You are hereThanks For My Family and For The Kindness of Strangers
Thanks For My Family and For The Kindness of Strangers
I am grateful. I've been particularly blessed in my adult life. But for a large portion of my childhood, I lived in poverty.
When I hear people advising the unemployed, or poor, to “get a job,” I think to myself, “yes, everyone needs to work to get ahead. But, telling someone to get a job is not good enough. Some people are gifted with talents, or they are blessed by families. Some are not. It’s not good enough to just tell someone to ‘get a job’ or to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. What if they can’t afford boots? What if they don’t have the family support structure? Or the education?”
There are 4 unemployed people for every available job in America. Telling the unemployed to just “get a job” is easier said than done. There are bigger stories behind every person without a job and we would do well to stop and listen before we offer advice.
I have a job. Two, in fact. But, I’m going to tell you my story.
My story begins with my great-grandfather, John Kavaliunas. He died in a coal mining accident in the Lumaghi mines in Collinsville, Illinois at the age of 20 in 1926. His daughter, my grandmother, was a toddler at the time. At age six, she was found walking with her older brother along railroad tracks. Her mother was ill-equipped to be a single parent. She essentially abandoned her children. My grandmother was split up from her brother and was shipped off to a Catholic orphanage. She remained there until she was 18.
My grandfather grew up impoverished, as did many of his contemporaries during the Great Depression. He joined the Navy and fought in the Pacific in World War II as his life began to take shape.
After the war, my grandparents married and my grandfather began a career at General Grocers in St. Louis, Missouri. My grandmother became a housewife and a mother of five.
As my grandparents built their family, their economic situation improved. The Stowers family became the epitome of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet. The family enjoyed a happy, comfortable middle class life.
When my grandfather retired, at age 55, the Teamsters provided through General Grocers a pension for his retirement that kept my grandparents economically secure for years.
When I was born, my mother chose an independent path. She left her middle class life behind to follow my father, Michael Garcia, a man of mixed German and Mexican heritage, to Edinburgh, Texas. There, my mother worked for minimum wage at a Sizzler restaurant. My father worked at an oil refinery.
When my father lost his job, he relied on my mother to become the bread winner. The Sizzler didn’t pay the bills, so she went out and got a job that earned a lot of cash. She became a topless dancer at a nightclub in Brownsville, Texas.
It was a decision that caused much strife in her marriage – my father was a violent and jealous man. He was verbally and physically abusive.
I can recall his violent outbursts as if they happened yesterday. The image of my mother’s clothing nailed to a fence with knives in our backyard is one vision that will live forever in my memory.
One night, as their relationship deteriorated, my mother refused to come home. My father woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to get out of the house. He showed me what he would do to my mother. He lifted up a clothes iron and told me “I’m going to bash her head in with this.” It is the single most disturbing and violent memory of my childhood. I was terrified.
My mother left my father that night.
Soon after, she met an illegal Mexican immigrant named Joe. We left my father behind and moved to Naples, Florida.
I never saw my father again.
For the first year, the only place my mom and Joe could find work was on a Mexican migrant farm.
Our “home” (seen in the image, at left) was an old barrack with concrete floors and cinder block walls. You could hear the neighbors and the frequent screams of spousal and child abuse throughout the day and night. The broken screens of the barracks also allowed massive amounts of mosquitoes to invade our living space.
It was hell.
My red-headed, fair-skinned mother worked in the fields with the migrant workers. She picked tomatoes for a quarter a bushel.
It was the beginning of several years of poverty. We relied on charity whenever the quarters didn’t add up.
After a year of grueling labor on the Duda Farm, we moved into a one room cottage down the Tamiami Trail. My mom got a job for minimum wage working at a gas station.
Joe played the guitar at a local Mexican restaurant.
We still found ourselves struggling to survive.
It is when we lived in the cottage that things really started to deteriorate. Joe began to cheat on my mother. We rarely had food in the cottage. We didn’t have hot water for months. When we did have money, we used it to buy food from the nearby gas station. Microwave burritos became a normal dinner. Some nights, when we didn’t have any money, I found myself hanging out behind the restaurant where Joe worked.
Sometimes the employees would take pity on me and give me a plate of food that I would hurry home to share with my mom.
The tragic part of the entire situation was that Joe, an alcoholic, was just as verbally and physically abusive as my father was.
But, we stayed.
Even as an 8-year-old boy, I knew my mother deserved better than that man. I dreamed of the day that we would leave that wretched man behind.
One night, my mother scared the hell out of me. She was severely depressed and I thought I was going to lose her. I ran to the pay phone and called my grandparents on a collect call. My grandparents got through to my mom and made her realize that it was time to leave.
But, there was no money.
I had the bright idea to try to have a yard sale with a bunch of junk I found in a nearby abandoned shed. I made up a couple “Yard Sale” signs with my crayons and posted them next to the highway. No one came, but a local girl took pity on me and gave me a dollar for an old Cosmo magazine I was trying to sell. I gave the dollar to my mom, but I felt defeated.
Eventually, my mom scraped together enough money and we finally left Florida. I remember telling her on the bus ride home to St. Louis that I felt like the entire time we were in Florida was nothing but a bad dream. It didn’t seem real to me.
