The Road to Independence

This morning I asked J what I should write about. Admittedly, our anniversary is on my mind a lot, trying to convince me to write sappy love stories one after another and I wanted a different topic.

First he said, “You should write about being grateful”, which would have led me right down the sappy love stories path but then he quickly changed his answer and said, “No, you should write about being independent, about the struggle to be independent.”

It’s the place that all of our kids are now. They are learning a lot, we keep telling ourselves that. And they still need help, sometimes.

I moved out of my parent’s house three days after graduation from high school. My birthday is June 3rd, so I graduated at the same time I turned eighteen. I wanted my freedom long before that. My parents had been pretty easy on me for the entire year I was seventeen. I already told you about how I was late to high school every day of my life. But also, I only went to high school for a couple of hours, because I was part of the PSEO program so I went to college instead of high school for the rest of the day. I had held a job for three years and never asked my parents for money, except for unexpected costs of repairs to my car, which they would often foot and I would pay them back for. In return, I came and went as I pleased, and my bedroom was a total disaster area, and my parents let it go. Let me go. But still, I wanted OUT.

I moved out into an apartment with my friend Kelly, who had lived across the street from me since we were fourteen and she re-located to my neighborhood from northern Minnesota. In future years, Kelly and I would go on to marry brothers, and we would think it was so cool that our kids were cousins, until the time when I had to tell her that I couldn’t be friends with her anymore because to be friends with her would give my daughter the message that I was ok with her behavior (alcohol and drug addiction do not a good parent make), and I was not ok with it. But at eighteen, we were BFF’s, and when she offered me the second bedroom in the apartment she and her boyfriend were sharing, I jumped at the chance.

That lasted exactly eighteen days. Kelly and her boyfriend T.J., who had a child together their senior year of high school, had a contentious relationship that resulted in, on more than one occasion in those eighteen days, one or the other’s personal belongings being hurled out the window of our third story apartment. Needless to say, we were evicted, and I moved home 30 days after I moved out.

Those thirty days taught me a lot, though. They taught me about all the things I needed to live on my own. Like a fingernail clipper and a broom and scissors. I spent the next 60 days at my parents, preparing my inventory to move back out again. Those days also taught me that having a room mate was potentially more work than it was worth, and so I looked for an apartment I could afford on my own.

I had been working at Rax Restaurants (Fast Food with Style!) for three years, and I made about $630.00 a month. There was a nice lady named Carol, who came in for lunch every single day, and who was also the rental contact for the remodeled Holiday Inn that was now apartments, right behind Rax. I asked her about an efficiency apartment. I was eighteen, and the bank would not even give me a checkbook. Do you know how hard it is to pay bills without a checkbook, even? The nice lady named Carol took pity on me. I was honest with her when she asked me how much money I made. Rent was $345.00 for the efficiency apartment.

“It’s going to be tough for you, you never want to pay half your income for rent.” Already I was learning lessons, though I didn’t really know it at the time.

I told her I knew it would be tight, but I could walk to work, and I could eat at work, and so I thought I would be able to swing it. She gave me a chance, and she let me pay cash for my damage deposit and wrote the check for me herself.

My apartment was one room that had a kitchen and living room, where I parked a used futon I bought from a friend, a bathroom, and a walk-in closet where I kept my dresser. In my fridge there was exactly nothing. In my cupboards, there was a bag of popcorn, the kind you pop in a pan, and a bottle of vegetable oil for popping. Garth Brooks posters hung on my bathroom and closet doors and my shower curtain had cats all over it. Mom let me take her old kitchen table, which Bunny now has in her first apartment, and I bought two folding chairs at Kmart.

I had four bills: rent, car insurance, home phone, and electricity. This was too many bills. I called my insurance agent to cancel my car insurance. I walked to work, Kmart was within walking distance, and I reasoned I could live without my car for a while. I had an independent agent then, and the secretary, who knew me and my family, offered me another life lesson.

