“You cannot control your parentage, but you can control your legacy.”
–Rick Riordan, The House of Hades
The world glows a brilliant white in the headlights of my sensible used car. A fresh layer of snow blankets the winter-dead grass and ice glistens in the trees like a made-for-TV movie. Large houses of the “what do they do to afford that?” variety dot the bluff, their sparkling Christmas decorations shining light on the more-than-enough square footage of touch-me-not homes. Thomas Kinkade minus the scripture.
Few people are on the road yet this morning, so it feels as if we have the world to ourselves. I’m not an early morning girl on a good day, and the subzero temperatures don’t qualify this morning as a good day. They cancelled school for the duration of the arctic front that isn’t predicted to end soon. Life goes on. There are things to do, places to be, paychecks to earn while the rest of the city nestles all snug in their beds.
As I head to the auditorium, my friend M is finishing the night shift at Walmart. A single mom from day one, she works full-time at Walmart and part-time at the library where we work together. At 60-plus hours of grunt work a week, she’s barely surviving under the weight of her financial obligations. The night before, her car wouldn’t start which is a near-tragedy only someone on a tight budget would understand.
“Battery?” I asked.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. But her son, now grown, reminded her that the car has an engine block heater. She plugged it in for a few hours and the car started. It saved her the budget-altering trip to the mechanic before Christmas.
My budget is already altered and I’m not really sure why. Life, I guess. I can’t afford my life. Like the women I know, I am barely scraping by, making choices between utilities or food, car insurance or gas. I’d work a straight week without complaint if I could afford a glass of wine at the end of it.
I’ve been working extra hours at the library, not for wine, but trying to build padding into the budget so we have money for food and gas and unexpected expenses between paychecks. I work at the library during the day, and my extra hours are with the ladies from the evening shift. These gals work six-to-nine most nights, plus weekends. They have regular daytime jobs, but like M, one job isn’t enough to live on for working-class single women.
M2, the night supervisor, works a regular office job. She’s late 50s, I’d guess, or early 60s. She’s trim, if not fit, and wears pantsuits that were once stylish and are still pressed with a crease down the front. Her pale brown hair falls to her chin and is perfectly coiffed, even after nine hours at the day job, and she always has a fresh manicure, but there’s a sourness to her expression that adds wrinkles and age. I always thought she didn’t like me, and I’m not wrong. She seems disapproving of everyone, but is particularly unhappy with those younger than her. She reminds me of my least favorite English teacher, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that she used to teach.
I wonder what caused her to end up here, working two jobs and unhappy with her lot in life. Did she have kids? Parents to care for? A wastrel ex? I’m too afraid to ask.
At the library, we’ve been talking about working two jobs, mainly because most of the women do it and because I’m asking questions. These women are happy to detail, with pride, how hard they work at two jobs… simply to pay the bills every month. I see in them my future and it alternately scares and angers me. I watched my mother endure the same struggle. Heard stories of my grandmother as well.
My father died when I was a kid and my mother never remarried. Mom took more than a decade of working awful jobs for low pay while going to school before she regained her financial footing. My grandfather died when my mother was six, leaving my grandmother a single mom in the post-Depression era. She took in laundry and moved in with her sister, but the stench of poverty and the stooped shoulders of hard labor followed her to the grave. Both women died at the age of seventy-four.
Being a single mom is their legacy to me.
I can no longer ask them questions, so I ask M2 if she likes working at the library. She straightens and looks at me, a confused and slightly angry scowl on her face.
“Well, you must like it,” I press. “You’ve been here six years.”
She dismisses me as she bends back down to the stack of books she’s working with. “It’s not like I have a choice,” she says. That’s the most personal thing she’s ever said. She hasn’t spoken to me since.
The other ladies have noticed the extra hours I’m putting in. I work my morning shift, and, when the library is understaffed, I work the six-to-nine evening shift. I’m exhausted and not seeing the kids as much as I want, but we need the money for food and rent and utilities. It is as complicated, and as simple, as basic necessities.
“You’re going to love the extra paycheck,” S says one day. S raised both of her boys by herself. Her ex is such a deadbeat even the IRS can’t find him. They’re garnishing her wages for his past taxes because she has a steady paycheck and they know where to find her. “The extra hours will make a nice Christmas,” she tells me.
The money is earmarked for survival. When you live on the margin, one late payment is a catastrophe. Late rent could lead to eviction, late car payments to repossession, late utilities to a power outage. Late fees and reconnection charges turn a bad month into a deep financial pit from which many never recover.
Christmas is a luxury. I’ve already warned Grace and Ethan there won’t be anything under the tree. They say they’re okay, they understand, but I hope to surprise them with a little something. God willing and the river don’t rise, one of my mother’s favorite sayings that I didn’t understand until now, when I recognize the metaphor for something destructive that floods your life and washes away the hope. Like a flood, catastrophic financial events are unpredictable and uncontrollable. They’re guaranteed to steal Christmas.
