What We Need is Families

What We Need is Families May 18, 2022

I’ve been helping my friend who needed food last week.

Her story is a little more complicated than I had time to tell you in that one post.

I want you to try and envision the most pro-life and “deserving” poor family you can. You can’t do that, because the notion of “deserving poor” is deliberately nebulous and no real poor people actually meet that standard. But these people come close.

They are a lovely couple with four children under the age of seven whom they take good care of. They go without food if they need to so the kids can eat. They get them to the school bus stop every day. They’re following the rules about not giving the baby anything she shouldn’t have during the formula shortage, just a few spoonfuls of baby food so she won’t get hungry even though her formula s rationed right now. The mom is studying for her GED so she can eventually be a nurse and make a better salary. And both parents work. For a spell, only the mom was working because they didn’t have a car, and the apartment they could get with Section 8 was very far from the bus route. But in March they spent their tax refund on a used car, so her partner got a job as well. He works night shifts at a place over in Weirton, too far away to walk to even if he wouldn’t get a ticket for trying to walk across the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge. The car is an absolute necessity.

Over a week ago now, the car broke down. It’s still broken down. It’s in the spot in front of her apartment and won’t even start anymore. Apparently it was a lemon in the first place. My friend panicked, understandably, because now her partner couldn’t get to work and would lose his new job, ruining their chances of having an easier time.

I don’t have many resources myself, but I try to at least be a listener. My friend cried that she had no toilet paper or detergent and the EBT food stamps, which were reduced anyway since they got Section Eight, would not come in until the eighteenth. Besides that, she was feeling sick without her diabetes medicine which was tied up in some SNAFU at the free clinic with the clinic arguing with Medicaid about who would pay for it. She also had asthma and couldn’t get her inhaler– not to mention, she was hiding from the furniture rental truck. Of course I asked about the furniture truck, and that’s how I found out that the apartment complex had gotten bugs a month or two before they got the car, and the landlord had ordered her to throw out her bed which was only a used air mattress anyway. So she went to one of those predatory furniture rental outfits and made a bad deal to make monthly payments on a bed. She also signed a contract to rent a washer and dryer since this was before they got the car and they had no way to get clothing for five people to the laundromat. In the end, they also talked her into a TV for the children to watch in the evenings when they’re not playing outside. She was paying a massive chunk of her salary per month to rent these mostly necessary things because she had no savings to just buy them cheaper somewhere else. And she’d fallen behind on payments in all the confusion. The truck to repossess the furniture was driving by her house every day.

I’ve been very poor myself– some months I still am. I know how one mistake can lead to another and pile up into a crisis. I also know that sometimes people lie about their needs to con you, but I’d known this woman for awhile. I’d met her children. I’d seen the junky used car. I’d seen her stuffing a doughnut in her mouth after I took her to the food pantry, trying to get her sugar up until she could go back on her medicine. I’d seen enough to realize she was telling the truth.

This was a far bigger mess than I could hope to fix.

Do you know what people really need? We need families. And I’m not saying that in a victim-blaming way. I’m not saying that to scare anyone out of getting that divorce or going no contact with an abusive parent. I’m just saying, humans are the sort of apes that are supposed to roam the earth in troops. We’re supposed to be herd animals.

Humans don’t just need Mom, Pop, Wally and the Beaver. We are not creatures who can get by as isolated nuclear families, even if both parents work hard for a paycheck which our system tell us is all we need. That doesn’t work. Humans also need crabby confirmed old bachelor uncles and laid back aunts you can say anything to. We need grandparents who would love to watch the children for an afternoon and older brothers who can give rides if the car breaks down, aunts and uncles and cousins who swarm each other with assistance when there’s a crisis. We need a network of people we can rely on for help when everything goes wrong at once. Because everything going wrong at once is normal.

It’s a normal part of human life for things to blow up in our faces. Things blowing up in our faces is a thing that happens. Sometimes a mess like that can’t be cleaned up at all, but if it gets cleared up, it gets cleared up by a network of human beings each with a different specialization trying to work together to make it right. A family of people. A troop of apes working together, not just one.

I took her partner to work one evening in the Neighborhood Trolley. I couldn’t pick him up when his shift ended at two, and Steubenville doesn’t have Lyft yet, but I helped her find somebody who could lend then thirty dollars for cab fare. Meanwhile I was trying to think what to do about the rental furniture problem and the medicine problem and all the other problems, while my friend worried and cut the legs off her children’s jeans so they could have summer shorts.

And then she got sick.

I’m frankly surprised it took her so long to be sick, a diabetic and asthmatic woman who was off medication for so long. But I was hoping it wouldn’t happen.

Next thing I knew, she went to the ER in an ambulance. And I was still trying to help, mostly by listening, as she texted me from the hospital:

Her partner had to take another day off work. He doesn’t get fired if he shows up for his shift today with her hospital papers to prove his excuse. After they released her, she found that her medication had been called in to a pharmacy that wasn’t walking distance from her house. And there was nothing for dinner and her EBT wouldn’t come in for about fourteen more hours, and Medicaid was still not paying for the entire cost of the drugs. She asked if I could pick up her inhaler for four dollars, she’d pay me back someday. Don’t get the other medications, there was no way to buy them, just the inhaler.

I’m not capable and I’m not rich. I’m not a doctor or a mechanic. I’m not a social worker. I couldn’t solve all of her problems.

But I do have  a troop of fun and funny people who follow me around, mostly on Twitter, who read my blog posts and give me ideas for new posts and banter with me.

So I started asking around.

I had already started to set up a registry so anyone who wanted to help could get her kids summer clothes and begin to replace the furniture. Washers and dryers are ridiculously pricey to buy on Amazon, but they had a cheap bed and a cheap TV. Next thing I knew, a reader thousands of miles away had ordered the bed for her. Another reader contacted me privately to ask if they could order a huge grocery list of food and toiletries from Costco to have sent to my friend’s house– it comes in tomorrow.  Others said they’d give to a crowdfund to get the car fixed and hopefully a used washer and dryer as well so my friend could be free from the ball and chain of the rental furniture company. I will show that crowdfund to you guys here on the blog once I set it up.

I texted another good friend from Columbus, explaining the situation and just begging for some cash. I wanted thirty dollars for asthma medication. She sent me a hundred.

I showed up at the pharmacy and bought all four prescriptions: a steroid, a nebulizer refill, a z-pack and the inhaler. Then I went to the deli section and got them dinner: rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes, fruit salad and regular salad, cookies for the children. At the register I took out enough cash for cab fare. I left the whole thing on her apartment doorstep. I told her that  a new bed and some other help was on the way in the mail.

I’m not telling you this story to celebrate what a good person I am. I’m not. All I did was ask questions and think of plans. The only money I spent was a little for gas.

I’m not telling you this story so that you can get a good warm feeling about somebody else’s problems being solved. They’re not solved yet. The car is still a doorstop. They’re still making payments on the washer and dryer. I still don’t know what went wrong with their Medicaid. She’s still a diabetic. And there are thousands of families just like them, going through similar crises all over America.

I’m telling you this so that you will understand that people need families who come together and help. And that you can be a family for somebody.

We all have to be families, for each other.

I believe this because I’m a Christian, but I also believe it because it’s the only practical way humans can survive. We live or die through the troop that follow us around.

Be that troop.




Image via Wikimedia commons
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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