“Nooo, you do not want to cancel your car insurance altogether.”

I explained to her that I did, indeed, want to cancel my car insurance because I was not driving my car and it was too much money that I could not afford to pay.

“If you cancel your insurance altogether,” she began, “you will lose the benefit you have earned for already having insurance for two years. When you call to reinstate it, you’ll be someone who is not currently insured, and you’ll have to pay a higher premium because of it.”

These were things I never would have known had she not taken the time to explain it.

“Let’s look at storage insurance,” she said, “It’s cheap and then you don’t have any period of time with no insurance.”

So, she set me up on some really cheap storage insurance and I quit driving my car. Mostly.

I also needed to keep my electricity at a minimum so I avoided things like running the dishwasher, which is pretty easy to avoid when you never cook at home, and turning on the TV. I invested in a sketch pad and crayons, and I spent a lot of time drawing.

Laundry was another story, though. Laundry was seventy-five cents to wash and fifty to dry. When you work at a fast food place you get a uniform, and that uniform needs to be washed every single day. Because I worked full time at Rax once I was out of high school, I got two uniforms. So, every night when I got home from work I took my uniform off and washed it in laundry soap in a sink full of hot water. I rinsed it and hung it up to drip dry. It would be dry by the time I needed it, because since I had two, one was always clean and one was always drying.

On the advice of the same lady who had rented me the apartment, I collected used plastic containers from Rax and filled them up with water and put them in my freezer, because she told me that keeping my freezer full of frozen water would result in less cost to run it.

Mom gave me two bags of groceries that year for my birthday, even though I never told her I didn’t have groceries, and my friend Polly, a coworker at Rax, wrote all the checks for me to pay my bills when I gave her the cash. She also invited me over for dinner at least once a week (she lived in my building) to make sure I ate some “decent” food once in a while, and gave me a set of dishes she found at a garage sale. Lyle, my manager at Rax, would let me wheel the Rax vacuum cleaner across the parking lot to my apartment building and bring it back the next morning. My manager Nancy would take my paychecks to the bank and deposit them for me when she went to make the deposit for Rax. (because I couldn’t drive my car). Layaway was my friend. I remember putting a $20.00 pair of jeans on layaway at Kmart and making $5.00 payments until I could pay them off and take them home.

I was flat broke, but I was having a great time. Those six months I lived in the that efficiency apartment I learned about being responsible and paying bills and making my own decisions and surviving.

I had a guy selling cable door to door walk out of my apartment and slam the door because I said, “Look at my TV. It’s a 13-inch black and white television. Do you really think I can afford to pay for cable?”

My old youth director from church came over and tried to sell me medical insurance, his new job. I wanted it more than anything in the world, both because I needed it and because I wanted to help him with his new job, but I was completely honest with him about my income to bills ratio and he and I both agreed that I couldn’t afford it.

I went out with my friend Polly, dancing and never drinking because I was only 18 and the not drinking part (and my best winning smile) would somehow convince the bouncer to let me stay, even though I was supposed to leave at eight o’clock with “my mom” when they let me in. I fell in love with dancing. I also kind of fell in love with the singer of a band called “Flashback” and I was not, unfortunately, very good at hiding it. When he sang, “She’s some kind of wonderful” to me I swooned and he knew it and oh, did I forget to mention? He wore a wedding ring.

His name was Chris and he and his nice wife came through the Rax drive through one day, much to my horror (You don’t really want people to know that you work at a fast food restaurant for a living once you’re past a certain age) and I had to make my manager Nancy wait on them because I was too mortified.

The next time I saw him sing, during the band’s first break, he came over and sat beside me and put his arm around me and said, “I really love mushroom melts” (A signature Rax sandwich) and I could have died from mortification but mostly from the fact that HE HAD HIS ARM AROUND ME.

