“…and that adds up to 26 dollars”, sighed my mother Nancy. Worry lines played over the soft, beautiful skin of her face as she consigned thin dollar bills into little brown envelopes, each marked with its own label: “groceries”, “rent”, and so on. Those little packets were the kind you got from the bank, small enough to hide secrets, wrapped securely with rubber bands to keep their precious contents in place, and softened from years of handling.
In the background Ricky, the turquoise budgie bird, chirped along with the RCA Bakelite radio. Maybe it was Kay Starr belting out her 1950 hit, “Wheel of Fortune”; we could have used one of those.
To my very young self, my mother’s activities looked like a game, and I longed to join in as I watched the mysterious process. Mommy’s graying hair was up in bobby pins, covered with a bandana, and she might be wearing her housedress with the grey and white fans. That was the one I liked best of her limited wardrobe. She sat perched at the edge of the bed, fretting over the envelopes as they lay mute.
This was my parents’ bed, normally a safe and welcoming haven, where I snuggle in on Sunday mornings in my Dr. Denton back flap jammies, where I’d be comforted and read to when my face was rashy with measles or swollen with mumps, and where most likely I had been conceived.
Now the bed served as an accountant’s desk, coldly keeping track of the circulation of funds in the Myerson household. This ritual was repeated every Friday when my beloved father, Hyman, carried home his paltry paycheck. He pressed pants in a dry cleaners’ shop, and rarely complained about his abysmal working conditions. I knew he would rather be in the park, bald head shining with reflected sun, capturing trees with his palette of oil paints and its heady smell of turpentine. At the same time, he took pride in his ability to support us. My mother was adroit at calculating and allotting funds for our basic needs, and somehow we managed. No matter how tight money was, we always had warm winter coats, good shoes (even those yucky corrective oxfords I had to wear), and nutritious food on our bright yellow formica-chrome table.
There was no money for frills, though. I rarely got to buy clothes beyond the necessities. In retrospect, it was a good thing that public schools in my hometown of Montreal demanded that we wear uniforms – dreadful, shapeless, unbecoming dark navy uniforms – so my lack of a leisure wardrobe wasn’t evident to my peers. When I was 6 or so, I desperately wanted a pretty dress to wear to birthday parties. I remember shopping in Eaton’s, the nine-story downtown department store, and falling in love with a light blue chiffon-y dress, swirling with dark blue velvet embroidered flowers. I was transported as my fingers caressed those little blossoms. How I ached for that dress! Alas, we could not afford it. I have blanked out the memory of what poor substitute outfit I dragged home. No doubt it lacked the graceful lines of my heart’s desire, and no amount of washing would soften its scratchy fabric. Even my skin was reminded that we were poor.
Many circumstances of my life were dictated by our poverty. I couldn’t even dream of going on to university after my senior year. I planned instead on enrolling in a cheaper program at a two-year teachers’ college and had struggled with unfamiliar paperwork to secure a tuition loan. But then, in the summer after high school let out, the phone rang. Mr. Wright, the principal, was calling my home out of the blue. “Is this Marilyn Myerson?” his stern voice inquired. “Yes” I stuttered. With neither warmth nor hint of his mission, he ordered: “Be in my office tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp.”
I had never even exchanged words with him, so I was mystified. I racked my brain for any infractions I may have committed which might retroactively bar me from graduating. But that was crazy thinking: hadn’t I scored a big hit as school valedictorian? My speech had seemed so original to me, but maybe I had unwittingly plagiarized some sacred cow notable. The next day I sat down as bidden in his office, nervously crossing and uncrossing my legs, hoping my beige skirt and coral sweater set were appropriate. Mr. Wright stared down at me from his 6 feet scrawny frame and coldly inquired why I wasn’t going to McGill, the world-famous university which dominated the landscape just across the street from my poor neighborhood high school. “The grades from the provincial-wide final exams just came out,” he reminded me, “and you had the second highest marks.”
“My parents can’t afford to send me”, was my humble reply. Mr. Wright stared at me in disbelief and asked in a mocking tone, “Have you never heard of a scholarship?” “A what?” I meekly rejoined. Since no one in my family had ever gone past sixth grade, I knew nothing about the academic world and its opportunities. Despite his shock at my ignorance, he plunged in to rectify the situation. Five minutes and one phone call later, he had arranged for me to get a full-ride scholarship to McGill. “But I haven’t even applied…” I stammered in wonder. “Then you’d best get over there now”, he said, curtly dismissing me.
General Motors put me through school. Their Canadian scholarship program provided my tuition, books, and generous living expenses. As a bonus, it included an annual dinner. We dozen recipients were supposed to put on decent clothes (a bargain basement blue Chanel knock-off suit for me) and socialize with the GM executives at a posh downtown hotel. The menu never varied: roast beef, green beans, baked Alaska and coffee. No alcohol allowed. I am not sure who thirsted for it more: the executives who pretended to be interested while quizzing us about our classes, or we students, who had to hide our beatnik and burgeoning hippie sensibilities.
When I later arrived at graduate school, my first car was a (used) ’62 Chevy, so I felt I had repaid my part of this GM social contract.
The condensed version of my Cinderella story is that I loved university and went on to a successful career in higher education. I always understood that this was a Cinderella story, it was not the usual way things worked. My father was a union organizer and had schooled me in the fundamentals of how politics and the economic system worked. Mr. Wright lived up to his name in taking notice of me, but I knew my situation was exceptional.
I think back to my mother’s task of dividing such a meager amount of money, meant to take care of all our material needs. She always got it done, simultaneously teaching me to be a good money manager. I can see the concern writ large on her face as she fills the skimpy envelopes. I want to hold her and tell her it’s okay, and to thank her and my father for providing a world of untold riches.
Marilyn Myerson, PhD Philosophy, has learned to take nothing for granted and to have fun. She retired from USF after 38 years of teaching, learning and kicking up her heels in Women’s and Gender Studies. Marilyn was the first outside hire in W(G)S, starting in 1973, when the department was just one year old. She was an administrator at various departmental and dean’s levels, including a stint as W(G)S Chair before her retirement as Emeritus faculty in 2010. She shepherded the Human Sexual Behavior class through its many incarnations, developed the original women’s health classes, and taught feminist research methodology. She is currently in three writing groups, and happily involved with OLLI-USF, taking art and writing classes. She created and teaches OLLI Imaginative Writing classes and facilitates writing groups.