Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Root of Gratitude

I was raised in a huge foster family, where everything that surrounded me was a hand-me-down, from the bed I slept in to the clothes I picked out from big black trash bags that were left in our family's van after church services. When I went off to college my mom and I were shopping at a Kmart for basic dorm supplies and I saw a comforter, bright yellow and white stripes, that just spoke to me. It screamed my personality, the outgoing, upbeat person I planned to become once I left home. I brushed my hand across the plastic wrapping and sighed, saying, "this is so beautiful."

And as a complete surprise to me, my mom turned and said, "do you want that comforter?" She put it in our cart and it covered my bed for the four years I lived in that dorm room. The reminder never wore off. It always made me think of how I had picked it, it had been my choice to have this specific bed covering. And my mom had dug deep in her pockets to buy it for me, even though I had a perfectly good hand-me-down comforter waiting in the car to cover my new dorm room bed.

I often wonder if that is where my deep sense of thankfulness comes from. Finally getting to be a grown up and appreciating that I get to pick for myself now. The clothes in my closet were chosen by me, probably from a rack at Target, but wholly mine. The blankets on my children's beds I found, one by one, on clearance racks, but they were my colors, my choice. I get to set up my own life and chose what surrounds me on a daily basis.

And beyond that, I believe gratitude became part of my DNA as I grew up surrounded by children who were called family for a brief time but could not truly feel like siblings when I barely knew their last names. And knowing their stories, the brief synopsis shared around the dinner table on the night before they arrived, then in the secrets they themselves willingly shared, of pain and neglect and abuse that had landed them in a strangers home. And even in the midst of feeling overlooked myself, in a house overflowing with needy children, feeling I was somehow lucky.

The parents of the house were my parents. I was genetically related to them and had been part of their smaller nuclear family for several years before the idea of foster children even existed. I would not bounce around from foster home to grandma’s house until mom could get her act together or dad could get out of jail. I got to sleep in the same bed and be a part of the constant in the midst of the comings and goings.

Then at 15, I stole away to Haiti, on a teen missions trip, and spent a summer building a cement block building that would house some of the most beautiful orphan children I would ever see. And on our days off we drove into the small town nearby, all of our tanned, healthy, teen bodies clinging to each other in the back of a small pickup truck bed, a tour of the town actually translating into driving through dirt streets and seeing with our own spoiled eyes just how desperate some people’s living conditions could be.

I kept thinking it was a movie set. That these people left their comfortable houses with indoor plumbing and came to put on this show for us, the American teens rumored to be building a dormitory just down the road. So it would match the pictures we saw on TV, of how most Haitians truly lived and we’d go home thankful.

But it wasn’t a show. It was their life. From the day they were born to the day they died. Dirt floors. Tire scraps made into sandals. A toy made of old wire and a tin can. And smiles, bright happy smiles, on children who didn’t know any better. Nursed at their mother’s willing breast, then surrounded by other dust covered children who didn’t have much either. They survived and grew up to have their own chocolate colored children. And they didn’t know they should be angry at their circumstances.

So when Jeff and I were first married, and he was still in graduate school, I didn’t feel entitled to much. I was pretty content with the basics. A sturdy couch from the Goodwill that folded out into a lumpy bed on the rare occasions we had overnight guests. A few cans of beans sitting next to a small jar of peanut butter in one of the three kitchen cabinets. A reliable car in the driveway that got me to my parents house and back when the holidays rolled around.

Sometimes I wonder if I should have wanted more. I could have taught for a few years with my newly acquired teaching degree. I was very comfortable in front of a classroom. With one full time salary and his school loans we could have had a bigger apartment in a nicer part of town. We could have bought clothes that were in style. We might have visited a furniture show room and come home with something that was our own taste. But I had found my life partner and we had decided to start our family earlier rather than later, a decision driven by fear of lingering side effects from a birth defect that was a part of my history. And once that baby was on the way, I knew I’d do whatever it took to be home with her.

And from those days on we have never been rich. We’ve paid the bills and we’ve kept food on the table. And except for a few part time jobs here and there, on nights and weekends, I’ve been home with my babies. And I’ve been thankful. Slowly I came to see how the hand-me-downs have their place. The couch that sits in our living room today was purchased by my parents before I was born. I inherited it when my mom died and my dad moved on, and since it seems to be made of titanium and won’t do us the favor of falling apart, we can’t justify buying another one.

But it’s okay. Because we have the things that matter. Just ask any resident of Port au Prince or Santiago. We have to be thankful. We have food in our cupboards and clothes in our closets. My children are safe and warm. Our beds are covered in soft fluffy blankets. We are rich indeed. And I am thankful.


goofdad said...

As someone with a large family who just started fostering, all I can say is: Thanks! You brought tears to my eyes. I hope that someday my children can look back and be happy for the hand me downs, the cramped space, the lack of privacy, and the general chaos that is our day-to-day life. I hope they're thankful for all that we have instead of all that we don't.

Again ... Thanks!

Judy said...

Reading this post, I see that you have many untold stories to tell and I'm looking forward to hearing them!

Judy Mandel