Listen: true news of a welfare mother.
I've written poems no one would publish, the tones too radical even for the radicals. It's just like my poetry professor said: "If you turn into one of 'those people' who sees a conspiracy against you in all of history, you're apt to lose many readers who would just as soon ignore as understand you." Unfortunately, he was right about one thing: the world is ignorant. But what he didn't say was that it's acceptable for politicians to see women like me as conspirators--the abominable breeders of national evil, worms in the fluff of the great apple pie--and to call us as much publicly in hopes of rallying citizens, sentiments, and dollars around them and their causes. My professor didn't mention that people continue to listen to the hysterical rantings of these politicians even though we've learned by now that Native Americans aren't really savages, Jews aren't really parasites, and blacks aren't really work animals; nor is it true that Asians value life less than anyone else. At least, we proclaim to have learned these things.
I have learned that it all depends on who you are. Get yourself elected to a government office and suddenly you can excrete your opinions onto just about anyone and they're obliged to wear the, mark, like it or not. But find yourself in one of the targeted groups and you suddenly discover a rope so tightly twisted around your neck that you can barely hear yourself speak, let alone expect anyone else to. My professor of poetry was never a woman on welfare, nor was he black or red or yellow or Jewish or Iraqi or pagan or anything but white, though I suppose he meant well.
I've been going through this pile of old letters, essays, and poems and basically they all shout the same thing: "Listen. I am a woman whose name is not `welfare recipient.' I am a woman with three children, and their names are not `welfare recipient' I am not a criminal. I am not any of the things you've been told I am. Listen. Listen. Listen!"
Tonight I'm about as well off as any woman on welfare could hope to be. I find myself in the state of Minnesota, and, as welfare policy goes, Minnesota is one of the few liberal states left in our union--such as it is. My rent costs only a little more than half my welfare grant, as opposed to all of it or more, and it's a decent place for the money--that is, nicely painted walls, level floors, bright windows in every room, clean carpeting, one big closet, running water, a toilet, heat in the winter, no leaks in the roof, no rain seeping through the walls, no stink, and no houndy neighbors as far as I can tell. It even has a reasonable backyard with a place for a garden. We have a phone for the first time in five years.
My plants are hanging all around the bright rooms. My calico cat is asleep on the sofa. There's a week's worth of food in the almost new refrigerator. I have a cook stove with three working burners and an oven that works, too. This is a big deal. Living in a place like this makes me want to get up in the morning and fix my hair, clothes, and face. I hold my head up walking down the sidewalk with my three beautiful daughters.
And I keep this new place so fresh-smelling, dustless, and gleaming. I shovel the cat's turds from the litter box and spray it heavily with Lysol. I'm constantly after my kids to pick everything up after themselves because I have this fear that, while I'm vacuuming the carpet or washing the dishes, there will come a knock at the door. When I open it, standing there will be one of those child-protection ladies and she will have received a call from some anonymous person who expressed their "concern" that my children are living in diabolical fish, with rats running across our floors, or that my kids have been seen running naked in the streets. Perhaps it will have been rumored that I am a prostitute or maybe that I'm so drugged up and drunk most days I can't begin to supervise them. (There seems to be an unspoken but socially agreed upon list of indictments--I mean, "concerns.") Perhaps the children will have to be removed for their own safety.
The child protection lady is very thin, with a sassy but tailored haircut. She wears gold button earrings, teal eye shadow, and a pale shade of frosty pink lipstick. She has no breasts that sag or rumple her straightness. She wears black leather shoes with on y a smidgen of heel and black cotton/polyester suit-pants under a camel-brown trenchcoat. She smells like Avon perfume: Topaz. This woman has no children, but she does have a master's degree and a nice manicure. If you're ever around the Social Services budding and you ask her male coworkers about her, they'll say she looks really hot when she goes out to the bars on Saturday nights. I try to imagine the shift--try picturing her in a racey miniskirt, dusky hose, and heels.
But it doesn't matter what kind of garb she's cloaked in. She's an inquisitor. She has a job to do. And right now she's standing in my kitchen telling me that my neighbors are suspicious (I mean, "concerned"), and she is scary--especially when talking about removing my children as if it were no more than a matter of a day's work. She never smiles. She glances around the tidy house with its rooms that--now that I think of it--absolutely reek of Glade Potpourri and Pinesol, and she's disappointed. I can tell because I notice she's sucking in her cheeks, the Daton's facial cracking a bit around the edges. My oven-cleaning hands sweatily grip the edge of the bleached counter top. I wonder what on earth is appropriate to say or do at times like this.
