The Boy With the Coin-Filled Cellophane Cigarette Wrapper, and Me

Meeting an apparently less fortunate child in her daughter’s kindergarten class transports Amber Leventry back to her own painful youth.

Amber Leventry | Longreads | July 2017 | 12 minutes (3,016 words)

 

I entered my daughter’s kindergarten classroom and walked behind her with enough distance to accommodate the swinging of her backpack and the unpredictable steps taken by a five-year-old wearing wet snow boots on a linoleum floor. We squeezed through the door and by her classmates who, with barely combed hair and missing baby teeth, are practically carbon copies of her. She shuffled over to her friends, and I placed onto a table the well-labeled Ziploc bag containing the exact amount of money she needed for the school’s pre-Christmas sale, in the exact denominations requested.

One of my daughter’s classmates placed his sack of coins on the same table, but it was not over-prepared in the way my daughter’s was. There was no label or even a seal to keep his change from spilling onto the table or floor. His money was seemingly grabbed from what could be found in pockets or the car on the way to school and was stuffed into the clear cellophane wrapper pulled off of a pack of cigarettes. It was clearly an afterthought on a morning that placed other things more stressful or pertinent above a kindergarten teacher’s reminder to send a dollar’s worth of dimes into school for a holiday tag sale.

Even with their different backgrounds hidden beneath the surface of similar physical features, each child is measured against the same school motto: Be Kind, Be Safe, and Be Your Best. The expectations are reasonable, but the ability of each child to exhibit these qualities is variable. One’s best may be viewed as far below another’s. Sometimes one’s best is only as good as what is provided at home, by what is held in one’s hands.

I don’t know this boy’s circumstances, and the similarities in our childhood experiences may start and end with this isolated detail provided by a cigarette-smoking caretaker. But his bag of tobacco-greased pennies and nickels could have been pulled from my childhood home, if my parents had been so clever or resourceful. The coins and their presentation quickly conjured memories from my childhood.

***

My father kept his coins in a jar on his dresser. They made their way in and out of his pockets each day, during a time when coins were still carried in pockets filled with keys and small knives. The denominations varied, dependent on his employment status. If he had his job at the steel mill, quarters were easy to find and steal for the ice cream truck or corner candy store. During the months — sometimes years — when he was unemployed, pennies would rattle around the bottom of the aluminum jar. Pennies still held value in those days, though, and if I was willing to count them, I used them.

I placed onto a table the well-labeled Ziploc bag containing the exact amount of money my daughter needed for the school’s pre-Christmas sale.

He used them too, and at some point, perhaps after noticing I’d been dipping into it, he began to hide his jar of coins. One day I snuck into my parents’ room to grab some change and saw that the jar was missing. It didn’t take long to find it in the bottom drawer of his dresser, next to his box of buckshot, carton of Newports, pornographic magazines, and stacks of notebooks with years of documented lottery numbers. But instead of quietly dumping the pennies onto the bed and counting out enough to get a bag of Swedish Fish from the candy store, I closed the drawer and never went back for his change.

I didn’t stop taking from him out of respect, or a fear of getting caught. I stopped taking from him because it was obvious to me that he didn’t have anything left that he was willing to give. He never showed interest in being a loving or engaged father. He never attended my school events or athletic competitions. And after so many “maybes” or “one of these days,” I stopped asking him for both material things and time. The few dollars in his wallet or pennies hidden in his dresser were now strictly to be used for his cigarettes and lottery tickets, desires which he never sacrificed, despite his family’s need for life’s essentials.

He was never too shy to ask for handouts, though. He asked neighbors and family members. He asked a congregation full of sinners every Sunday when he walked himself to the pulpit to stand before God and witnesses. He requested prayers for his employment, money to pay his bills, and provisions for his family. And after praying for a miracle each Sunday, he drove us to his favorite convenience store, the place he visited daily.

When my father wasn’t working, he spent much of his time sleeping. He stayed in bed until noon most days, and after a breakfast of coffee, cigarettes, and Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, he napped on the couch. He woke only to eat, to drive a mile to the convenience store, or to stop my mother’s nagging; she wanted help with the tasks of daily family life, tasks which in his eyes were meaningless. He had slept through Christmas mornings; he wasn’t going to rush to mow the lawn or take out the trash.

Stopping at the store after church was convenient for no one other than him. Getting his daily Powerball and Pick 3 tickets before lunch meant his afternoon nap would not be interrupted by the need to leave the house again. The stop lengthened the amount of time I was in church clothes, though, and meant I missed the kick-off of the NFL Sunday football game that featured my beloved Cleveland Browns, and the few hours a week even my father knew not to interrupt. Before Bernie Kosar and the Dawgs could disappointment me, my father did. When we stopped at the store each Sunday, we always needed something, usually milk or bread. But the only nourishing things guaranteed to be purchased were those things that fed my father’s habits, not our bellies.

