This past Monday my sister called me. “Coronavirus is in NYC now. You’d better get prepared, ” she warned. I agreed.
I went to my local market and began filling my cart up with dried beans, rice, and potatoes. I made sure that I got more salt and a few cans of tomato paste. I got some evaporated milk. Evaporated milk can go a long way in a crisis.
I walked through the aisles of my local grocery store without panic or alarm.
“When I was about 10 I realized that being poor was a bad thing. No one had the nerve to tell me this directly. My sister and brother didn’t realize it and my classmates who did were also poor.”
Unlike most weeks, I did not have to refer to a list or a recipe or a meal plan. This time, I remembered. When I reached for the dried beans I remembered my mother soaking them in a pot overnight. When I chose my rice, I remembered her rinsing uncooked rice in the sink and then cooking it with thyme. When I got to the tomato paste, I remembered the night she made the most incredible spaghetti sauce from tomato paste and ketchup. I licked my plate clean that night. She apologized that it wasn’t better.
I found out that my family was poor when I was about 7. It was after my mother had left my father. I heard my grandmother say to her “Poor. POOR!” over and over again in a sentence that I’m sure made sense at the time, but all I remember are those words clanging in my head like church bells.
When I was about 10 I realized that being poor was a bad thing. No one had the nerve to tell me this directly. My sister and brother didn’t realize it and my classmates who did were also poor. We were all so poor that we would call each other poor as a joke and everyone would have a laugh because it was like calling a kid “kid” or and an adult “adult.” Of course, we were kids. Of course, adults were adults. Of course, we were poor.
No, I learned that being poor was a bad thing from my mother. I don’t think she meant to ever tell me. She never said directly, “We are poor, Candace.”
It was her feelings that leaked out all over the place. Like when she acted embarrassed when we had to pay for our groceries with food stamps. When she sighed after making us another dinner of beans and rice instead of the Cornish hens she liked to lavish on us when times were more plentiful. For those humble meals, she didn’t answer when we said thank you for the food. She didn’t eat at the table with us. She watched us eat, looking dejected. I started giving her the allowance that I was getting from my dad. She told me I didn’t have to give her anything, but she never refused it.
When I grew up sad I thought that it was because I didn’t want to be poor anymore. When I turned 18 my mother spilled over, telling me all about her past and current financial woes. “If only…” she would begin, and tell me about some wrong choice she had made or an opportunity she had missed, and then she would apologize to me for the only childhood I’ve ever known.
“I’m sorry for raising you here, like this.” She would motion towards the humble dinner she had made for me. “I thought things would be better for us.”
“I grew up and grew away. But the coronavirus pandemic has given a little bit of time back. I’m going to use the time to recover some of the pride that poverty stripped from me. I’m going to appreciate the lessons my mother involuntarily taught me about survival.”
I know now that she was sorry for the lesson, not the food. My mother didn’t cross the ocean to have American children so that we could learn to ration food stamps so we could eat all month. She wanted to teach us to make rich Caribbean food, roti, and black cake. She didn’t want to teach us how to barely survive like she did when she was growing up. She wanted us to thrive, to pay someone to cook for us and cook only when we wanted to. Surviving, she thought, was for the poor. Her children should grow up and away from that.
I did grow up. I tried to grow away, too. I got a job and started eating takeout and ordering in. I bought food instead of ingredients. I couldn’t be bothered with soaking beans or rinsing rice. I had to be the full American my mother wished she could raise me as, instead of the half St. Lucian one who made her sigh. I tried hard. I tried to thrive. I tried to forget how to make miracles out of nothing. Tried to figure out why I was still making the same sad noises as my mother had.
The realization didn’t hit me until that Tuesday in the market, while I stood an island of calm as the world exploded around me. I never minded being poor. I loved our way of life, simple though it was. What I wanted, and what I think my mother wanted was for being poor not to be so damning. Not to be so embarrassing. Not to mean death or judgement. She wanted a fair shot, and she wanted one for her children too. I stood in that market on Tuesday and saw my bewildered neighbors trying to pull themselves together enough to shop like the world was ending and I remembered that my world looked like this every day for 18 years. Dried peas and rice. Tomato paste if you want a sauce. Don’t forget the salt. That will make it tasty. Don’t eat too much today, leave some for tomorrow.
I grew up and grew away. But the coronavirus pandemic has given a little bit of time back. I’m going to use the time to recover some of the pride that poverty stripped from me. I’m going to appreciate the lessons my mother involuntarily taught me about survival. I’m going to make rice and peas from scratch. I’m going to make that delicious tomato paste and ketchup sauce. I’m going to clean my plate, and go back for seconds, clean my plate again.
And I’m not going to apologize, not even once.