There was a time in my young adult life where money was incredibly scarce. It was a time when I argued with the cashier at a grocery store for taxing the cents-off coupon I’d used to help make my money go farther. It was a time when cornmeal was a staple because, at the time, it was virtually free. It was a time when store-bought cigarettes were for use while out in public. At home, we rolled our own. The brand name was Bugler.
I remember working various low-paying jobs to pay the bills, keep the lights on, and keep gas in the car so that I could get back and forth to one low-paying job after another. I sold sweepers, folded and hung clothes at a discount department store, and sewed seat seams on would-be over-priced slacks in a textile factory using an industrial size sewing machine. I temped at business offices when I could get the work, and mostly we just scraped by.
When I got my current job, nearly 20 years ago, I didn’t have to roll my own anymore. I could buy cigarettes in packs just like everybody else. The grocery bill got higher with the better foods my paycheck could support and my rent was finally paid on time. I had received my last disconnect notice on a utility I’d often wondered how I would survive without. When that first paycheck came in I was ecstatic. I had a pouch and a half of Bugler left over and wasn’t sure whether to toss it out, give it away, or keep using it until it was gone. Something told me to hang onto it. I decided to keep it as a reminder of just how bad things can get.
Since that first paycheck I’ve left three husbands, moved five times, bought a house, been promoted once, became a grandmother twice, and bought three vehicles. And although the unit that houses it is different, that pack of Bugler is still in my freezer, untouched save for the reminder it provides, sealed in a Ziploc baggie to preserve its original state, and in the door so that it’s the first thing I see when I retrieve my daily frozen meal.
Suffering from empty nest syndrome (not a clinical diagnosis, I know) I picked up a second job at a local restaurant to fill the time. As it was, I got off work on Friday afternoon and then just sat and waited until Monday. I watched a lot of television and went on randomly circuitous drives. I was in a state of seemingly constant restlessness. It took about six weeks of solitary in my apartment before it hit me what was happening. Complete and utter silence. I also realized that it was the first time ever that I’d lived alone. Throughout all the life changes in my adult history that had me living in many different places, I always had my children with me. I didn’t realize how much company and comfort they provided while they were at home.
Silence really can be deafening.
As soon as I figured out what it was that was bothering me, that something you can’t quite put your finger on but drives you nuts trying to figure it out, I was okay with it. I grew to sort of like the silence. Until I got bored, that is. Which apparently happens pretty quickly in my world. So I picked up the second job to fill some time, to get me out of my apartment, and to put me around other people. With those measures, I believe I have successfully prevented depression from setting in.
I work the second job on the weekends, and maybe one or two evenings during the week. I guess I don’t really need the money, although it does help to have the extra on occasion. Every shift, though, I see my new part-time and incredibly young co-workers struggling to make enough money to pay their light bills, put gas in their cars, keep a kid in diapers, and buy that new tire they need.
I catch myself wondering how they make a life for themselves on such few wages. And then I remember that I used to be them. I come home, bone tired from the extra work, and open the freezer. I reach past the shoulder height pouch and a half of Bugler for an ice cube to cool my Diet Pepsi, and I’m grateful that I don’t have those struggles anymore, that I haven’t had them for almost twenty years.
Sometimes I’m tempted to buy a pack of papers and roll one of those things just to see if the freezer and/or the Ziploc baggie have done their respective jobs to preserve the contents of the little green and black pouches.
Somehow I think that some reminders are best served intangibly, with a side of nostalgia, and garnished with gratitude.