When I was four my mom started a fire in our home. My dad was out of work after he had broken his back, and we needed the insurance money. The next day there was an article published in our local paper about the fire. Of course, I was too young to read this, but I did find a copy of the article years later in my grandmother’s house.
I do remember visiting my mother in jail, but ultimately no charges were filed. Which is why my brother and I occasionally make this toast: “To volunteer firefighters, and getting to grow up together.” Jokes like these are frequently made when me, my brother, and our cousin (who I consider my brother) get together.We think they are funny. Our wives our horrified.
The three of us spent most of our childhoods growing up poor—food stamps and government cheese poor. I remember living in a tent during an extended, long “camping” trip while my dad was out of work. I remember watching my mom pay for Rice-A-Roni with food stamps. I spent my freshman year of high school sleeping on top of a homemade bunk bed built inside of the trailer pictured in this article and my brother and I had it significantly better than my cousin, who faced circumstances that are just too harsh to print, and left him spending a lot of time with us.
But, even with all that we faced, I would not change any of it. I am proud of who we became, and we became who we are because of the things we learned growing up. Things like:
1. How to build your own safety net.
The three of us have no safety net to fall back in if things go wrong. For my entire adult life my brother and I have essentially divided the duties of providing support to our parents. My brother inherited our mom, and I inherited our dad. My cousin didn’t inherit a parent, but he has spent the last two years raising his high school age sister, when he isn’t even thirty.
If you have nowhere to go when things go wrong you work extra hard to make sure they don’t. I’ve tried to build a net made out of college degrees. My cousin and brother have built their own nets. It’s hard not to envy the people I know who have family and financial resources that would help brace their fall. Still, I’m glad we‘ve had to build our own nets.
2. Sometimes you have to do what it takes.
My mom worked in a McDonald’s, a cannery, went to night school, and tried to burn down a house to help support our family. My dad spent a significant time on the road and away from a family he loved to provide for us. Hopefully I won’t face those same circumstances, but we all reach a point where we have to do what it takes. That might mean taking a job that is beneath your skill level. It might mean having to deal with a situation at work that you don’t like because you don’t have any other options at the moment.
My parents did what it took, because they had no other choice. Even if the methods were sometimes “unconventional” I have grown to admire the part of my parents that did whatever it took to feed my brother and I and keep a roof over our head, even if that roof was, on one occasion, made of nylon.
3. You have to learn to laugh.
My brother and cousin and I can sometimes get lost in the world of our childhood, telling stories that make other people cringe. Stories about what it’s like to be a 14 year old boy, sleeping on the top bunk in the middle of the “living room” of a fifth wheel trailer. Or about the time the three of us were staying in our own apartment together—at 18 (me), 16 (my brother), and 14 (my cousin). We had one mattress, an old record player, no food, and an oven full of empty beer bottles.
The ones I can’t print—are funny to me. The ones that sound less funny are still, most of the time, a source of laughter. Laughing at the things you can’t change is a good skill to learn. As an adult you understand quickly that while you may not be trapped, you can be stuck in a situation that at the moment you can’t change.
If you can learn to laugh at it you will survive it. I wouldn’t change anything about the way we grew up. In addition to these skills I believe my brothers and I developed a certain hardness at our core that has served us well. You need to have a part of yourself that is a little bit hard to make it in the world.
Today my brother Cody has a good job, and lives in Seattle, the place in the world that he loves the most. My cousin (and brother) Levi has a wonderful family and is a great dad. Like I said, I am proud of who and what we are.
That said, I am hypocritical, because I hope that the net I build is big enough to catch my children, and that they find an easier way to become what we became.