Living Without



I took a lot for granted.

As teenagers we went to Red Bank on Saturdays and I bought Landlubber jeans and Clinique concealing stick. Pot o’ gloss by Yardley had that sweet strawberry flavor and made my lips so shiny. I went to a store on the west side to buy carpenter’s jeans and overalls.  At Steinbach’s I bought underwear and pajamas, the occasional dress.

I wore my mom’s “vintage” clothes and bought new Fair Isle sweaters at Rumson Roulette.

I didn’t have an allowance.  When I needed something, my parents gave me money.  My mom even trusted me to take money from her wallet when I needed it.

I didn’t have a curfew.  Until, standing on the front steps, I leaned against the doorbell while passionately kissing Pate Roy.  The next night I had to be in by midnight.

I swam at an exclusive swim club.  I was on the swim team and did water ballet.  Golfing and sailing weren’t my favorite, but I learned to do both.  Tennis and paddle tennis, too.  I learned to play the piano. I didn’t feel privileged.

I visited one set of grandparents in Florida every winter. I went to the Bahamas one Christmas.  I skied in the winter and stayed at the Lake Placid Club.  At Easter we went to Tides Inn in Virginia and rode paddle boats with our cousins.  At Sky Top Lodge in Pennsylvania, we dressed up for dinner and played in the game room at night.  We ice skated and skied there, too.

Christmas and birthdays were events.  Santa Claus brought not only beautifully wrapped gifts, but he brought the entire winter wonderland to my house after I went to bed on Christmas Eve – tree, ornaments, lights, decorations.  From zero to amazing.  My grandfather’s birthdays were scavenger hunts for the grandkids; we raced around the block searching for hidden treats. On his 70th birthday the tables were turned on him and a Cadillac convertible was the final gift – this time for him.

I cleaned the bathrooms, vacuumed the carpets, weeded between the flagstones on the patio (I hated getting the dirt under my fingernails.), raked leaves, did the dishes after dinner.  I didn’t get allowance for those chores.  I did them because I was asked to do them.  Not always happily.

I went to college and graduate school at Ivy League schools.  My parents paid for everything.  They gave me money for spending when I needed it.

I worked in the summers.  I worked at my father’s plumbing and heating supply business.  I was a bank teller.  I saved my money and gave nice gifts to my family, friends and boyfriends (especially).

I didn’t overspend.  I didn’t ask for extravagant things.  I didn’t want for anything.

When I became a mother, I did the same for my children.  I had seen that other people didn’t grow up as I had, but, honestly, I still didn’t think of myself as privileged.  My parents’ home was beautiful, but not luxurious.  All four of us shared a bathroom.  My parents drove Chevys – station wagons and sedans.

A year into our marriage, we bought a little cape.  We each got new cars – Fords.  We had jobs as teachers.  And when I had my first baby three years later, my father took over our mortgage so that I could stay home with him.  I knew I was lucky.

I paid the bills the day they arrived in the mailbox.  I made extra money by tutoring and embroidering sweaters for a children’s clothing store.  I bought and made thoughtful gifts for my friends and family.

Birthdays were themed parties with hand-made goodie bags and an embroidered sweater for the birthday boy or girl.  Pin the tail on the purple pony, the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot, the bell on the cat; a farm party at a real farm, a garden party in the middle of winter.  And Christmas always ended with one special gift hidden away and finally “discovered” at the last minute – even Mario 3 (Japanese version) when it hadn’t even come out yet in the U.S.  Santa always delivered.

We joined the same club I had belonged to as a child, and I started liking golf, tennis and paddle.  I went to the pool every day in the summer and taught my children to swim.  They learned to golf and play tennis and sail.  They didn’t feel privileged.  But they wanted for nothing.


My perspective has shifted.

Now, when I have to borrow money from my girls so that I can buy dinner, I look back and see it all differently.  I can’t go to the outlets or Marshalls and buy something for myself or my kids.  I haven’t been able to indulge my beautiful grandson by buying him things he doesn’t need.

