Momma and me, circa sometime in 1981-83, I think.
Wifey made tuna salad today and offered me some. I gratefully heaped a pile of it into a cereal bowl, but stopped short of eating. It was missing something. I diced up two hardboiled eggs and mixed them with the tuna salad. Much better, but it was still missing something. I sprinkled paprika onto the dish and tasted it. It was good, but one more thing was missing; Ritz crackers. Sadly, we were out of Ritz, so multigrain gourmet cracker nonsense had to do. I tasted, and was transplanted back to Chicago housing projects during the many times momma made this special snack for me.
grayer than most light
noon sky, counterfeit silver
I pocket the fee
Minus the Ritz, I had inadvertently made momma’s special way of making tuna salad, which on the surface, was probably unremarkable to most. But it was the one meal she made where I didn’t feel like a poor person while eating it. I could imagine all wage brackets having a tuna salad craving, and I imagined people from all walks of life savoring this delicacy in some fashion. It felt good to be on some kind of universal level with wealthy ones who enjoyed tuna salad occasionally.
clouds hide sky-scrapers
visibility is poor
to what lies beneath
I had always known I was poor, but it wasn’t a big deal because everyone I knew was also poor. We lived the same struggles, went to the same government check-cashing places, shopped at the same discount stores, ate the same public school free lunches, wore the same knockoff-brand clothing, and feared the same criminal element and/or corrupt, racist police shakedowns. I didn’t experience any stigma or shame for being poor until I began being bussed to the magnet school Beasley Academic Center. I have nothing against the school, as it was an expansive learning opportunity, but it was perfectly apparent to me that I was one of the poorer kids in attendance. Many kids were from stable, successful 80’s Cosby-sitcom-style homes. They wore Guess jeans, Genera button-ups, Nike, Adidas, Reebok, BK’s, you name it, and they always had the latest technological marvels like Walkmans, mini-synthesizers and etc…
rain bathed in streetlight
all will be covered
I recall being teased for many things; being shy (back then, nobody mentioned introverts as otherwise normal folks content to keep to themselves; we were “shy” kids who needed to be “fixed” so we would be more social like a “normal” kid), being a nerd (back at regular school, being a nerd just meant that I was smarter than the average sixth-grader or had greater intellectual curiosity than most; being a nerd at the magnet school – where I was rendered intellectually average due to all the other “gifted” kids being bussed in – just meant that I was the funny-looking kid with the coke-bottle glasses), and being rather unfriendly and all too eager to throw hands for someone so tiny, shy, and nerdlike (if all you wanted was to be left alone, but others kept screwing with you, I suspect you would develop a chip on your shoulder as well).
But for all the random teasing, nothing left me as defenseless as being teased for bring poor. Being a shy nerd who fought a lot was in my DNA, and I owned all of that, but I had nothing to do with being born poor. I had no say in it. Those were cards I had been dealt.
sunshine reveals you
true colors rich, emboldened
the shade, deeper still
The hilarious part was that after three consecutive days of being teased, bullied, getting fed up and fighting back, and ultimately, losing said fights in overwhelmingly one-sided fashion, a teacher decided to counsel me. She wanted to “crack my shell” and find out why I was always so angry and depressed. She wanted to know what in my home life could possibly make me so enraged and isolated. It had to be something at home, right? Perhaps my mother was abusing me, or had boyfriends with boundary issues.
I never opened up, partially because at the time – though an undiagnosed schizophrenic initially losing her grip on reality – mom was the best thing going for me and I didn’t want any outsiders screwing that up by revealing her secret. Also, I never opened up, partially because I felt like asking for help was a sign of weakness, and I felt compelled to endure on my own. But mostly I remained silent because I couldn’t fathom why the teachers couldn’t see the bullying right in front of their faces and understand it for what it was. I was baffled at having to show them what was happening and having to explain why it hurt so much to have to endure it. So, I never did.
birdsongs vibrate moods
gathering for the ride home
we flock and migrate
I would bus home after a particularly rough day of being teased and bullied for wearing generic versions of Converse shoes and a Michael Jackson jacket only five years out-of-style. Sometimes mom would have tuna salad on Ritz crackers waiting for me. I don’t think she knew all that was going on with me, but I suspect she knew I was traversing a rough patch. She never asked about it, but she would talk with me, cracking corny jokes to get me to crack a smile and laugh a bit. She always succeeded. I don’t know if the tuna salad was her secret weapon, but it was often present while she was peppering me with corny jokes. I miss those jokes, as well as the sound of her laugh. But the tuna salad I accidentally made in her honor was pretty tasty.
bluest sky leans west
surrounding me with comfort
memories of you
Written for Terri Ann Dawson, on the ninth anniversary of her death.