what it’s like

Last night we did our civic duty and dressed up in long columns of exciting dark clothing and went to the Opening Weekend of the St. Louis Symphony. Naturally we got there early enough for David Robertson’s green room. Robertson is a being of light; he hops and dances and his mind is stuffed with information and joy and delight and curiosity, and he will lead you through catacombs and mazes of flowers and facts and dates and battles and salons and you will spin along with him, laughing, shaking your head, loving him, watching his hair take flight all around his head.

And then a half hour later he stops, and laughs, and runs backstage to put on his tails, and you think, how many things did he just say?

Photo Scott Ferguson, courtesy SLSO

The thing about Robertson is that magically, when you come to the moments he talked about in the music, later, you hear him, you see him, “this is the moment where the impassive bang, bang, bang of the tympani changes inexplicably and inevitably to the ting, ting, ting of the triangle. F-sharp!” Or, “You know, when you listen to the last movement of The Pines Of Rome, you may think you are hearing Roman soldiers, but you know, it’s about the trees. The trees, from the ground to the sky, it’s all about the TREES!”

I had had a huge glass of wine earlier with dinner and I almost fell asleep during Emmanuel Ax’s ripply Chopin, but this is no knock on Manny (as Robertson calls him, Ax being a good friend and a frequent visitor to the Powell stage) it’s just about the wine, and the ripples, and the proximity to Bill’s shoulder. Anyway. It was fabulous, and we love dressing up and going out together, it feels so nice and we are such a pair of bookends, male and female, tall, stridy. It’s fun. (And I wore the French shoes!)

I was checking in on Facebook this morning, and Cat Mihos put up a link to a Scalzi blog from 2005, a while ago. It was about poverty, and how it feels, just a list of items. It’s the other end of the telescope; dressing up in a silk skirt and going to see beautiful music, being scared you can’t feed your kids. Having things change in an instant.

From John’s blog:

“Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have to make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.”

“Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.”

I didn’t grow up hungry. Never hungry. And a lot of that had to do with my mother’s care with money. When I was small, and my parents were just starting out (mid-60s) there wasn’t much. My dad had a job at a concrete plant, driving a dozer. My mom took care of me. We had a spare and simple house and we ate at home, and my mom sewed my clothes, and it was fine. It was good. Who knew anything else? I was happy and warm and clean and safe.

But she had to be careful, and I started growing really fast, and I remember the night she realized that I’d grown out of all of my sixth grade clothes in the second week of sixth grade, and she cried when she thought I’d gone to bed. I thought about that all that night with a shocky kind of feeling in my stomach; I never knew that it was scary before, or that there might not be enough. That it might be my fault if there wasn’t.

For some reason, I keep thinking of Reagan, ripping the solar panels off of the White House, turning the mentally ill into the streets, firing the air traffic controllers… whatever. And Bush, sending so many people into war and bringing so much ruin, and I look at and listen to Mitt and Ann Romney, and I think, they have no fucking idea of what people are going through.

9 thoughts on “what it’s like

  1. I saw Emmanuel Ax play in Philadelphia a number of years ago…..I went with my BFF to the Academy of Music (gorgeous space) and we sat way up in the cheap seats. When Emmanuel Ax came out to play, he sat down, put his hands on the keys, then took his hands off the keys and wiped them on his pants. Lather, rinse, repeat, until eventually she & I started to laugh, and were promptly (and loudly) shushed by all of the people sitting near us. When he finally started to play, we were mesmerized. But at the end of the show, when the house lights went up, we were the only people in our section still awake! (In your case, though, I still think it was the wine that made you sleepy….I’m sure the music was lovely.)

    • It WAS lovely! I couldn’t see his hands, cause we were stage right and he was sitting stage left. We were looking into the open lid of the grand piano. Great sound, no hands view.

  2. Wow, Kate, your upbringing sounds exactly like mine. My father worked for the govt and my mom stayed home raising 5 kids and having a million things to do each day. I got hand-me-downs from my goody-two shoes cousin which I hated. I only had to wear them to church cause I wore a uniform to school. I might of seen my mother cry once as a child and I still remember it. My mother was very sick(had been for 6 months) and my brother had spilled a glass of milk at breakfast. She had a baby in her arms and it must of just been too much that one morning. I went to school devastated. But I wouldn’t trade my childhood for one now. I was taught right from wrong, to respect and honor my parents, to work hard and be happy for anything I could do in this world. I admire you for trying to be a good mom to your boys and that you love your husband. None of that is an easy task these days.
    Loved hearing about your Paris days and nights. Loved my bead kit as well. Sorry you got some bad press there. Maybe people don’t realize what beads cost these days. Gone are the days of $2 tubes of delicas!!

    • I was an only child, so pretty different I think. And the frugal days were all before I was ten. But my mother behaved the same way whether we had extra or not- my parents always gave away a tenth of whatever they had, and she was careful and kind and treated everyone with respect. Amazing role model.