I can’t fix my car that has been hit (and run from) twice in a parking lot.  I can’t get the service that it keeps telling me I need.  Or fix the anti-skid mechanism. I have left two chairs at the upholsterer for more than two years.  I can’t buy fabric to recover them or pay for the service.  My father’s chair has holes on the armrests.

The storage unit is locked down because I can’t pay the bill.  The lights have been turned off twice.  The automatic payment of our auto insurance was cancelled because the payment didn’t go through.  We owe the IRS over $50,000.  There are letters from them that I haven’t opened.

I close my eyes and hope that birthdays and Christmas will pass unnoticed.

Sarah asks for nothing.  What sixteen-year-old girl asks for nothing?  She calls us poor.  I guess we are.

Billy couldn’t take college classes this semester.  He won’t be able to take them next semester.

I have to say thank you more times than I can count.  Friends take care of me in big and little ways over and over again.  And I can’t repay them.  I just say thank you and sink a little further.

One of my greatest pleasures was giving.  Now I give what I can – time, love, advice, company – it feels inadequate and I’m embarrassed.

Every few weeks we run out of money for a few days.  Last week, Kevin didn’t apply on time for his unemployment check.  Then there was a holiday that delayed it even further. So we went from having to live from Friday until Tuesday with no money to having to extend ourselves until Thursday.

Sarah asked for two singles.  I had to say no.

We made it.  The bank charged us half of Kevin’s paycheck for the overdrafts. I got paid on Friday and was able to pay a few bills today. And we went to the grocery store.  I know it is temporary, but I forget the hole.

I have so much.  Compared to others, I still live a privileged life.

I can live without things.  I can live without peace of mind.  I am living without being able to give.

I gave to him.  Beyond what I should have.  I gave him what wasn’t even mine to give.

I thought it would save him.  That was all that mattered to me.  Having him.

When he would lose hope and say he wasn’t worthy of living, I yelled at him.  I told him we had lost too much to lose him.  If he was going to die, he should have done it years ago.  I didn’t begrudge him what I had given (what he had taken) as long as he was still here.

One time I thought I was willing to let him go.  That I just couldn’t take it anymore.  And when he didn’t answer my call, I knew that it wasn’t true.  No price was too high to keep him.

I know it seems like he was selfish.   Maybe you think I made him that way.

But he wasn’t.

Someone remembered him on the anniversary of his death with this comment:  I’ll never forget he took me to Hook Line after work one night and all I had was my Buy Rite shirt on….He takes me his car and gives me this salmon colored polo shirt to wear….I put it on and he goes, “You look almost as good as me.” Guy literally gave me the shirt off his back or van in this case.

If he had, he shared.

What happened those last years churned in his gut.  He hated himself for what he had done.

I can’t be angry with him for putting us in this state.  I don’t even really blame him.

But I hate living without.


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22 responses »

  1. This is a very honest post, Elle. I didn’t know where you were going and I’m sad that the title of your piece is more real than I had hoped it would be.
    Thinking about you,

  2. Your honest and raw post is true for many, many people who have run into situations that are beyond human control, but that are real parts of life. Abusive relationships (physical and verbal) as well as situations where others take advantage of those with a generous and caring spirit. I suspect I would have done just what you did and I am praying for you and your family as you begin to recover and find your way out of the hole.

  3. After reading this post, I was compelled to go back and read more of your story. What a heart wrenching story it is. I am sure writing gives you some sense of peace, a peace that I am sure can never be completely filled. I can’t even imagine what you have gone through. Please know that a prayer was said for you tonight.

  4. At the end of the day, time, love, advice, and company, are priceless …especially the love. Yo have had such a journey, but you still love (and you still love your boy). You are a special person.

  5. You write with so much voice and willingness to share your story. It is heart wrenching to read and it makes me appreciate life because it can change so quickly.

  6. Just finished reading through your blog posts. They are riveting and raw and poignant. Thank you for sharing. A family member struggles with addiction and mental,illness so I was there with you.

  7. I look for your posts regularly. I am in awe that you are able to put so much feeling into your writing, and yet I am so sad that your emotions are so heartbreaking. I think of you and your family often and I pray for peace for you all. And I have no doubt that your son always knew how much you loved him.

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