Exile — Poem from Suede: A Collection of Poetry

Exile

As soon as I showed signs of rebellion—

drinking, missing curfew, talking back—

my parents sequestered me to my

second story room where, in winter,

I could see my breath. It was an exile I came to love:

four windows, the moon peering like a voyeur

through pink floral curtains—so far—

yet close enough that I could steal its light to sketch.

In summer, a small window fan chopped my friends’

voices from the streets below, drew up that second flight,

a light breeze, so I could breathe.

When the smell of dinner wafted up the stairs,

I trudged to the kitchen where my stepmother,

sipping tea, said, No one wants you here.

Back in my room, I sketched John Lennon—

imagined that he’d written “Mother

just for me—and Marilyn Monroe,

another girl left by her mother who made me think,

someday, I might see my name across

a marquee. But at sixteen, freedom

and fame were as distant as the stars.

So, I stole a Valium—yellow and round—

from my stepmother’s jewel box, held my breath

and swallowed it down, then lay across

my bed spread, drawing the moon.

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What Some People Think About People On Welfare

There have been a few times in my life I have received public assistance or “welfare.” When my father was a single parent taking care of my brother Tony and me, we were on food stamps, though I don’t remember.

In 1994, when I quit working a grueling grocery store job to attend community college full-time, I received public assistance, which was $400 a month, $300 in food stamps, a Pell Grant, and $600 a month from the U.S. Navy G.I. Bill for my four years of service. At the time, I was a single mother with one child.

I felt no guilt for receiving the government benefits. I’d had a paper route at age 12, babysat at 13, worked as a lifeguard at 15, McDonald’s from 16 – 18, nursing home from 18 – 20, then joined the navy. Those benefits were a way for me to move up from being a blue collar worker to a college instructor. My American Dream.

Imagine my dismay when I came out of the dentist in a small town in eastern WA, in some pain after having had a filling, and hearing what I am about to share. (It should be noted that I’d had a root canal in high school from chewing too much Big Red, but I learned my lesson. And in the navy, the dentists re-did my root canal–twice.) I was told I had to have a crown. So, on my way out of the office, I asked the admin assistant how much a crown cost. She scowled at me and said, “Welfare doesn’t cover crowns!” I never went to that dentist again.

Fast forward to three years later: my 27-year old husband Harly had a genetic liver disorder. He couldn’t work. I was a junior in college with a five-year-old daughter and brand new baby girl. We applied for food stamps and Medicaid, but because my car was worth $5K, we were denied. I asked the woman behind the desk, “Are we supposed to eat the tires?” Eventually, Harly was able to get disability.

Fast forward a few more years. I was talking to the sister of a friend. The sister’s name was Maggie. She worked as the gestapo at a low-income housing complex and boasted about how she never gave people who left their full deposit back. She said that when she walked into their homes, the places “smelled like welfare.” Maggie told me, “Only single moms get Pell Grants,” and that “She’d never been poor, so she just couldn’t identify with those kind of people.” It took all my strength not to slap her freckled face.

It’s a shame that welfare recipients as a whole get such a bad rap. Statistics show again and again that only a minority abuse the system. I have taught at my Alma mater, Walla Walla Community College, for eight years, and every time I teach a new class I tell the students my story. I was a welfare mother who went to college and eventually earned two graduate degrees. If I could it, so could they. As long as what they are doing is in good faith, there is no reason to be ashamed to ask for help.