One of my daughter’s classmates placed his sack of coins on the same table, but it was not over-prepared in the way my daughter’s was.

I carried resentment for what he didn’t do for me. I carried anger for the physical and emotional abuse he handed over more readily than pennies from a jar.

I carried humiliation for the number of times I had to tell bill collectors who called the house that my parents were not home, despite having just been handed the phone by one of them. I carried secrets and shame because I was the newest generation of what seemed to be my family’s destiny of treating each other poorly. My father’s beatings, and listening to my mother call for help in the middle of the night while he beat her, were part of my initiation.

That wasn’t the only abuse. Sexual violation by my aunt, my mother’s sister, for most of my childhood was part of it too. My earliest memories are of the way she tasted and smelled. The night I rolled over, feigning sleep while America’s Most Wanted played in the background, was the night I stopped the abuse. After at least ten years of giving and receiving sexual acts — a lifetime of sexual activity tightly woven into my life of catching fireflies and playing hide and seek with the neighbor kids, the belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and long days of organizing and trading baseball cards — it stopped. She asked if I was awake, and I didn’t answer. For the first time in my life I was wide awake to what was our normal, knowing that our understanding of life wasn’t the norm for everyone.

I didn’t realize it until many years later, after my first semester at college, that my mother was as damaging to me as my father and my aunt. She did not physically or sexually abuse me. She made me her friend; she encouraged and allowed me to take care of her emotional needs. She wanted to be the cool mom, and in this role she took every piece of my happiness and made it her own. Her narcissism turned my feelings into hers, unless I was unhappy. My unhappiness meant something was wrong, something should be done, that something and someone deserved to be held accountable for the abuse touching every part of my childhood.

When my mother finally found out about the abuse it was because a neighbor from my childhood confessed to my mother that years prior I had confided in her that my aunt’s braces hurt my vagina. I don’t remember making this confession. Perhaps because I had been three when I had said these words. Perhaps because I had blocked them out. But this neighbor had carried my words for 13 years. Days before she got married, she handed them to my mother. My mother confronted me, but I denied the abuse. I was 16. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was suicidal. Yet in my darkest moments, I admitted what I knew my mother didn’t want to hear but already knew was true. My mother confronted my aunt, whose denial turned into lying, and saying it only happened once or twice. Once or twice in my family was not grounds for abuse, and my family members blamed me for causing such a fuss; they blamed me for the turmoil.


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My mother was angry at my aunt, her sister, for a few days, but my aunt was family; she was my mother’s best friend and, someone who, I found out during a screaming match shortly after news of the abuse surfaced, had also slept with my father. My mother hoped I could understand that she couldn’t just disown her sister, despite my requests that we never speak to her again. My mother made me promise I wasn’t mad at her because of her need to keep my aunt in her life. My mother made me promise not to be rude to my aunt when I saw her at church or holiday meals.

The boy’s bag of tobacco-greased pennies and nickels could have been pulled from my childhood home. It quickly conjured memories from my childhood.

My mother was never the one to take any blame or feel at fault for anything that resembled my sadness or pain. That would have meant her own memories were repeating themselves through me, and that caused her too much distress. If I was happy, she was happy. If I was not, then I needed to find a way to make her feel better.

***

This was my family’s understanding of life, and, in turn, it was mine too. I took all of this with me to school, bundled with the weight of embarrassment for the ill-fitting and homemade clothes I wore, the styles that were out of date or slightly damaged because they were on the clearance rack, and the shoes that told the story of our inability to buy name brand sneakers. I carried a brown paper bag with Little Debbie Snacks and white bread sandwiches filled with either peanut butter and jelly or simply mayonnaise. Having the latest fashions and healthy lunches wouldn’t have made up for what I really needed at home, but it would have helped me fit in. Those things would have eliminated some unwanted negative attention.

Being my best at school was sometimes limited by what was provided for me, and if I or others based my efforts on what my parents did or did not send me to school with each day, my best wasn’t very good. I returned school forms declining attendance or participation or school trips because I did not have health insurance. I accepted free lunches. I asked basketball coaches to cover the cost of tournament fees and team sweats, and I asked Little League coaches to cover enrollment costs because my parents didn’t have the money to spend on extras. My best looked like a kid always asking for handouts.

I tried to compensate for my parents’ deficits by being perfect. I put my efforts in where money wasn’t necessary. I studied my way into AP classes; I practiced hard and long enough to make the varsity teams as a freshman; I signed up for all of the free extracurricular activities.

