Sunday Morning ~ Dance is for Everyone
Gule ndi ali yense, kulakwa ndi kuthyola mwendo. ~ A dance is for everyone, but the wrong thing is to break your leg.
~ Chewa proverb
September 27, 2020
The summer before my first year of college, my father sat me down to discuss finances. Well, calling it a discussion was a stretch. My father didn’t really discuss anything, though, he always advertised the encounter as such. They were more like declarations. He would tell us what time we were to be seated at the table, he in his captain’s chair, the one enduring his painfully drawn out proclamation sitting diagonally across in the smaller mate’s chair. It always took place after supper but never before the stock market report. Digesting the meal was problematic for the victim (me in this case) anticipating the familiar tete á tete, so it was best to eat lightly. Sometimes it would be sprung on us just as we were going out with friends. That was the worst. One never knew how long these would last. It would depend on his mood and how much he’d had to drink. Usually the more wine the better, but post prandial often meant only one glass and that was not a mood changer. The stock market report was also a factor. His stamina was impressive; it could last for hours. My friends were familiar with my family dynamic and knew not to wait around.
That summer I was happily getting ready to move out of the house and on to college. I couldn’t wait to eat a meal without being told what a disappointment I was and was looking forward to freedom. So when summoned to this financial meeting I took my seat, assuring myself these ego-crushing lectures were numbered. On a positive note, one never had to worry about having a response. He did all the talking and the subject’s role was to nod and agree with whatever he said. That was the quickest way to get to your evening plans. However, sometimes, depending on what I was being forced to agree to, I’d argue. This always came as a shock to him and would send the entire family scattering. That never went well. In my seventeen plus years I’d learned when to confront and when to submit. This took skill. Submission usually meant spending the tortured hour (at least) mentally problem solving how to work around his demands with the least possible damage and detection. I can nod and plan at the same time.
The lecture often started with the same preamble: how hard he had to work to support us, how lucky we were that we had all the comforts we did, how he was discriminated against and worked from the time he could remember (he had to sell newspapers on the sidewalk for fifteen cents a week! A WEEK!). This would then merge into how ungrateful we all were, how we didn’t understand how hard he had it, on and on. If it had been in a softer tone it may have evoked some sympathy, but it was always angry, like he hated me for having an easier life even as he gave it to me. He was paying for college. That was never even questioned and I’ve gotta say, I wasn’t overly appreciative at the time. I felt like it was combat pay for getting through childhood in that house. I also worked since I was ten, taking over my brother’s paper route. I babysat from age eleven on and when I was fifteen got a job in a tailor shop downtown making $1.75 an hour. I loved that job. My father required all my earnings go into my savings account, an account with his name on it. The five of us had been warned that the first person saying, “That’s my money and I can do what I want with it.” will be kicked out of the house so fast “you won’t even know what happened!” We silently acquiesced, I for one, thinking what a relief it would be to be kicked out of that house. The only money I kept was from babysitting, careful not to buy anything that would reveal my stash, which, was literally under the mattress concealed in a flimsily locked diary. I was told my bank account was for college so felt I was contributing, though never would have pointed that out. If you liked your job it wasn’t really a job. You were not suffering enough.
On that August evening, plans with my friends on hold, I was given a list of all the college expenses I would be responsible for: books, fees, transportation, and food. This was three weeks before my first class. I said, “Ok, no problem.” thinking, wow, that was easy. Then he erupted, “What do you mean NO PROBLEM?! You talk like you are making a million dollars!” Uh oh. There’s a different agenda going on here. Danger. Shouldn’t ever think it’s going to be easy. I cautiously said, “What I have in the bank should cover all that.” He smugly sat back in his chair, raised his newspaper and smirked, “You can’t use that money.”
I cannot describe how much I hated this man. The goalpost was always moving, rules never clear, and sabotage always around the corner. He had utter control and enjoyed watching the destruction his bombs created. The realization sunk in that my last three weeks home would now be an anxiety ridden mess figuring out how to earn more money quickly. I stood up, resolved not to break, and left to meet my friends, making sure I was out of sight before i started crying.
Extra babysitting was easy to come by then so I was able to earn extra cash. I planned to eat as little as possible and never come home. That would eliminate transportation costs. I kept my last few paychecks from the seamstress job, and got another babysitting job once I got to school. People in my college neighborhood had well stocked fridges so night time babysitting meant I could eat there and get homework done. I would never admit defeat but I didn’t flaunt success either. It was a stealth game and it always irked him that he couldn’t flatten me, though in later years, he respected me for it.
I spent years recovering from growing up with a man who hated women and thought he was indestructible. I think of this now for obvious reasons. Perhaps my past is what gives me my sense of optimism that creatures like him bring about their own downfall, which, in his arrogance, he did. Survival and thriving means finding a support system, learning how to get around sudden roadblocks, keeping our energy up, and relishing the sweet reward whenever that becomes ours. And it will.
There’s a way through, always. Plan. Be strong. Don’t give up.
Love to all,