It was a time of many firsts.
The first time we went to the beach as a family: one picnic table, one loaf of sliced rye bread, two round containers of salami, and a carton of Capri Sun juices.
The first time we got Christmas presents: each child wrote a wish list and Salvation Army delivered.
The first time we got a camera: Mom always wanted to take photos, and without Dad there to stop her, she took lots and lots of pictures. We had discovered one-time use disposable cameras, and due to their convenience, Mom purchased many of those.
I wanted to participate in school sports, particularly track, tennis, or cheerleading. I brought up the topic several times, and pointed out the benefits, such as developing friendships and getting exercise. Mom’s answer:
“Absolutely not! Who would stay home to take care of the kids and house?”
I had a disrespectful thought: I’m not the one who made all those kids. “Um… the other sisters?”
“No, they’re too young. Your sisters are your friends and cleaning the house is more than enough exercise.”
The school cheer quad happened to have a carwash by our grocery store. When I saw them, I pointed them out to Mom.
“Mom, see? Those are cheerleaders. That’s one of the sports I really want to do.”
“Those half-naked girls? No way! Good thing I didn’t let you.”
“But Mom! It’s like gymnastics, so much exercise! And that’s just their uniform! All the parents let their kids do sports. It’s not fair.” I tried to pout. “At least go to their carwash and give them money for support, since you won’t let me participate in any sports.”
Mom obliged, and I persuaded her to give the cheerleaders a whopping $20 for the carwash.
Then Mom found one more job.
It was during the day at a Dollar Store. Now we barely saw her. We come home from school, yet she’s working there. After that she might come home for dinner and then go to the laundry job. Some days she wouldn’t be home until late at night when most of the kids were in bed. A friend or an aunt stayed with the kids who weren’t yet of school age.
I wasn’t happy with her having that Dollar Store job. I felt like she went to that job to escape dealing with the family. I had to do her motherly duties for her: cook meals, clean, make sure everybody’s homework was done. On the plus side, she would give me money if there was a good dinner and the house was clean.
One of the reasons I didn’t approve of that job was because the boss didn’t pay fairly. Oftentimes, after a full day of working there, the boss would say:
“Okay, Yelena, thank you very much. You can choose 30 items from the store today.”
Mom would come home hauling cheap plastic bags stuffed with food items, fake flowers, toys, hair accessories, and shampoo. When I confronted her about it, she said the boss paid her in cash too sometimes, so it was fine. This job was unofficial, and Mom was nervous to report this job to the Department of Social and Health Services because she feared they would take away all the benefits and throw her in jail.
On Saturdays she took me with her to help at the Dollar Store. Usually I operated the register, helped unload the new supplies, and restocked items. The boss would say at the end of the workday:
“Wow, thank you for helping. Please choose one item for yourself.”
I didn’t know how much the minimum wage was, but I sure knew it was a lot more than one measly Dollar Store item for hours of work. My silent form of protest was to not smile at the customers and hope that somebody could somehow sense the unfairness of me slaving away my Saturdays. Mom would try to make me feel better by giving me a ten-dollar bill for my labor.
One day Mom, in her high heels as always, was carrying an extremely heavy box from the Dollar Store to the car. She somehow misplaced her foot and crash-landed backwards into a concrete parking lot curb. Her tailbone met the edge of the curb, and her chest met the edge of the box.
She didn’t want to go to the hospital; for fear of going to jail if Department of Social and Health Services found out she had an unreported Dollar Store job. She called her sisters and parents to see what her options were, and was advised to go to a chiropractor. When the pain didn’t let up within a few days, I made an appointment for her. It was unnerving watching the chiropractor make his adjustments and hearing Mom cry out in pain. It didn’t help the fractured tailbone much.
One of Mom’s sisters decided to take her to the hospital. Mom was not being a very cooperative patient and simply said something hurts on her tailbone and something hurts very much on her chest area between her lungs. She refused to let me tell the doctors that she fell and had a heavy box fall on top of her. She got an X-ray done. It showed a large mass in the middle of her chest.
“Well, we don’t know what it is, but it sure looks like cancer. We need to perform a biopsy to be sure.”