I was learning, a lot. Luckily, the band broke up, and I moved on to real boyfriends instead of pretend ones who were lead singers of bands.

Then there is the whole sex thing. I am not going to tell you all the details but suffice to say going out to bars may have resulted in a man or two sharing my futon.

However, I was only eighteen and though not a virgin, also not that easy to get. They would come over, and I would make out with them, and then I would stop them, which they found infuriating. One man named Steve said, “You are the most un-horny person I have ever met.”

It was not true that I did not have desires, I just still held firmly to the belief that sex was something special and I wasn’t giving it up to just anyone. Also, I was enjoying the new-found freedom and responsibility to make decisions all on my own and it felt good, quite frankly, to stick up for myself and hold my own.

I try not to think about our kids having sex. [shakes head to clear]

After six months of living in my efficiency apartment, my lease was up and I succumbed to the pressure of my friend Kelly and moved from my safe little efficiency to a two-bedroom apartment in the same building. Wow, those were some crazy times. Kelly was a terrible roommate, as could be expected. She was a boy magnet, and as a result there was a steady stream of people in our apartment all the time. The place was a mess, and we were still broke. I worked forty plus hours a week and did nerdy things like play 500 with my Rax coworkers in tournaments on Friday nights. This contrasted, just like it had in high school, with my drinking and druggie friends from the neighborhood. For years I had hung out with those friends in basements after school, always saying, “No thanks” when the pot pipe came my way. I was always too afraid that my parents would know and I wouldn’t like the punishment.

At eighteen, on my own, I said “What the hell.” I smoked weed with my friends, much to their delight. One time a group of like eight of us took acid as “something to do on a Fright night” and I can still remember hula dancing in the falling snow on the deck which was decorated for Christmas with not only lights but also with a strobe light, while our friend Sean ran all the way down the hill and said “NEAR!” and then ran all the way up the hill and said “FAR!” in a spoof of a Sesame Street routine that Grover always did and that we had all grown up with. I know it doesn’t sound funny now, but it was really clever and hilarious back then.

I never took acid again after that night. I had wanted to try it, and I did, and after that I didn’t. That was the difference between me and those friends. I went to work every day, I took my responsibilities seriously and I wanted to be able to do it on my own because I like being FREE. I wanted to be successful. I wanted my independence and freedom more than I wanted drugs. Many of those friends from back then have spent their entire lives in and out treatment and jail. When my daughter got to a certain age where she realized it was not all fun and games on her dad’s side of the family (Which includes my ex friend Kelly, her aunt), she sent me a heartfelt text and thanked me for “getting out of that life, and keeping her out of that life.”

I went on to enroll back into college and to move to an apartment in another city, and Kelly and I did not talk to each other for a solid six months after living together, our relationship having deteriorated over the course of the six months we lived together from fun, to tiring, to downright unbearable. I wanted more out of life than the party life. I didn’t have extra money to be spending on drugs and alcohol if I wanted to make it in the world.

Our girls are twenty and our son is twenty-four. We try to remind ourselves all the time how it’s pretty normal to make mistakes and do dumb things. We remember what we were like at that age. It’s stressful, as a parent, wondering if your kids are going to make it.

Even though they are their own people, they make their own decisions that have nothing to do with us most of the time, as a parent you still feel responsible for your child’s success or failure. When something goes wrong you’re like “Is this because I didn’t do the right thing when they were growing up?” Psychiatrists agree that you are a result of your parents, like it or not. Even if your life is the exact opposite of your parent’s life because you made a conscious choice to make it that way- you did so as a result of not wanting to be like your parents, which is still the result of your parents.

Our kids are each having their own struggles right now. One big difference between the parents that J and I had the parents that our kids have, is that we have helped them financially. I would never have asked my parents for money at that age, and neither would J. We would not have expected our parents to pay for our car insurance or our rent or our health insurance. Our parents did not have the money for that, bottom line, but more than that it was our egos. We wanted to make it on our own. Our freedom and independence was a source of pride.

