It is one thing to be bad with money when you have it, and quite another to be bad with it when you don’t. My mother gave away what little she had, mostly because she had been taught that every poor person she met was the Lord in disguise, testing her love.
After the grocery-store deli let her go, Mom took a job at Arby’s as an assistant manager. She was a good employee, cheerful and hardworking, and her boss quickly promoted her to shift manager. She’d held similar positions before, always with the same result: She became too involved in the lives of the people she supervised, many of whom were teenagers or young adults or recently divorced single moms struggling to pay bills. My mother would listen to their stories of financial woe and then give them most of her paycheck.
This was in the late 1980s. My four siblings and I had all left home, and our parents were renting a small house in Wabash, Indiana. Our family had always been renters, except for the few years when Mom and Dad had held a mortgage on a farm. The foreclosure had come when I was thirteen. They’d sold everything but were still trying to pay off what they owed the banks. Between what Mom made at Arby’s and Dad earned at the ceiling-tile factory, they couldn’t afford the loan payments and their bills. Mom had written bad checks to try to delay the utilities’ being turned off. She almost never spent any money on herself, but she was quick to splurge on someone else: the girl in foster care who needed a prom dress; the young man with a DUI who had to pay probation fees. For her, being a manager was an opportunity to continue mothering people she believed had gotten a bum deal. My dad would try to help her see reason, and she’d promise to stay frugal, but then a new hire struggling to afford child support would ask her for money, and the cycle would start all over again.
A student at Ball State University in Muncie, I was planning to return home over spring break to work at the ceiling-tile factory with my dad. (One of his union’s perks was that if your son or daughter went to a state university, he or she could count on a job over summer, winter, and spring breaks to help pay for tuition.) Before I left Muncie, my sister Dana called to warn me that our mother had gotten herself into another mess: “Gave two hundred to a guy with a sob story about his car’s radiator.” Dad had given up on lecturing Mom about their dire predicament: His factory paycheck was being garnished. He took extra shifts all the time, but they were living week to week. I’d told my mother before that she couldn’t keep on this way — we all had. Now my sister wanted me to talk to her again.
So one afternoon, a few days after I’d gotten home, I drove to pick my mother up from Arby’s and, I hoped, make her understand reality. The March winds blew flurries against the windshield of my brother’s truck, which he had loaned to me so I could get to work. I was tired from my shifts at the factory and worried my mother was never going to listen. When I was a child, she would often tell me how Jesus tested us by pretending to be a needy person, to see if we would help Him. Anyone could be Jesus: a man with no teeth, a young girl with no home, a family with a sick child and no way to pay the doctor bills. She told me stories about such people in nearby towns: Terre Haute, Bloomington, Fort Wayne. As she described their hardships, my throat would hurt, and sometimes I would start to cry. She seemed to take satisfaction in my tears, because they meant I understood.
But now I was older and had come to see that we were the poor people who needed help — a fact my mother couldn’t acknowledge. It was maddening. Even with the factory job, I’d had to take out student loans to pay for my housing, and I often let the thought of those interest rates make me anxious.
That’s how I was feeling while I waited in the parking lot for Mom to get off work. I rehearsed in my head how I would convince her to stop giving impulsively and just tithe a small amount at church. I breathed deep and told myself to wait for the right moment to bring it up.
When Mom appeared, she tried to heave herself into the truck cab, but she was too short. I climbed out to boost her up, then got back behind the wheel. My mother sat with her purse in her lap, smelling of fryer grease and tangy Arby’s sauce. She leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Your mother’s so glad you’re home.”
She often spoke of herself in the third person like this — a strange tic she had developed after a hysterectomy in 1976, when she was thirty-six and I was eight. Her doctor had failed to recommend any hormone-replacement therapy, and she’d fallen into a depression so deep she’d seemed to lose touch with the world. When she’d emerged, she’d started referring to herself as “your mother.”
I wondered whether her habit of giving away money might have been another side effect of the surgery. She’d always believed in Christian charity, but never to the point where it had threatened to leave her destitute.
I patted her hand and glanced down at her feet, which hung several inches above the floorboard. Her worn canvas shoes had rips that she’d obviously tried to repair by hand, and she’d brightened the rubber trim with white shoe polish. A sudden anger took hold of me: Why should she help others pay their debts or buy new clothes while she wore such shoddy shoes? But I knew her convictions would only harden if I challenged her too suddenly, so I simply started the engine and proclaimed: “I’m taking you to Kokomo for dinner!”
The snow flurries turned into flakes as we headed south, past fields of grain stubble and a few farmers trying to plow the hard earth for early-spring planting. The smoke from their tractors disappeared into the slate-colored sky. We drove with the heat on, and the windows fogged up. Mom changed the radio station. She used to listen to Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, and Elvis, but now she liked treacly Christian music. “So uplifting,” she said. Though I’d loved her Bible stories as a child, I’d since come to view the Church as a money-making business. We’d quarreled over this before. Mom insisted I was going down a wrong path and made no secret of her belief that college was causing me to forget God.
The weak sun slipped behind massive gray clouds as we reached the Kokomo city limits. In a few days we would move the clocks forward and get an extra hour of light, but for now winter’s darkness held on. Walking across the parking lot to the buffet-style restaurant, Mom spotted a woman pushing her belongings in a shopping cart. I held the restaurant door open for my mother, but she had stopped to watch the woman. Before I could say anything, she fished a five-dollar bill from her purse.
I heard Mom tell the woman she had pretty curls: Were they natural? The woman smiled and nodded. I moved out of the way of people leaving the restaurant. Finally Mom motioned me over and introduced me. “This is my son, Douglas,” she said, and she explained to me that the woman had lost her job and couldn’t pay her rent; she moved between shelters and needed a new set of clothes for a job interview. Mom gave me an expectant look. I opened my wallet and handed the woman two twenties, which made my mother kiss my cheek again. She told the woman to wait there while we ate; we’d make a to-go box for her.
