While I never want to return to life in the trailer park, I am thankful that I was forced into that situation at an early age. No matter how chaotic our lives became in the wake of my father’s death, there were always people around us who were worse off.
That’s the difference between living on the margins versus living in the gated communities. In the gated communities, there are almost always people better off than you. People to envy. Some material thing that the neighbor has that you don’t have but think you ought to have. There are people with more money, bigger homes, newer cars, bigger paychecks, better vacations.
In the trailer park, pretty much everyone was in the same economic class. Life was pretty simple in that regard. It boiled down to payday – when Mama brought home groceries from the commissary – and ten days after the last paycheck, when the frig was pretty well cleaned out and dinner was another box of fish sticks. There wasn’t money for school lunches, and no free school lunch program, so I’d try to find friends to sit with who didn’t notice I didn’t have a lunch.
One of the most memorable moments of life in the trailer park happened one Spring day when a huge box arrived. It was from some well-meaning kin who thought perhaps we had need of the items in the box. We kids couldn’t open the box until Mama got home from work. She took a knife and opened it carefully, totally unsure of what was inside, since this particular kin hadn’t really been in touch with us much, and we’d never in the two years since Daddy died received anything from them.
Inside the box were prom dresses. The most beautiful prom dresses you ever saw. Jewel-toned organza that cinched at the waist and puffed out in layers from there. Mama pulled those dresses from the box and laughed one of her bitter laughs. She took a drag from her cigarette and looked over at Sister Tater and me. I was in 7th grade. Sister Tater still in elementary school. Mama stood up and walked into the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee. I scooted closer to the box to touch the dresses. I knew from the look on Mama’s face those dresses wouldn’t last long in our house. There’s not much closet space in a 12 x 60 for storing big puffy prom dresses.
I never saw the dresses again after that day. I don’t know what Mama did with them. We never spoke of them, not even years later when she’d long forgiven the kinfolk who sent us those dresses. I am sure they meant well. They weren’t mean people. They were just better off people. People who had no idea what our lives looked like in the aftermath of Daddy’s death. I am sure they prayed for us. And I am sure they had their own family dramas to deal with. In their own way, they meant the gift to be a kind one. But the truth was, for Mama at least, that box of dresses represented to her just how far removed even our own extended family was from the suffering we were coping with daily. Some days successfully. Others not so much.
I think that is what is meant by the Scriptures when it says God redeems all things. As awful as losing a father in Vietnam was, those experiences, that ever present loss, that always shadowy grief, forced me to see the suffering of others.
Every school day I walked from the trailer court on Morris Road to the elementary school up the street. I don’t know how it was I came to make friends with one of the little girls who lived in one of the brick homes along the route but I did. Maybe her brother was outside playing and invited me in. Maybe her mother did. I can’t recall. Just as I can’t recall the young girl’s name. Only her gentle spirit, her kind smile.
She did not attend school. Not ever. She had to stay home because she had some illness. It was pretty severe. She had a tiny silver box inserted in the dip at the base of her throat. Whenever she wanted to talk she had to put her finger over the box’s opening. She sounded like a robot. She scared me at first but her momma did a pretty good job of telling me there was nothing to be fearful of. Now, of course, I realize her momma simply wanted her daughter to have a friend. She wanted her daughter to have as normal a life as possible, even though there was nothing remotely normal about talking through a aluminum hole in your throat. Sometimes, when we were playing in her room, she would have trouble breathing and her momma would rush in and hook her up to some machine that cleaned out the airway that got clogged up. I grew used to that, too, although I never liked the sound of the machine cleaning the gunk out of her airway.
My robot-talking friend had far more toys in her room than I did mine. She had lots of dolls and a kitchen play-set and even one of the Easy Bake Ovens that actually cooked elf-sized cakes. Sometimes I felt guilty stopping by her house because I knew I was there more for me than for her.
Despite her troubling health issues, her home felt safer than mine. She had a big bedroom that she didn’t have to share with anyone. Her momma was always so present and kind. My mama worked most afternoons and often till midnight. It was lonely at our house with just us kids and sometimes Grandpa Harve. Nothing to do most days except watch Dark Shadows, drink Tab, and listen to Grandpa beat that cane of his against the floor or the paneled walls.
I don’t know whatever became of my girlfriend. One day I walked home from school and she was gone. Their house was empty. It was like they had never existed.