Unfortunately, Joe followed us.
We all lived with my grandparents for the next year. My grandparents did all they could to help. But, my mother’s independent streak made it difficult to live by her parent’s rules.
We moved into our own place, and not long after, Joe threatened my life after I tried to defend my mother from his abuse. When my uncle, who lived next door, heard that Joe had me backed into a corner with a knife, he called my grandfather and they both arrived at our house with baseball bats.
We never saw Joe again. My grandfather and uncle scared the rat off for good.
For the first time since I was born, my mother was single and supporting me on her own. She worked for minimum wage – $3.35 an hour – at the local Kroger. We relied on food stamps to get by, or with help from my grandparents – if my mother would get past her stubbornness.
Another year went by. Mom got a good job at a local bank. It paid her just above minimum wage to start, and she eventually earned a little more than $9.00 an hour with health insurance.
At the same time, she met a man, Lonnie, who she began to date quite seriously. We moved in with Lonnie, and for the first time in my life, as I entered middle school and then high school, life was pretty normal.
Then, in 1995 and right before I graduated from high school, my grandfather died. My grandfather and I were very close. Even with Lonnie in the picture, I never really allowed myself to trust him even though he provided for us. I didn’t want to develop a relationship.
Instead, my grandfather was the strong male figure in my life. He did his best to instill in me a strong work ethic and perseverance. His death remains one of the saddest days of my life.
When I graduated, I didn’t go to college. Though I was an excellent student, financially, college wasn’t an option for me. So I went to work.
My first job out of high school was as a barista at a local coffee chain. About a year later, I was offered an interview for a job in insurance. I got the job and became a licensed insurance agent. I worked hard and got promoted. I became a claims adjuster and was promoted again to the worse job I’ve ever had – actuarial technician – no human interaction, just numbers.
As my success increased and I gained more confidence socially, I got heavily involved in the nightclub scene. It didn’t take long before I found myself doing drugs on a regular basis.
There was a period in my life where I would start the party on a Thursday night and stay up all weekend. I mostly took ecstasy. But, GHB, crystal meth, and ketamine were also a regular thing for me.
The drugs caught up with me and I found myself losing job after job. I lost 3 jobs in less than 3 years.
I realized that I had gotten into a rut and I needed a serious change in my life. I vowed to leave St. Louis to move to Chicago, a city I’d always dreamed of living in, for a fresh start.
Meanwhile, my mother’s relationship with Lonnie began to unravel. He refused to marry her, so she left.
By this time, I was 25 and I was given what I thought was the opportunity of a lifetime. Though I had failed at a few jobs in St. Louis, my resume and the social skills I developed were strong enough to secure my first job at a marketing agency in Chicago, where I started working as a financial coordinator.
I worked my ass off – at times up to 60 or 70 hours a week. Thanks to my company’s support, I was finally able to go to college and I attended DePaul University after work.
All of my hard work paid off, and soon, after meeting my future husband, I was offered a job transfer, and a new, higher paying, job in New York - just 3 years after moving to Chicago.
I’ve been in New York for 7 years, and in addition to publishing The Truth Pursuit, I’m still in Finance at one of the world’s top digital marketing agencies.
Where I sit today is striking compared to where I stood in that back alley hoping for some food 25 years ago.
The hard work and perseverance my grandfather and mother taught me has paid off.
But I could not have done it were it not for the kindness of strangers, charity, and most importantly, a social system that kept us from starving when we needed it most.
In the end, America’s social system worked. It worked for my entire family.
My grandmother was cared for by the charity of nuns until she was 18. My grandfather benefited from his experience in the US military, the New Deal, and the social policies that guaranteed his right to unionize and demand a fair wage, and a retirement plan, from his employer. My mother benefited from a federal food stamp program that kept us fed when she wasn’t able to make ends meet.
I benefited from all of them.
I want the system to be there to help others when they are in need.
I believe that every child born today has the potential to get everything they want out of life and are able to achieve. I also believe that every child has a civil right to achieve that potential.
Without our social system, I wouldn’t be where I sit today.
Without our social system, there are countless others who would never be able to achieve their full potential, no matter how many hours they work.
Yes, I worked hard to get what I want out of life. I continue to do so.
But, I also recognize that I was blessed with certain gifts: a grandfather who worked hard to provide a stable life for his family; a mother who taught me to be independent and who taught me the hard truths about life; and genes that gave me dark blonde hair, white skin and blue eyes.
There are countless people throughout my life who have believed in me. They are the angels of my life who have been there with words of encouragement, money, or love.
They have given me a piece of themselves. I am so grateful to them.
I think often of the children who don’t have the role models, the encouragement or the financial resources. Do they think that their dreams can become reality?
I believe that our educational and social system should be structured in a way that gives every child the same chance at birth that every child of means has in this country.
I believe that we all have a responsibility to ensure that every child has a chance to achieve their dreams.
We should teach them the importance of hard work, yes. But, we should also teach them about charity and the importance of community.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my health, my marriage, the community of my friends and family, the charity of strangers, and the prospect of a bright future.