“Why are we so poor?” I used to ask Mom, almost every chance I got.
“Poor? We’re not poor,” she always replied. “We have money to buy food, we have a place to sleep, we have each other, we have a church to go to, and we’re surrounded by wonderful people. How are we poor, exactly?”
“You know what I mean,” I said, rolling my eyes with an audible sigh. “We can’t eat out. I have no new clothes.”
“We went to the Olive Garden for your birthday. And you have plenty of clothes. A ton of them.”
“A ton? You can’t be serious! Sophia and Zoe have twice as many. Or triple. Or ten times more! In case you don’t realize it, I go to school every day. I need variety. I need way more than what I have!” I barked, with hand gestures so exaggerated I resembled a speaker at some cheesy motivational seminar, perhaps entitled, How to Make Money.
Mom looked at me with her unchanging, calm expression. “Honey. That’s not what we learn from the Bible.”
I still went to church with my family on Sunday. Not every Sunday, but some. It wasn’t by choice—I went for my parents’ sake. We’d been going to the same church ever since I was a baby, and I knew how important it was to them that I continue. I might have been a brat, but I wasn’t a jerk. I couldn’t do anything that would hurt their feelings. Even though I usually slept through Father Paul’s sermons.
From time to time, I found myself seriously wondering how Mom did it—how did she manage to be her? How could she find fulfillment and contentment, doing the same exact thing, every single day? With no excitement and nothing new in her life. Getting up, going to work at the diner, coming home, cooking dinner, doing the dishes, filling out the house account expense sheet, and living within this tight budget...
Dad was expected to keep a record of all of his personal expenses, and he did it well, while Mom clipped every single coupon that came in the mail, using them skillfully and effectively—though, thankfully, not obnoxiously; not like some middle-aged women who took forever to sort out a thick bundle of coupons (most of which were expired) at the grocery store’s cash register.
Didn’t she ever wish she had more money? That she could just enjoy life, and have fun? Did she never wish she could dress up, and dine out at a nice restaurant? Wasn’t it in our human nature to always be wishing for more? It sure didn’t look like it for her. I doubted that she ever wished for such things, and the same went for Dad. I often wondered if my parents and I really shared the same genes.
“How about moving to Los Angeles?” I said once, impulsively (though, of course, not impulsive to me). She looked at me as if I had completely lost my mind.
She slowly composed herself, and in her gentlest voice, replied, “Ella, our home is here. And Daddy’s job. And my job.”
“Your job? You can work in a diner anywhere!” I shrieked.
But I knew it wasn’t like that for her. She’d been working in the same place for over ten years, along with the other employees, and that made them practically family. She seemed to take pride in her choice to remain unchanged.
“Honey. What’s bothering you?” she asked, leaning in, to give me her full attention.
Here we go.
Attending church every Sunday for decades could turn anyone into an amateur priest. Whenever I sounded rebellious, she always asked that question, her voice calmer than ever.
“Don’t you want things to change sometimes? Doesn’t anything new excite you? Don’t you want to have fun?”
“Fun is only a fleeting pleasure, Ella. It’s not the true source of happiness. Happiness comes from within. When you’re comfortable with yourself. Your wealth lies within yourself. Inside.” Her index finger gently tapped my heart.
I turned around to roll my eyes. I wasn’t so harsh as to do that right to her face. I didn’t need reminding—I knew all about her principles, and virtues of living a modest, predictable life. For my mom, leaving here was like the revolution of the century.
“I have a dream. I want to become an actress! I need to live in Hollywood to go to auditions.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” she snapped her fingers. “I saw an ad at the library the other day. They’re auditioning for cheerleaders, for the community marathon. I heard it’s going to be featured on the cover of Littleside Daily.” She smiled, as if she were certain that would excite me no end.
I had to sigh. “Mom. I’m not talking about those kind of auditions. I’m talking about the real deal! I want to become a movie star. Don’t you understand that at all? I can make a whole lot of money!”
There was a pause.
“We aren’t moving anywhere. Okay?”
My grandparents, from both sides, were all born, raised and died here, the last only a few months ago. Following their example was like preserving a precious family tradition. Our family’s plots were lined up next to each other, in the cemetery a couple of blocks away.
“Then are you going to fly me over there every time I get an audition?” That sounded crazy, even for me, but still I had to say it.
She stared at me, as if watching a three-year-old throwing a public tantrum. “Of course not.”
Still, like the kind mother she was, she attempted to compromise, adding, “I hate to say this, but, if you’re really serious about pursuing your dream, you know you can always move out on your own later.”
Although she seemed to really hate the thought of us being separated, she knew that was just how life was: kids grew up, and eventually left home. Though she’d never actually done that herself.
“But I need money! Starting right now!” I hadn’t intended to scream, but it came out that way.
She studied my face with a stunned look on hers. “Why are you so obsessed with money?” She paused. “Money can’t make you rich. Wealth comes from your heart.”
She looked genuinely concerned. I knew why: my dream clashed with the teachings of the church, and her goal of living a modest life; Be like-minded, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble… Mom was always quoting her favorite verses from the Bible, and I knew them by heart, having heard them so frequently as a kid.