During summer vacations, my sister and I would spend the day at “Mary’s House” with as few as two and as many as 10 other children between the ages of one and 12. Mary was a 60-something single woman with a skeletal, toothless sister that smoked like a chimney and a penchant for freshly-cooked sauerkraut. On the most oppressively hot and humid days of St. Louis summers, being in or around Mary’s house was like having someone’s not-so-pleasantly fragrant toes stuffed up your nose for hours at a time. When not inside smelling of feet, she would often be found outside smelling of sun tan lotion, publicly berating one child or another for doing something…well, childlike. A child care professional, like so many others, with no patience whatsoever for children.
Going to Mary’s house wasn’t something we looked forward to. The other children, particularly the boys, were awful little imps, bullying and otherwise harassing the girls all day long, day in and day out. The smells, as I’ve mentioned, were abhorrent. Occasionally there was manual labor involved – cleaning out her storage shed or rain gutters; emptying and scrubbing out the 3 foot deep metal pool whose water had turned as brown and muddy as the Mississippi; stamping grass seeds into the mud in our bare feet like a scene from the Egyptian slave pits in “The Ten Commandments”.
Reprieve came every couple of weeks or so, when the tyranny was briefly abated and two or three of us were chosen to take all of the change from Mary’s wallet to the corner grocery and buy penny candy for all the children at the house that day. Generally this would amount to anywhere between 3 and 5 dollars, or 300 to 500 individually wrapped sweet delights. Of course, there were decisions to be made – we’d splurge on 5 cent packages of Now and Laters, or 10 cent boxes of Lemonheads or Alexander the Grape or Boston Baked Beans, or even 50 cent Popsicles or ice cream treats on a particularly weighty purse day. It was important to strike the right balance between things chocolate and fruity; things chewy, melty and crunchy; things instantly consumed and things that could be enjoyed for longer periods of time. It was a responsibility we did not take lightly. While the others were locked outside, the confectionary coordinators would hoard themselves inside at the kitchen table and equally divide the candy, so as not to cause any unnecessary conflicts. After each pile had been carefully assembled, we’d let one child in at a time and award them their mound of delicious and well-earned compensation. These were proud and joyous days at the Gingerbread House.
How simple and how great the rewards for hard work as a child! Though the road was long and fraught with hardship, the payoff was tremendous.
As years passed, it occurred to me that a pile of bon-bons didn’t QUITE make up for the emotional trauma I or my compatriots suffered during the hours and days spent in Mary’s care. Having no basis for comparison at the time, however, the rewards seemed more than adequate. Years later, I suppose I still feel the need for the reward for the hard work. The expectations are higher and the price tags bigger. Instead of a piece of penny candy or two, I prefer a brand new 3-disc stereo, or a well deserved vacation to New York, or $100 worth of CDs or DVDs or fancy underwear or makeup. They all seemed like well-deserved extravagances on their respective dates-of-purchase considering the humiliations I suffer on a daily basis in pseudo-yuppieland. I mean, you NEED a stereo, right? You NEED to look good in your underwear in case someone sees it. You NEED to stay abreast of the latest in music and movies. And what’s more, you DESERVE it.
Except, suddenly, like Hansel, I find myself sitting in cage in a house made of candy getting fatter and fatter, and some witch is fixin’ to make a big tasty sandwich out of me. That witch’s name is MasterCard. I’ve become porcine on meals of impulse buys and pick-me-ups and "emergencies", and the only way out is to shove that bitch into the burning fire meant for me and run for my life. (But I won’t be running very far, because I can’t afford it.) I’m entering a land of shoestring budgets for the good of my financial future, and there are no immediate payoffs in sight. I’m relinquishing the material rewards system. Gone are the days of imaginary riches, of rewarding emotional trauma with greed and gluttony. The world of financial stability will be mine in 24-48 months and then: THE WORLD.
It occurs to me that my pile of Victoria Secret underwear hasn't QUITE made up for the fact that I will now spend years paying off what are effectively $100 pairs of underwear...so I guess I didn't learn that lesson so well the first time from my traumatic day care provider.
This time for sure, though.