By Vivian Maguire
I didn’t grow up poor, but my father did. When he told us stories about his childhood, I almost felt as though they had happened to me.
There was the time his father had found a magnetic screen at the city junkyard. He brought it home, and pressed it against the family television. The television flashed over from white, black, and grey images to glaring red, yellow, green, and blue vertical stripes across the glass. For the first time on their living room TV, they saw a rainbow.
“Cambie el canal! Change the channel!” my father and his siblings yelled, believing that he had turned their black and white television into a color TV with his magic screen.
“No, no, no!” my grandfather said, laughing, “No puedo! This is all it does!”
One afternoon, at the park, his mother had forgotten their lunches. They were so far from home, she had had to buy hamburgers at a nearby stand. “The best thing we had ever eaten,” said my father, as he recalled how he, his three brothers, and his three sisters had chewed through the sandwiches of fried beef, mustard, pickles, tomatoes, and greasy lettuce on grilled bread. “When my mother got the bill,” he always paused, “it was for five dollars. She sat down and cried.” I would listen to this story and try to picture my grandmother, sobbing in the playground, with her seven thin children trying to console her, the taste of peppered meat still on their tongues.
My father did not tell these stories as fond recollections; the memories were integral to who he was, and why he worked as hard as he did.
Growing up, I would not know poverty and hunger as my father did, but he still wanted me to understand it. When we were out running errands or stopping somewhere to eat, my father would always hand me a few dollar bills to hand to a homeless person.
“Why don’t you do it,” I would whine. “I’m afraid,” I would say when he pressed me.
“So you’re not going to give them anything, because you’re afraid?” he would reply. I thought he was forcing me to give money to the poor because it made him uneasy. It took years for me to realize, that he was teaching me to see them. He wanted me to be uncomfortable, because he didn’t ever want me to ever be okay with just walking by people on the street, not if I had something to give.
My father found other ways to teach us too. When he bought us presents, he never gave us quite what we had asked for. My father always bought us toys that were close to what we wanted. For my sixth birthday, I had asked my father for a battery-powered car. I pictured myself in my pink, plastic convertible, with all of my friends watching me cruise down the block with matching pink sunglasses on my head, like Barbie. When my birthday came, I didn’t see a pink convertible. Instead, there was a brand new white scooter. “It’s not a pink car,” I told my father.
“Those things are too slow mi reyna,” replied my father. “You’ll be able to keep up with your brothers on this. Get on, try it,” he urged.
I set my foot on the flat base and pushed; it was fast. I thrilled and then laughed at the speed, the convertible forgotten.
Another time, I asked my dad for the Pogo Ball I had seen on television. My father bought me a pogo stick—an almost even trade, except that I almost broke my neck several times trying to balance on it long enough to even attempt a jump. Still, I enjoyed playing with it, until like my other toys, it was forgotten.
But one time my child-desire was nearly unshakable when I saw the Julie doll on television. In the eighties, she was a doll unlike any other that could sense when it was cold outside, her mouth moved when she spoke, she could respond to questions, and knew when she was being moved to another room.
“Are we going to get the Julie doll?” I asked my dad as we walked down the aisle at Toys R’Us.
“I found something even better,” said my father, and my stomach fell. I recognized those words. My father had other plans for me, and I would not get the doll I had been pining after. I had been thinking all morning of questions I would ask her, and now I knew that Julie and I would never speak to each other.
When we walked out of the store, I clung to the doll my father had bought me. She wasn’t Julie. She was Pamela. Her mouth didn’t move, she didn’t know that it was warm and balmy outside, she had no clue that we had left the store, and she only spoke when you pushed on certain parts of her body. “I see you!” Pamela said accusingly when I pressed on her blue, plastic eye.
When we returned home, I hugged my new doll to my chest. I took her to my room and laid her on my pillow. “I see you!” she said, as I pressed on her face, abdomen, and any other parts of her body that would elicit a response. “Muah!” her lips smacked as I pushed my palm onto her mouth. “Hee hee hee!” she giggled as my small fingers explored her belly. “I love you,” Pamela sighed when I pushed my hand onto her chest. I love you too, Pamela, I thought as I pulled her into a loving embrace. Being a child, I couldn’t help but believe that I would be hurting my doll’s feelings if I didn’t return her affection. I squeezed her to my body and whispered, “I love you, I love you,” until I began to believe it.
Over the years, I would receive many gifts from my father that would fall short of my expectations, but like the scooter, the pogo stick, and the doll, I would learn to love my father’s gifts more because of who they came from. Of course, I did not realize at the time that my father was teaching me a lesson that would extend into my adult life. Though I would be disappointed when events in my life did not turn out the way I planned, I would learn how to enjoy myself anyway, and to be thankful for the gifts I received, regardless of the form they came in. Like the gifts my father gave me, my life would not look anything like what I had wanted for myself, not even close. But, when I thought about it, I would see that what I had was even better.
Vivian Maguire is an English teacher, a writer, and a parent. She lives with her husband Randy, and their two daughters, Amelie and Penelope, in El Paso, TX. She writes about parenting and teaching on her blog, storymother.wordpress.com.