My mother always put large oranges and apples and nuts into our stockings. Honestly, to this day, nothing tastes as good as those large, juicy Christmas oranges. Our gifts had to do double duty as sustenance. Years later, once Mom started working for the university, she went overboard on Christmas. Ridiculous amounts of money on stuff and things that I see now were her way of washing away the memory of those stark Christmases.
I don’t tell S we’re not having Christmas at our house. Instead I joke, “Unless something comes up.”
We were leaving for the day and S nods as we head to the employee lot. “I know what you mean,” she says. “Something always does.” S parks her SUV with the front facing out. Once upon a time, I thought backing into a parking space a pretentious thing, a very masculine thing, because that was my limited reality, but S explained one day that her car is nearly as old as my daughter. She parks front first so if the car won’t start, it will be easier for the tow truck to pull her out.
My car isn’t exactly new, I think weeks later on a frigid December morning when the old tires struggle to find traction in the snow. The sun rises and burns through the fog. The temperature is four degrees outside, but the sky is clear and blue; the perfect backdrop for a white Christmas.
It’s just Grace and me in a little bubble of snowglobe snow, and we’re listening to the Christmas radio station on a Sunday morning, too early for church people to be on the road. We’re headed to a dress rehearsal for her dance studio. They’re doing a benefit show for a Make-A-Wish kid and she’s in two dance pieces. She’s the only non-competitive dancer allowed in the show, and she’s damned proud of it, thank you very much. She has the skill, if not the cash, to be a competitive dancer.
The trek into the auditorium is unblemished white, but the cold is so severe the little hairs in our noses freeze. The high school where they’re performing hasn’t turned on the heater yet when we arrive, so it’s like a refrigerator inside. I sign Grace in with the backstage mom and head back out to the car.
I can’t afford to stay for the show.
Today is not the first time I haven’t seen her dance and probably won’t be the last. At Thanksgiving she danced in The Nutcracker with the Philharmonic and a professional ballet company. She’s been doing The Nutcracker for five years. Most years she puts on an oversized costume and dances with the other community kids, but this year she had a part that shared stage time with the professional dancers. She was beyond thrilled. I sat in a backstage room designated for drop-off and pick-up. I couldn’t afford to drive home and I couldn’t afford the price of admission.
Grace says she’s fine when I’m not in the audience. We talk about it a lot. If I’m going to spend the money on dance, I’d rather the money go for her classes rather than a ticket, but my heart breaks a little each time, remembering the number of times my mother didn’t see me marching in the halftime show or didn’t come to the band Christmas concert. I knew Mom didn’t have the money, but I hate to do that to my own child, repeating history in such a vicious way. I’m not the only one. Single mothers make sacrifices. That’s why I ask so many questions of the women I work with and their stories do not comfort me.
I’ve discovered decades of multiple jobs, hard labor, non-existent personal lives, shuffling bills, and living paycheck to paycheck. I’ve not found a single happy ending. The women of the library are my future. It isn’t bright.
Our oldest coworker is N. She’s been at the library over twenty (maybe thirty) years and has gone through a multitude of younger and less experienced supervisors. Her ex-husband left her for a man, so she’s a little bitter about the whole marriage thing. She’s somewhere in her mid-seventies, although I dare not ask exactly how far past seventy she is. She wears a gray wig that is often askew and her shoulders droop from too many years on her feet, but she has a sparkle left, a little bit of mischief that shines through the whitish cast in her pale blue eyes. She wears big splashy earrings and bracelets galore, having decided that at her age, she can afford to act the Diva.
Perhaps her story is the single mom silver lining. If we’re lucky, we’ll live long enough to do what we want and damn the consequences.
She’s something of a pet to everyone here. We give her big hugs when we see her or a pat on the back as we pass. We don’t know how long we’ll get to keep her, I suppose, although she assures us she can’t afford to retire. My mother was much the same. The last full conversation I had with my mom, before she got sick and they had to intubate her, she admitted the great cost of single parenthood. Of poverty. “I’ve been working since I was fourteen,” she said. “I’m tired.” Those were not her final words, but they were her legacy, one I am afraid I will pass to my daughter.
Between rehearsal and show, I take Grace a snack. I hope to slide in, wait with her backstage, and sneak a peek at her routine from the side. I don’t make it past the stage moms, a group more militant than prison guards and infinitely less friendly. My first sin, in their eyes, is not spending every waking moment at the studio. I have to work and they have the luxury to stay home or to play stage mom for every production. My second sin is not meeting the socioeconomic requirement for admittance. I don’t live in the right neighborhood or make the right money or have the right friends. I don’t have a breadwinner to ease my passage through the world.
No matter the cause, the tall blonde gives me a patronizing smile that rivals the sour look M2 gives me when I ask personal questions.
