3. Food Stamp Rewards


I don’t remember much about the funeral except sitting in the front row of the memorial service and staring straight at the open casket. As absurd as it may seem, a tiny, almost fearful, glimmer of hope remained: what if dad will wake up? It happened in the Bible, why not now? Maybe the miracle was waiting to happen? Yet it was terrifying to imagine a dead body moving or sitting up. I tried to make my siblings feel better.


“There’s a book that’s called ‘Ten Kids, No Pets’. Maybe we should all write a book, and call it ‘Ten Kids, No Dad’?”


Nobody thought it was funny.


After the body was buried, I realized all chances for a supernatural miracle were buried as well. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I didn’t pray hard enough or demonstrate enough faith to save dad.


That year I was a seventh grader, and it was my first year at a private school. Some friends sent their kids there, so my family had decided to try it out too, just me though. During the months my dad was sick, I attended irregularly and one of my teachers would bring me some of the homework so I wouldn’t fall too far behind. When I resumed attendance, there was a small yellow card on my desk from my teacher, and in absolutely beautiful handwriting was a message about missing me and how nice it was to have me back. It was one of the sweetest things anybody had ever done for me. During the school morning assembly, there was a gift waiting for me. It was a bike. It was very nice bike, much nicer than the garage sale bikes we had at home, but it wasn’t my dad. It didn’t replace my dad. My teacher asked if there is anything at all that could be done to make me feel better. To my delight, she was willing to give me piano lessons during lunch break. She took it up a notch and taught me a song on the violin, and even let me hold a flute. The music experience was a fitting distraction from reality.


A short time after, we moved into another house. It was too unsettling to continue living in the current house and imagining dad everywhere. I went back to the local public school. Life was obviously different. We switched churches. There were no more Saturday morning garage sale shopping. Mom didn’t smile anymore. I felt sorry for her because she now had to play the role of two parents caring for so many kids, and especially with the baby being a few months old. The baby was my biggest responsibility: diapers, formula bottles, naps and bedtime. There were nights the baby just wanted to be held, and I would pace the room while the whole family was sleeping to keep the baby quiet.


I had to ensure all the household chores were completed by the assigned kids: all the dishes, kitchen tables, laundry, vacuuming. Mom used money to reward us. I would get the most since I was the oldest and had to manage the chores. This served to my advantage because I had extra money that I could use to pay one of my siblings to do my chore for me. Now the disadvantage was that most of this money was in the form of food stamps. The booklet allowed $1 food stamps to be torn out, which is what mom used. Then when she went grocery shopping she would take up to three kids with her and the prizes would get purchased, usually Little Debbie snack packs. Star Crunch was my favorite. Once in a while the green dollars were used, which held a higher bargaining power. When that didn’t work, I would offer to do homework or projects in exchange for cleaning a particularly messy kitchen or room. Once I did a drawing project for a much younger sibling, and it accidentally won a prize and got in the town newspaper. I became more careful with which homework I helped after that.


Mom began having some weird dreams. Dad had a brother who never married, and you guessed it, that’s who the dreams were about. She began fantasizing about him marrying her and making her life a little easier. He came over several times for some practical purposes. Mom casually mentioned the idea, scared him off for good, and he never came to visit us again.


We slowly adjusted to the way things were. With ten kids around it was difficult to be bored. Somebody gave us kittens. We dug out an enormous dirt pit for the boys. It had fantastic roads and tunnels where they would drive their Hot Wheels cars around for hours. We had a huge yard to play in. It was so huge that we would run laps and imagine we were training for the Olympics. The next-door neighbor was an avid gardener who spent most of her time digging around in her plants. We imagined her face expression when we would win the Olympic medals and she would say “Wow! I lived next door to them and saw them training! Too bad I wasn’t very nice to them. Too bad I never got their autograph!” The remainder of our free time was spent playing tag downstairs.


One of the more challenging adjustments was waking up on time. Our mornings were ridiculously hectic. We had a few alarm clocks always set. Somebody would finally wake up and realize it’s five minutes before the school bus arrives, so a mad dash around the house got the rest of the kids up and out the door. Good luck trying to eat breakfast. Of course there was the person who liked to snooze. As we would run up the long driveway to the road where the bus was waiting, I’d do a quick headcount and realize we’re short one, so I’d have to rush back into the house to see who’s missing and why. It was often a sibling who fell asleep while doing homework, which meant a quick “Get up and go!” especially if yesterday’s outfit was already on. If not, it might be too late to make it to school. Garbage Day was the worst day of the week. As we raced up the driveway to get on the school bus we would remember about it:


“Oh no!”




“We forgot the take the garbage bins!”


“Ok, go, go, go!”


“No! I did it last week!”


“Who cares? Let’s go, I’ll help you!”


“No, my backpack is heavy!”


“I’ll give you a dollar!”




“Oh no!”




“We need to do recycling containers too!”


The bus driver would patiently wait for us, every single school day. God bless her heart.


It wasn’t enough for our family to live off of the government assistance, so mom began looking for jobs. She found a laundry position in the evening in the same nursing home where dad had been. One of the grandmas, aunts, or a friend would stay over to help with the kids. We went to church on Sundays in our white and blue Dodge Ram van. It was fancy because it had a TV inside. The first TV we’d ever owned. As soon as service was over, mom would stay and chat with people, and we would hurry into the van and watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It was the only available option; all the other channels had static.


Then one evening something unusual took place. There was a knock on the door. We opened the door to see a man with white hair and a bouquet of flowers standing there. He looked at us awkwardly and said,


“I’m here to see your mom, is she available?”

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