But even with my accomplishments, I would still always be a poor kid from a blue collar house trying to blend in with, trying to be one of, the kids from the white collar houses. It wasn’t just that we had less money, and lower status. We had something those houses didn’t, or which I assumed they didn’t: turmoil and abuse. Poverty doesn’t ensure abuse any more than money prevents it, but I had both in my life.

I carried secrets and shame because I was the newest generation of what seemed to be my family’s destiny of treating each other poorly.

No matter how hard I tried to be my best, I was always working out of a home that was not consistently kind and safe. On some days my best was a handful of coins that smelled like my father’s jeans and waves of tobacco that unfurled from my backpack when I unloaded my books to start the school day. I was a child measured against the expectations of a classroom assuming that all children were treated equally.

When the boy in my daughter’s class put down his cellophane-bound money for the sale, I felt the old pangs of embarrassment of being a kid whose labeling as a success or failure hinged on the limited control I had over which resources I could bring into the classroom.

I looked at my daughter, unpacking her bag full of extra clothing and food for the day, most of which was fresh fruit and vegetables, or filled with whole grains, and felt so far away from her. She could have been one of the kids I’d desperately wanted to trade places with when I was her age. She doesn’t know yet just how different her childhood is from what mine was. She doesn’t know about the ache in my chest for the boy I only know through his packet of change and the surfacing of my own memories.

At some point I need to teach my daughter that differences in the way a dollar is held can shift the perception of one’s worth, but she doesn’t even yet know that nickels and pennies are worth less than shiny dimes and quarters. I owe this lesson to my child, and to the child I was, who still lingers inside me. I owe it to the other children my daughter encounters, who are less fortunate, but not any less worthy. That morning, I wanted to gather this boy and my daughter together and tell them, “A dollar is a dollar, no matter whose hand it’s in, no matter how it’s packaged.”

I smiled at the boy, and kissed my daughter’s head. She smelled like sunshine, an odd but appropriate scent to counteract the storm swirling in my chest. I was reminded of sun streaming through stained glass windows during church services and the blessings of the Trinity. I found salvation in my past, my present, and my hope for this boy’s future. My higher power was not a deity, however.

I was saved by an unprecedented need to get out and away from all I knew. My drive for perfection provided an escape. Each night I retreated to my room to study, to be the best. As I closed the door, I was silently announcing: don’t bother me, I am studying. The straight A’s on my report card, year after year, provided an escape from my bedroom to a dorm room. Without knowing how I would pay for it, I applied to several colleges. I was accepted to all of them. Panic turned to relief when I once again found a way to pay for something I wanted and needed. With scholarship money, student loans and grants, and money saved from a summer job, I was the first one in my family to go to college. When I was finally alone on a campus three hours from home, I closed the door of the dormitory, silently announcing: don’t bother me, I am growing. I am learning. I am free.

Even with my accomplishments, I would still always be a poor kid from a blue collar house trying to blend in with, trying to be one of, the kids from the white collar houses.

For four years, semester by semester, I figured out how to pay my way through school. And I fell in love with the woman who would eventually become my wife and a mother to our three kids. She didn’t understand the life I came from, but she knew it wasn’t right. She knew enough to love me; she knew enough to not try to fix me. She asked me to see a campus counselor, and, because I was in love and afraid to lose what felt like the only thing good in my life, I did. With therapy came healing and understanding. With time came boundaries and letters to family members asking for explanations and apologies. I didn’t get the responses I needed to keep them in my life, so I broke off all contact with everyone in my family except my mother. Self-inflicted guilt keeps her in my life.

December 22, 2003 was the last time my father and I communicated. He sent a letter to wish me a Merry Christmas and to get something off of his chest. “I am sorry I lost interest in being your dad,” he wrote. He explained that the Lord had forgiven him for his mistakes and wished I would forgive him too. He put into writing something I knew, had proof of in memories, but not in tangible evidence. I don’t know if the feeling I carry with me is forgiveness, but it is validation. That last letter from him was the closure I needed to move on.

I continue to heal through the work I put into finding the required amount of motivation, time, or resources always needed to get what I want and where I need to be. My father was saved by God; I was saved by the effort it took for me to hold more coins, often pennies and dirty nickels, that added up to the same total found in the hands of my peers who didn’t know the exertion of holding a dollar. My faith is in knowing that our best should not be defined by what we hold onto, whether it is given to us in an over-prepared baggie or a greasy cigarette wrapper.

* * *

Amber Leventry is a writer, partner, and parent. Her writing appears on Ravishly, The Next Family, Parent.co, Scary Mommy, Babble, Huffington Post, and The Washington Post.

Editor: Sari Botton