Inside the restaurant, as a hostess led us to a table, I tried to get my mother to understand that charity had its limits: “We can’t help everyone.” She nodded, then told me that helping the ones we could was our duty and pleasure. I clenched my jaw and shook my head.
Even after we’d filled our plates, Mom kept glancing outside at the homeless woman, who stood under the yellow lights, flecks of snow falling on her. As my mother wondered out loud if the woman had a warm coat, I put down my fork and told her that we’d done our part, and that this had to be the last time. Mom ignored me and suggested I try the pudding. While I ate until I was stuffed, she picked at her food and continued to seem distracted. I decided I would put forward my most logical argument on the drive home, when I had her full attention.
Once I’d finished eating, Mom asked the waitress for three to-go boxes, and for the next ten minutes I watched my mother fill the boxes with expert precision, arranging helpings of casseroles and moving macaroni salad aside so another roll would fit. She reserved the third box for desserts: apple crisp, cobbler, pudding, chocolate cake, green Jell-O with mini-marshmallows. The waitress brought a bag and helped my mother put the boxes in it for me to carry. I left a tip and paid the hostess at the cash register up front.
Mom was elated as we walked out into the snowy night and found the homeless woman still outside. The woman’s eyes widened when I handed over the hefty bag of food. “Oh, my,” she said as Mom recited a list of the contents. The woman put the food in her shopping cart and let Mom hug her. “Your new friend will pray for you every night,” Mom said. The woman squinted back, clearly confused by Mom’s use of the third person; then she shrugged and walked away, pushing her cart.
Mom held my elbow and let me escort her back to the truck. The worn soles of her shoes caused her to slip on the snow, and I wondered if the spots she’d diligently patched were letting in the cold and wet. I spotted a shoe store at a strip mall across the street. As I helped her into the truck, Mom voiced her concerns about how long the food would last the woman — and did she have access to a refrigerator?
She was still pondering whether she’d put enough vegetables in the boxes when I parked in front of the shoe store and ushered her inside.
“Do you need new boots?” she asked.
I told the salesclerk my mother needed shoes for work, and she escorted Mom down an aisle. Exhausted, I sank into a chair and thought of my father and siblings, all of whom had tried and failed to get Mom to curtail her giving. The truth is, none of us had good money-managing skills; we only knew that there was never enough.
The snow outside the window picked up. I’d always loved the winter weather, but now its harshness only reminded me of how fragile my parents’ situation was. I wasn’t convinced the people my mother continued to give her hard-earned cash to were truly in need, but I knew she would stubbornly dismiss any suggestion folks might be conning her. “They are all Jesus,” she would say. “And even if some aren’t, it’s not your mother’s place or yours to judge which ones deserve it.”
My mother returned with the saleswoman, who was carrying a pair of black, nonslip work shoes in the box. “They’re too expensive,” my mother said, but she let me buy them and seemed proud of me, or just happy we were together. My mood lifted, and Mom put her arm around my back and told the woman I was the first in our family to go to college; I was studying psychology. Mom’s comment surprised me, considering that she thought my education was making me question my faith. But she always did like to show off her kids. The woman nodded and said we had the same eyes, which thrilled my mother.
Back in the truck, I started the engine and waited for the snow on the windshield to melt. The warm air from the vents felt good. I had to be back at the factory in three hours for another twelve-hour shift. Mom needed to get home, too; she always took the early-morning shift at Arby’s, the one no one else wanted. She kept thanking me for the shoes. I told her it was nothing. “Put them on,” I said, but she only smiled and buckled her seat belt, as if she hadn’t heard. I drove slowly back across the street to a gas station beside the restaurant, then parked at the pump and went inside to pay. At the register a line of people with snow melting on their shoulders talked of icy roads later. Through the window I could see my mother getting out of the truck. What was she up to? I peered around a tower of soda cases to get a better view. That’s when I spotted the homeless woman and her cart.
I wanted to hurry up and get back outside, but the two people in front of me in line were taking their time buying lottery tickets. I could see Mom lean into the truck while the woman waited. My heart beat faster. At the front of the line I tossed a twenty-dollar bill on the counter, gave my pump number, and burst out the doors, but it was too late. The homeless woman was already pushing her cart across the shadowy parking lot. The shoes were gone.
I yanked open the truck door, so angry the blood rushed to my face. Mom looked up and smiled benevolently, the station lights shining on her face. I shook my head and scolded her until my anger subsided and all that was left was a weary sadness. “I bought those shoes as a gift for you, Mom,” I said.
She told me gifts were meant to be passed on.
“You have to think about how you and Dad will live.” I pinched the bridge of my nose, head bowed to the steering wheel. “You’ve got to stop this.”
I could hear her arranging herself in the seat, and I looked up. Her lower lip quivered as she told me how most of their earnings went to pay off banks and creditors who didn’t need a single cent more. Her voice quavered, and she sat up straighter. “I’ll give this money to real folks in need before I let those greedy people take it.”
She cried then and slid toward me on the bench seat. I held her and cried, too, aware that I would have to report to Dana and my dad and my other siblings that I’d failed. Though I was disappointed, I also understood Mom’s justification: that it was better for the people she supervised at work or the woman in the parking lot to get her money than the banks. Her defiance may have been self-defeating, but to her it felt like a small act of rebellion.
Back on the road, heading home to unpaid bills and an uncertain future, my mother talked about how the new shoes would keep the homeless woman from slipping on the snow and ice, which was supposed to continue for weeks to come.