When the kids were little, we were poor. Not poor like people living in war-torn or famine-hit countries who live in dirt-floor huts or tents and whose highlight for their day is fetching clean water. I can’t wrap my head around what kind of poor that is. But we were the kind of American poor where we qualified for Medicaid and WIC (Women, Infants, Children). At least one of us was always working, but the wages didn’t go very far. The year I got pregnant, our income was about $10,000. Surprise sacks of groceries on our front porch got us through several meals that would otherwise have been beans and rice. We’d bought our car with cash and our apartment cost $325 a month, utilities included. The rent plus my COBRA insurance premium used up pretty much everything each month.
When I went into the hospital on December 4 at 25 weeks, Jason was working for MCI. It was a minimum wage, hourly job. Jason had a bowl of cold cereal in the morning and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, keeping grocery costs as low as possible. In the hospital, when I filled out my menu for dinner I ordered the biggest-sized portions. Then when Jason came to spend the evening with me after he got off work, I’d share my dinner tray with him so he’d get a hot meal—albeit from a hospital cafeteria. It was a welcomed provision. I couldn’t eat much because of the fact that I had four aliens expanding inside of me at an astronomical rate and they were trying to blast out through my chest like the icky creature burst forth from John Hurt in Alien. Okay, well maybe not quite like that. But some days it felt like that. And everyone knows fetuses kind of look like aliens for a bit. Except probably not with the teeth.
Once the kids were born and home, we depended on WIC supplements to buy formula and then some solids when the kids were old enough. Things like cheese, milk, peanut butter, and such. Because we were WIC clients, I also received vouchers one year to shop in the local toy drive shop at Christmas time. There was an empty office building set up with areas cordoned off with big sheets of plastic. Inside those temporary rooms, tables and shelves were filled with donated gently-used toys. During pre-designated times determined by last name, I could go in and look around, using my vouchers to “purchase” items I picked out for the kids’ Christmas presents. It was pretty exciting when I got four sets of vouchers, because they gave me one set for each kid. And I could combine the points for bigger gifts.
As I wandered among the tables and shelves, I wasn’t sure what I should get. There were a few toys that seemed might be enjoyed by my kids, but then I looked up. Up on a top shelf sat a fire engine. I couldn’t believe my eyes. No one was looking at it, no one paying any attention, and there was no “sold” sign on it. It was one of those ride-in toys that you pedal beneath the hood by extending your feet to pump at opposite intervals, in-out-in-out. I loved those ride-in cars. My cousins had had one when I was little and I loved it when we visited and I got a turn riding it. I didn’t let myself get too excited when I saw that fire engine, because I knew there was no way it wasn’t already spoken for. I mean, we’re talking the biggest toy in the place and a fire engine. Of course everyone else had their eye on it. Anyone in their right mind would swipe that up faster than you can say fire hydrant.
I found a worker who was running the program and showed her my vouchers and took her to the high shelf with the fire engine and asked if there was any possibility that I could get it with the points I had. She said Sure. I couldn’t believe it. I looked around, certain everyone else was converging on us, ready to pounce and claim the toy. But no one was even looking. It was like it was invisible. And that’s what I finally concluded. I think no one else could see it because it was being saved for us. We were meant to have it. It was an amazing gift.
With a few points I had left over, I got some other fire fighter themed toys—a couple of fire helmets and a fire hydrant that hooked up to the garden hose and sprayed water for a summer playtime sprinkler.
On Christmas morning when the kids opened up the fire engine, they were delighted. It was an instant hit. They played with it for years, wearing a trail through the grass in the backyard, pushing each other or driving it until they couldn’t fit in it anymore, long past when the pedals rusted and stopped working, the bell broke off, and the red color was faded away by the sun. It served them well. So many happy hours of play. So many. I really do believe it was saved for me that day. It was perfect. And I am extremely grateful.
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