rarely comes with just being “homeless.” During that time, I saw things, heard things, and experienced things I should have never seen, heard or experienced in my life. While there were great memories, some of my darkest, most damaging memories also occurred during that time. But that’s a story for another day.