cw: money, abuse, corporal punishment, class
I was four years old the first time I really ever thought about money. My parents took me and my six-year-old cousin to Disney World for the weekend in my grandparents’ van. My cousin and I folded the back seats into a bed and laid on our stomachs looking out the back windshield as my dad flew up the turnpike. We spent the first day at Epcot, a night in a Days Inn, and the second and last day at Magic Kingdom. This second day became the stuff of family lore, something everyone told with a laugh, including me for most of my life.
The details were mostly the same: in Cinderella’s Castle, I saw a pointy hat with ribbons hanging from it and I fell in love. I wanted, no, I needed it. I showed my mom who took a peek at the price and immediately shut the whole thing down.
“Absolutely not,” she said, grabbing me by the hand and pulling me away from the hat.
I proceded to beg, bargain, and then throw the only temper tantrum of my childhood. My mom was resolute and my dad was sympathetic but told me it was too expensive. My cousin smirked at me as I melted down.
“You’re not going to get it, wah wah little baby!” He laughed in my face.
I felt so much rage in my small body and rolled down the hill from the castle. Everyone around us stared as I screamed my head off, a high pitched wail that was honestly shocking. My parents and cousin followed my twisting and kicking body, my mom’s face beet red. Eventually I stopped but the whole scene attracted a security guard who politely escorted all of us out to the Magic Kingdom parking lot. We walked back to the van, only stopping at one point so my mom could tie my shoe. She leaned in close to me as she was standing back up.
“I’m sorry but we only had enough money to pay for gas and tolls to get home.”
I didn’t really know what that meant but I knew it meant that it was the reason I couldn’t get the thing I wanted. When we got back to the van, my mom gave me the one and only spanking of my life; if I’m honest, it was a beating. I knew I had done something wrong but I also couldn’t help but feel like it was less my wanting than it was the fact that I highlighted the fact that my parents couldn’t just give me whatever I wanted when I wanted it that sent my mom over the edge.
We got into the van as the sun began to set. I laid on my stomach in the back because it hurt to sit normally. The sky turned orange and pink and then the deep velvety blue of twilight and I fell asleep. I only woke up somewhere between Orlando and Fort Lauderdale when we stopped for gas. My cousin was asleep in his second row seat and after paying for gas, my dad got behind the wheel and my mom crawled into the back of the van with me. I pretended to be asleep as she laid next to me and rubbed my back; she cried the whole way home.
My mom was a little girl when she moved to the United States from Cuba. As an adult, she always liked telling people she was the only girl in her first grade class with olive skin and pierced ears; as a kid, she liked to freak out her classmates in Monticello, Indiana by telling them how baby girls in Cuba had their ears pierced immediately after being born. Mostly though, she would later tell me when I was an adult and she wasn’t sober, she wanted to like herself; she wanted to be American.
My grandparents had left Cuba with very little and what they brought meant not very much in small town Indiana. They didn’t speak English and so they couldn’t get the jobs they used to have so they got the jobs they could get with little verbal communication: chopping down trees, cleaning houses. My mom taught herself to read and write in English by reading X-Men and Spider-Man comics, reading aloud the word bubbles that matched the character’s facial expression. She spent most evenings alone or with just one parent as someone was always working the night shift somewhere. At night, she would go to bed and think of the shiny shoes and candy and dolls her classmates had and wondered how she could get them.
She was ten when she started her first paper route. My abuelo was working the graveyard shift and worried about my mom riding her bike in the dark all over town and so he would drive by her route on the way home from work just to make sure she was ok. My mom bought a Barbie doll and emerald green corduroy bell bottoms and candy with the money she saved from her paper route; she hand washed her bell bottoms and hung them to dry on the clothesline. Once she told me, it was her favorite thing she had ever worn in her whole life.
My tropically acclimated grandparents hated winter and so when my mom was 14, the whole family moved to Orlando, Florida. A year later, my aunt was born; despite sharing DNA, she and my mom were born in different countries, in different circumstances, to completely different parents. You could see it in their names alone: my mom, Ileana, named after the young woman who won Miss Havana in the mid to late 1950s and my aunt, Mary Ann, named after Gilligan’s Island. My abuelo began working in construction, becoming a contractor and tile layer while my abuela worked in a factory on the outskirts of the city. They had a little house in Kissimmee and no one had to work the graveyard shift anymore but they were far from comfortable.
The insecurities my mom had in her Indiana elementary school multiplied in high school; she wasn’t the only Latina but it was pretty close. I remember coming home from ballet and complaining that no one could pronounce my name right and how badly I wanted a nickname only to see my mom with shaking her head at me.
“It’s their fault they can’t say it right, don’t you dare make yourself more like them to make them comfortable,” she spat out. “Besides how do you think it was for me with only Melissas and Denises around in high school?”
She was well-liked and involved in school activities but she compared herself to her whiter and thinner and richer friends all the time. I went through the same thing but heightened at my private high school, hyperaware that I couldn’t just have my parents buy me a BMW as my first car, no matter how much they wanted to. She didn’t invite friends home and she never acted like anything was different or hard from her friends. I think about this a lot now as an adult who still struggles with letting people in, with being vulnerable and flawed with others; I never invited my friends over in high school either.
Two things happened when my mom was a senior in high school: she was chosen to be on the homecoming court and my then 3-year-old aunt was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. As my mom watched my grandparents figure out how they could pay for insulin, she knew she couldn’t ask them to buy her a dress for homecoming; the next day she filled out an application at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. They hired her to clean hotel rooms and she did this every weekend, all weekend, while her friends were out partying. She bought the pale green dress she fell in love with at a department store and went to the homecoming game and dance directly from her shift at the Polynesian. She got ready in one of unoccupied hotel rooms, leaving fresh towels after showering and walking out in her dress. She met her date at the game, never explaining why she didn’t want to be picked up at home. She kept the job until she graduated, helping pay for my aunt’s insulin and saving money to move to New York City after graduation.
She tells me this story more than once during my childhood, usually on a Saturday morning when I’m helping her change the sheets on my bed.
“That’s how you do it,” she says proudly as she tucks them in the way they do at hotels. “The best thing I ever learned from a job.”
“Maybe I need to do that job to get better at it,” I say as her mood turns very suddenly.
“I haven’t done everything I have for you to work that kind of job.” She’s angry but she’s mostly ashamed. I leave it alone and don’t mention it again.
We go back to Disney World when I’m 8 and this time we stay for a week on property; we stay at the Polynesian. I see the sheets folded just how my mom does it at home and it feels like I’m sleeping in my own bed. At Magic Kingdom, my mom offers to buy me the pointy hat. I think back to that day when we got back to the van and I shrug noncommitally. She buys me something else to distract me and assuage her guilt; she’s proud as she signs the credit card receipt.