Life on the margins can be like that. There really is nothing secure. One day you are in a ranch house halfway between the trailer court and the elementary school and the next day, poof, you are completely uprooted. Maybe they couldn’t afford the rent and the medical bills. Maybe the military her daddy worked for decided they needed to move on base. Maybe my girlfriend died, or fell gravely ill, and they had to be closer to a bigger hospital than Martin Army. I can’t say. I can only say that for a short period of time, I was friends with a housebound girl who had no other friends. She was kind. She taught me that there are some problems bigger than losing a daddy to a war that should never have been waged.
It wasn’t long after my friend disappeared that Mama told me there was a woman in the trailer court who needed some help. She had seen a note card in the little building in the trailer court where Mama went to pay the rent and collect our mail. She gave me the note card and told me I ought to go see if I could help this woman out.
I didn’t really want to help out some woman I didn’t know but I was an obedient child who tried not to make trouble for Mama since my brother had claimed that role in the family. The woman only lived one street over from our trailer. The first time I went to see her, nobody came to the door when I knocked. Instead I heard a voice yelling out: Come in! Come in!
I wasn’t exactly a timid child, but opening somebody’s front door and walking into their home when I hadn’t ever even met them wasn’t my style either. I hesitated. So the woman yelled out again, adding that she was “handicapped” and couldn’t get to the door.
I pushed the door open and walked into the darkened living room, where the woman was sprawled out on a pullout couch that made into a queen-sized bed. The room was cool, owing to the window AC. I didn’t like the dark room but I was appreciative of the cool air. Our trailer was hot as blazes. Most days a person had to sit outside under the shade of a tall pine to get any relief from the heat and humidity.
Her name was Chris. She told me to grab one of the dining room chairs and pull it up next to her bed. So I did as I was instructed. Chris told me she needed some help with cleaning and somebody to help fix her dinner and bring it to her. Her daughter lived in the trailer, too, but she worked all the time. I don’t know what her day job was but her night job was exotic dancing. I only met her once or twice during the year I cared for her mother. Once she was rummaging through the frig. Once when she was bringing meds to her momma.
I don’t recall the nature of Chris’s handicap but whatever it was, it rendered her pretty much immobile from the waist down. Her legs looked like those of a little girl. They were a translucent color, like the rice paper candy we used to buy in Hawaii. Her toes were curled under. Her ankles and swollen knees splayed at a 180-degree angle. She resembled a frog, with her drawed-up legs and bloated belly. She had a black rotary phone on the bed beside her. I would come to find out later that Chris earned extra income by selling light bulbs over the phone. Her hands worked. Her mind worked. She wanted to work, so she did what she was capable of given her physical and financial limitations.
I worked for Chris for the next year or so. There was very little to do in the way of housework given she never left the bed to dirty anything up. I don’t recall how she went to the bathroom, or bathed. I never saw her get out of that bed. There was no home health nurse coming by. No Meals on Wheels. Just me, fixing her TV dinners or a can of soup. Making sure she had water nearby and tending to whatever little chore she wanted seen after. Mostly, I think I was there to keep Chris company, to tell her stories.
Chris was never my friend the way the girl with the voice box was, but I liked her. And like the girl with the voice box, she taught me that there are problems bigger than losing a dad to a war that should never have been waged.
They taught me to care about people living in the margins. They taught me how precarious health can be, and how on any given moment any one of us can fall victim to problems we never imagined. They taught me that economic struggles almost always accompany long-term health issues.
They taught me that the standard of health care for the poor and marginalized is completely different than the kind given to people with health insurance. We had military insurance. That’s why we had moved back to Georgia after Daddy died. My sister needed to see a pediatric specialist for what doctors thought to be leukemia. She was being treated at Martin Army. She got better. She got healthy. She’s doing great, even today.
The girl with the voice box and Chris are the reason why I believe we need universal healthcare in this country. They are the reasons why I don’t support this administration’s move to cut Medicaid or gut Medicare.
Too many people who live in gated communities, who spend all their time on golf courses and at the country club are always thinking about all the money they don’t have yet. Those people are always drumming up ways to wring another dollar from the Chrises of the world.
I’m the most fortunate one. I learned at age 9 that life itself is the most valuable gift of all. I learned that the people around me are to be treasured every moment of every day. I learned that the only legacy that matters is how well we are loved and how well we love others. I learned to care deeply and to never stop caring, even in the face of people who don’t care at all about others. I learned that many rich white men are always willing to make children and women suffer the costs of war and its aftermath. I learned to not envy the rich their money because I had enough and so many of them would never have enough.
I learned to be grateful for life in the margins because that’s always where the best people and the best stories are found.
Karen Spears Zacharias, author of MOTHER OF RAIN (Mercer University Press).