"Well, this isn't so bad," she says, and my 40 excess pounds lighten a little on the soles of my almost new loafers from Goodwill. My fatty breasts droop like the ears of mutt dogs and perspire in their creases. I'm suddenly glad I elected to shave my legs two days ago. I'm happy about the house. I'm happy about brushing my hair!
"We've been told you keep a dirty house. That doesn't appear to be true. Is it true?"
"No. It's not true."
"I guess, sometimes.... I mean, it gets kind of dirty sometimes."
"Well, I'm going to stop back from time to time unannounced and check on it. Do you mind if I look into your children's bedrooms?" I let her see the children's bedrooms, and she tells me the place looks pretty good but I could try to keep a few of those stuffed toys picked up a little better. Then, because she's been sent out of concern for the children, she wants to look at them.
She finds them healthy: no lice, no impetigo, not even a common cold. They have no bed sores or rope burns or cigarette burns; no bruises, welts, lash marks, or any blatant signs that mother is a flesh chewing psychopath. And finally she's satisfied enough to leave.
I spend the next month thinking about that anonymous "concerned" caller. Was there really such a person? And if so, who the hell would put me through such crap? Did the child-protection worker make all of it up? Was it a mandate from the governor from hell that she go out and terrorize a few lousy welfare mothers per month? Am I crazy? I spend the rest of my life fearing her threats to return and cleaning the house like Donna Reed.
Why? Because I keep having these flashbacks. Why? Because I've been through this too many times. And there's not much exaggeration about it, either. Hollywood, too, could make a fortune on such life accounts.
She finally does return one day and from fright I burst into tears. Then she comforts me as if she were my mother or something and "decides" what I really need is a few hours away from the children each week because I'm under a lot of stress. She hands me a pink slip of social-service paper. It's a voucher for child care. She asks me to sign my name on the line which confirms that this child care is being provided by the state to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect.
I often wonder how "normal" middle- or upper-middle-class women would handle this if it happened regularly to them?
Sometimes I have fantasies that I'm married to Ward Cleaver. I call him at the office and say, "Ward, dear, the state is harassing me. Please call our lawyer friend." Then Ward and I sue the state for millions. We sue them for sexual harassment. We sue them for discrimination and prejudice. We sue them for invasion of privacy. We sue them for slander. We sue them for coercion. But most of all we sue them because it feels so very good to sue them. We sue them like there's no tomorrow. We sue them until their callousness, incompetency, and corruption are printed across the front pages of every newspaper in the state and they never do this to any woman again because we have exposed them and people everywhere are shaking their heads in disgust and the state is finally so very ashamed of itself
Anyway, I have this wonderful house in Minnesota. Actually, it's the upstairs of a house and it only has four tiny rooms, when what we really need is six--there are four of us, after all--but that hardly detracts from its won derfulness. I used to have a 300 pound military desk someone gave me because they knew I liked to write a lot. Well, that monstrous desk wouldn't fit up the stairs to this pretty house, so I gave it away to my former landlord's daughter who had her eye on it. It was a kind of appeasement because I felt I owed them $300 that I was sure I'd never have any time soon. Now they own it, and at a dollar a pound I figure we're even up. (I have fantasies about being able to call Ward at the office and tell him, "Ward, dear, would you please write a check to the old landlord?" Ward and I have a healthy bank account, of course. We won it in a lawsuit!)
I couldn't keep the desk, so every thing that was in it is now piled against the riving room wall--neatly piled, I must say. I know I'll have to get another desk sooner or later, but the next one will have to be a good deal more efficient. No more 300-pound military desks for me. After all, I'm a lone woman with three children. I have a lot to keep track of and I simply cannot keep that which becomes too cumbersome.
With this in mind, I've been going through all the papers that used to occupy the heavy thing--all the old stuff I'd managed to bring with me from the old place; the place that had no heat in winter, no running water, no nice paint; the place where April came seeping through the walls and January came sifting up between the cracks in the floors; the place where I could afford to live--and also the judgments that came with it.
Thinking about the things I've lived through, and about the things I fear having to live through again and again, I'm not surprised at all that I'd write hateful pieces about being on welfare. I don't blame myself for being angry. I'm still angry. But I must find a friendly way of expressing this--some sweet, amiable sort of way that's not too hard to take. My professor was right: I must be gentle with my readers. After all, I want them to listen.
Jodeen Wink is a freelance writer in Winona, Minnesota.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 1995|
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