      The summer or so that I myself was really poor was a long time ago, but I remember it well. And the life I am trying to move closer to is one of having very little again, minus the fear. I am lucky to have the kind of safe housing and medical care that so few of us have these days; my husband’s university job provides health and dental benefits for us all, and tuition for our kids- it is game-changing and I wish that every person everywhere could have exactly that- education for their kids, and a medical and dental safety net, a safe place to live.

  3. Kate: I never realized that we were “poor” , well not really I had everything I ever needed and a lot of what I wanted. We owned the house (well I guess the bank did, really) and had a car. My mom always worked though. I got my first job at 14, $20 a week, it was enough to buy new Levi’s and still have change. When I went to university and met other kids I was stunned and amazed at how much money they had. Their parents paid for books, tuition, residence and they had personal bank accounts with tens of thousands of dollars. My Mom sent me $35 dollars every week for food and stuff. I never ever realized that we were short of money until then. I was never jealous of the other kids, (except on pub night because I really couldn’t afford to go), just mystified that I had never figured it out before. But we weren’t poor, just short of money. I don’t think I could do what my Mom did.

    Just one note, you probably know this now and have processed it all long since, but of course your Mom crying didn’t have anything to do with you. You could not possibly have been at fault. My Mom told me she used to be so upset when she couldn’t say yes to things, not because of us, but because she so wished she could provide us with the life she had hoped to. In the end it was better than any plan she ever had.

    I too am beyond grateful for the childhood I had. It was as perfect as anyone else’s on the planet,

    Love you Mom.

    Thanks Kate.

    • Oh, of course, about the tears- I understand it all now- what I meant was it was the first time I ever grasped that gut feeling that children in poor families have, knowing that they are one more mouth to feed, one more child who needs a coat, clothes. My mother WAS crying because she had to find the money to buy me a whole new kit of clothes, but of course it wasn’t my fault. I learned a lot that night, things I never knew before.

  4. I’m sure that I’m a lot older than most of you (77) and I thought we were rich, my dad owned an auto dealership and golfed at the country club, but I never had a doll or toys. I got a job while I was in highschool and bought most of my clothes, I think. I have no memories of any conversations about life and/or the world with my parents or any people. But when I went to college my parents put one semester’s dollar needs, tuition, books, dorm, food and everything that I might need into the bank and opened a checking account for me. THEN, I had to TOTALLY budget any and all money for the whole year, by myself. AND, I have Discalculia ( a form of dyslexia but with numbers) ,ADD, AUTISM AND DYSLEXIA, TOO I didn’t know any better. Somehow it just worked out. Hows that? Whats rich and whats poor? Did I mention that I had a brother? And, oh, I have 4 marvelous sons/fathers and 9 supurb grandchildren, but I’m still poor.

  5. Welcome home, Kate! I followed that link to the Scalzi blog and it hit me right in the gut.

    When I was a kid, we didn’t think of ourselves as poor, never used the word. But I remember my mom repeatedly cautioning my brother and me, every autumn, that we should NOT ask Dad for anything because it would make him sad. Dad was a manufacturing jeweler. Everyone thought we were rich because he made things with diamonds and gold. But those things cost HIM money, and he was just starting out. It took every cent they had. My parents, both products of the Depression, worked two jobs each while trying to get the business going, and we had very little. Autumn was the scariest time – after the summer doldrums and before the Christmas season that he always hoped would be better. It coincided with school starting and nice clothes were out of the question. We helped my mom clip coupons and send in boxtops for refunds. To save money, she made everything from scratch. Everything. She was an amazing woman, and she made sure we never knew how tough things really were. She told me later that, having lived through the Depression, the belt-tightening was no big deal to her. We had a roof over our heads (even if we didn’t own it), and food to eat. We had our health and the rest didn’t matter.

    I set off into my own poverty, by choice, when I ran off at 20 to live in a communal house in a rundown building off the Penn campus, then on my own. That was when I knew real poverty, albeit self-imposed. I lived in a fifth floor walk-up in a trash-strewn, rat-and-roach-infested dump in a bad neighborhood. A 3-lb box of spaghetti (55 cents at the local supermarket) provided a week of meals, unadorned with anything more than salt. I became badly malnourished, eating just rice and pasta for more than a year, working the night shift so I could finish school by day, too hardheaded and independent to accept even a nickel from my parents. A guy took me out to dinner and I remember attacking that meal like an animal, embarrassed at my own desperation, then sick because my stomach couldn’t handle the richness of real food. It was, in hindsight, a stupid and terrible time, but I survived and learned some valuable life lessons in the process. To this day, old insecurities surface whenever the refrigerator is less than full…

    It’s important to remember these things, to understand them. Thanks for the reminder, Kate.

    (And, BTW, I found two bottles of persian rose ink that didn’t dry up. One will be on its way to you as soon as you send me your address. Email me at barb AT cohan DOT com.)


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