It’s hard to keep a civil tongue in face of this self-satisfied lot. I am tempted to unburden myself on them, to let fly the resentment and fear that time has amplified, but anger clogs my throat with unshed tears. I turn on the heel of my muddied boots before the bitterness spews like toxic waste on a woman whose only sin is to be tragically unaware that the one thing separating my life from hers is not her virtue or my lack thereof. It’s the Texas-sized rock on her left ring finger.
A crowd is forming at the front of the auditorium, men and women dressed in their Sunday finest. I fight against the current, back into the frigid air that feels warmer than the women I have just left.
The tears don’t fall until I have left the building and its celebratory inhabitants behind. The sun hasn’t driven the temperatures higher, but the outside world has changed since I drove through it only hours before. The slushy roads are coated with grayish-brown chemicals. Muddy prints trample the mantle of white. Even the glisten of ice is fading from the dull-brown branches of the trees. The day feels darker somehow, even in the noon sun. This is the White Christmas of the single mom. Never pure. Never as shiny as the diamond on the other mother’s finger.
As I climb into the car, I say a prayer to a misogynist God I no longer trust.
I used to pray for myself, for a way out of this mess I didn’t ask for and still don’t know how to handle, but praying for myself feels like a waste of what little hope I have left. What I pray is this: “Please, God, don’t let her life be like mine.” Don’t let her become one of these strong, solitary women scraping by at the periphery of our culture. Don’t let my daughter bear the weight of my legacy into her future.
“And breathe,” Miss C yells at Grace. The ballet teacher is tough; a straight shooter who isn’t afraid to yell at the girls—with feeling— “Listen or I’ll cut off your bun.” She’s five-four, less than a hundred pounds, a former soloist with a snooty ballet company I can’t recall. The lines around her mouth suggest a lifetime of smoking. And frowning. If I were her student, I’d have quit by now.
Grace soaks in the corrections like sunshine, turning the sour words into a dance of beauty. This time literally as Grace learns a ballet variation. A solo they call the Lilac Fairy, which means nothing to me. I never danced. Never had the desire, but Grace has danced since age four, and never wanted anything else. She flows with music like an artist with a brush.
I lean against the mirrors while watching. Today I left work on time, no extra shift, so I can sit on the hard dance floor, muscles whimpering after a long day. I soak in the thrum of classical music while Miss C takes Grace through the choreography. This is the first time I have watched the solo. Grace runs it through while I record on my phone.
In a black leotard, pink tights, worn slippers, she floats, lifted by the music and innate talent. The pace of the music, the combinations, and the painful beauty of the pointe work put heavy grooves on Grace’s face. The toe boxes of the pointe shoes, designed to support the dancer’s feet, tap-tap-tap against the wood. She dances, spins, leaps, glides with a look of absolute focus on her face, and seeing the beauty and the concentration reminds me why I am here.
This, this moment—the opportunity for Grace to pursue her passion and my chance to observe—is why I work so hard.
Two and a half minutes pass. Miss C makes corrections. “This is a difficult variation, even for a principal dancer, a prima ballerina,” she admonishes. “Breathe or you’ll never make the end.”
I take Miss C’s advice—breathe—surprised to note that I held my breath while Grace danced.
Life is so busy I rarely have a chance to simply breathe. To be. The awkward tap dance of a solo life, too many jobs and homework and kids, pile on my psyche until I’m not sure I will make it to the end. I’m not sure what constitutes the end for me. There’s no musical accompaniment to let me know I am finished. When the kids leave home? When my body gives out? When, like my mother, I am too tired to go on?
Miss C pushes her. “Again,” she insists in sharp tones.
Sweat glows on Grace’s face, her chest heaves, but she moves to the beginning pose, sets her position, as Miss C presses play on the boom box.
This time I snap pictures. A million pictures that all look beautiful to me. I soak up the dance and the moves, the art as Grace repeats the performance, better this time.
They reach the end, and Miss C gives corrections I don’t understand. I watch, as is my lot in life, fascinated and enraptured by the process of turning movement into art.
“Can she go again?” Miss C asks. “You look tired.”
I must have on my Walmart face, as Grace calls my resting bitch face, a protection against the cold, cruel world. “No. It’s good. Let her go again. I never get to watch.” I never see her dance. I look up at the ceiling; swallow the knot in my throat.
This time, when Grace begins, I put down the phone. No photos. No videos. I embrace the moment and allow myself to simply be. To enjoy. To breathe.
Dance is more than a math equation where holding a position, hands and feet and hips, equals success. No, dance is Grace and the music and the movement. Dance is beauty incarnate and Grace is an artist. I am…
Tears prick the back of my eyes, but I shove them back, force my attention to stay on her to the very last note.
I am proud. And afraid I cannot do enough. For Grace or myself.
Cindy Skaggs holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and an MA in Creative Writing from Regis University. She is the author of seven novels. Her essays have appeared in The New Limestone Review, Progenitor Art & Literary Review, Soundings, Wanderlust Journal, and the Fredericksburg Literary Art Review. She resides in Colorado, where she teaches creative writing as a college English professor.