Throughout the years of my life, I have many times worked more than one job. Whenever I examined my finances and realized I was not going to make it, I took action. I did not always love my second job. I wanted to poke my eyes out when I worked at Payless Shoes one year for extra money, but I did what I had to do and told myself that I now had the knowledge to someday write a character in a novel who worked at a shoe store. I was healthy, and I was able to work, and I considered that my biggest asset.

Our children ask for money when they get desperate. I don’t think it’s their first choice because both J and I, having been twenty something before, have lots of good parenting lectures and lessons to give when they ask for money, and no kid loves getting a lecture, no matter how nicely it’s given. And we have a limit.

We know our kids are at, or may be at, or may have already been at the crossroads where they have to decide if they want the party life or a successful, healthy life. They are experiencing emotions and hardships they haven’t faced before and as a parent it hurts you always when your kids are hurting. We’re trying our best to help them when we feel like we can, and draw the line when we feel like we should. There’s a fine line between helping and enabling, and the last thing we want to do is to enable our kids to not have to be, or to not want to be, all that they can be. (UGH, PARENTING IS STRESSFUL)

Sometimes it feels like we’re going through our twenties again except without all the reckless fun we had back then. The fun is replaced instead, with all the stress our parents must have felt as they watched us make mistakes as we flew out on our own.

“We always tried to help our kids when we could,” one of my oldest friends, who is also J’s sister, said to me when I asked her about whether or not they helped their kids once they were technically adults. Her girls have all graduated from college and gone on to be self-sufficient, so this makes me feel better.

Regardless of whether or not we make a decision to help our kids financially, we always try to set for them a good example. Both J and I have been at our companies for twenty plus years. We are hard workers, we work long hours sometimes, and we make working a priority because our livelihood depends on it. We show the kids how to be good employees, how to make grown up decisions, how to manage our emotions so they do not interfere with our ability to keep our job, and therefore how to be independent. We show them what hard work looks like for end results.

J and I grew up in a country where jobs have been (most of my lifetime) pretty readily available, and where whether it is a job you like or not is sort of irrelevant. When you need to make money, you need to work. It’s one of the biggest differences we see between our generation and the one entering the workforce today.  Today’s new worker wants a job they enjoy, or they do not want to be too tired or have to work all summer.  When I work I understand my employer owes me a paycheck, and nothing more.

“Our kids knew they could not come home after college,” a man we befriended on the plane ride back from the Bahamas said to us, “we told them they couldn’t come back, so they knew they had to make it. One of our kids spent a year sleeping on the other one’s couch, but she got a good job and just recently bought a $300,000 condo.” His three kids are all gainfully employed with big houses and matching salaries.

We felt a little deflated leaving the plane that day, not only because our honeymoon was ending, but also because we wondered if all this time we were helping our kids we were actually hurting them. Maybe we were not teaching them the right lessons?

“If you can’t count on your family,” my sister said to me, “then who can you count on?”

I’ve thought about it quite a bit lately and I know who you can count on. I may have been too proud and too determined to ask my parents, but you heard me tell you about all the people who helped me when I first ventured out of the nest. From teaching me lessons, to feeding me, to writing checks for me. And if I’m really honest with myself, I will remember that once I had Bunny, I could never have worked all the hours I did without the unfailing help of my parents, who watched her for me every other weekend so I could work a second job. I worked hard, but paying daycare expenses to work a $7.50 an hour job at the shoe store would have broken me, and made it impossible for me to get ahead.  My parents didn’t give me handouts, but they still helped me a lot.

I know our kids still have a lot of learning to do, and I know that someday when they are forty-four like me, they will remember all the ways that people in their lives helped them become who they are today, and without meaning to, they will write another blog about being grateful. (oops)

And hopefully, with learning and guidance and good role models and lessons, our kids will keep flying.

Because they definitely want their independence.

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