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Saturday
Sep102005

Have You Seen My Food Stamps?

I didn't give my parents divorce much thought. It didn't really affect my world in the ways that matter to a 5-year-old. In the early days, Oreos and Cap'n Crunch could still be found in the kitchen cabinet and my major complaint was that I had an eight o'clock bedtime deadline, while my 8-year-old brother Brandon luxuriated long into the sophisticated nine o'clock hour. The only notable difference; one minute my dad was the guy yelling "Could you kids cool it? I guaran-goddamn-tee you don't want to see what happens if you wake me up!" as he tried to sleep off a graveyard shift, the next he was some dude who lived in a shitty apartment in Gallup, New Mexico.

Whenever my mom issued the "Sssh, Dad has to work the graveyard!" decree I would stop whatever it was that I was up to and make the unusually generous gesture of shutting my loud mouth. Until I was six I envisioned Dad as one of those scraggily fellows that dug graves at the cemetery at night. This dark vocation seemed in keeping with his vampirish image of sleeping during daylight hours in a bedroom made creepy by blankets hammered over the windows.

Once dad was gone, the golden days of name brand cereal and liquid milk quickly came to an end. Giant plastic bags of 'Fruity O's' replaced Toucan Sam and his Fruit Loops. Large boxes of dried milk (Just add water!) began to gather on the gummy shelves of our pantry with Grandma's specialty; rows and rows of canned peaches competing with the dried milk for shelf space. The bloated chunk of slimy fruit floating in thick sludge was offered in place of an after school cookie or Twinkie. At this early stage in my development, the troubling disappearance of these snacks affected my daily routine more than the departure of the man from the back bedroom who regularly threatened to punish all loud mouths.

There was an exception to the dwindling snacks. At the beginning of every month my three brothers and I were allowed to choose our VERY OWN! box of NAME BRAND brand cereal to savor at our leisure throughout the month.
"If you want to eat the whole goddamn box in one day, that's your problem. But you aren't getting a new box until next month." Mom would caution as I tried to enjoy a second bowl while parked in front of the television for the Saturday morning session of Looney Tunes.
"It's not my fault! The commercials make it look so good, I keep wanting more!"

My brother Brandon was a Trix man with the occasional foray into Cap'n Crunch's milky waters. I was a Lucky Charms fanatic. I would savor each marshmallow in five minute increments, sucking until it dissolved into a sugary puddle on my tongue. A fabulous prize offered inside the cereal box inevitably threw a wrench in the works. Brandon and I would spend the whole shopping trip in the cereal aisle, sticky hands mucking up various boxes, debating the merits of Lego packages offered in boxes of not-so-good Rice Krispies to a box of very tasty Trix with no prize inside. Those were the decisions that weighed heavy in our minds. A wrong choice could leave you languishing without quality breakfast fare for weeks.

This exciting grocery store trek coincided with the delivery of our portion of government assistance. The Butler family monthly allotment of food stamps. God, I loved those brightly colored 'twenties,' 'tens' and 'fives' before I learned to be ashamed. So much prettier than Monopoly money, the food stamps meant that, if only for two weeks, we would be living high on the hog. Name brand cereal, TV dinners, occasionally we'd hit jackpot when Mom would give the okay for soda. Not Root Beer or Coke, though. Shasta was our thing.

Of course these "gourmet" items were chowed or gulped down within the first three or four days after purchase. Everyone taking their secret turn at sneaking in to feast upon the bounty that food stamps procured. The food stamps only came once a month so I learned to be crafty at an early age. It's tough to pull the wool over the eyes of three hungry brothers. But in addition to my Lucky Charms, I managed to hoard cans of Spaghettios, boxes of Mac & Cheese and the odd can of Shasta here and there, a boon to any latchkey kid.

LIke a squirrel stores nuts, I cleverly packed away treats and other valuable snack items in the back of my closet. During those lean days before the anticipated arrival of food stamps, when mom would serve 'ghoulash' with Grandma's peaches for dessert, I'd rely on my secret stash to get me through.

But oh, the day the manilla envelope arrived in the mail was a joyous one! We'd call a temporary truce from our daily battles of bathroom usage and what television channel to watch, coming together in ravenous celebration.
"It's here, it's here!" I'd shout, leaping and twirling from the mailbox. Envelope held aloft, I'd scamper into the house. Like the Wise Men bearing gifts of great wealth for the Baby Jesus, I would reverently place the coupon book in my mom's outstretched hand.

"Yay, food stamps! Can we go shopping?" My jubilant cries would draw my brothers from their various schemes and troublemaking. Brandon would crawl out of the attic, where he had been playing god knows what with a neighorhood friend. Jordan would wake up from napping on the living room floor with his usual flair, thumb in mouth, baby blanket crammed up his nose. Shaun would toddle in naked from the backyard. At 2-years-old, he preferred to be unfettered by the usual kiddie trappings of diapers and clothing. Chocolate, or what we all hoped was chocolate, was smeared across his sunburned little chest.
"Me go cookies! Me go cookies!" Even Shaun's tiny mind grasped the concept that food stamps equal party time.
"We got our food stamps, we got our food stamps!" I danced a little jig as my family united in white trash triumph. We didn't know yet that we were trash and that makes all the difference in the world.
The cheers died down as we breathlessly waited for my mom's response. When she sighed and went for her purse, we’d all leap and cheer.
"I call front seat!" Brandon shouted. That jerk. Waits until I'm distracted by food stamps.
"No, it's whoever gets there first." We stumbled, side by side out the front door, exchanging elbow jabs as we raced to the car.
"I made it," I shouted as Brandon thumped me on the head.
"Ouch!"
"I CALLED it. That means I get it. And I call it on the way home too." He pushed the seat forward and gestured for me to get in the back seat.

Calling an object of desire is the first amendment to the constitution of childhood. One must adhere to the constitution if one wants to achieve any sort of success as a youngster. You want to sit in your favorite spot to watch TV? You can't just expect to sit there, you best be calling it. Unless you had the unfortunate luck of having Brandon for a big brother. If he called something, by rights of the childhood constitution, it was his. Even if you happened to be on your toes, and called something, he still got his way by sheer brute force.

"Mo-om, Brandon took the front seat!" She was busy fiddling with a cassette tape and chose to ignore this tired rant.
"Tattletale!" Brandon reached around the seat and pinched me.
I tried to scratch him with my limited access around the front seat.
"Quit touching me!"
"You quit touching me."
"You touched me first."
"Mom!"
"If you two don't knock it off I’ll turn this car around and take you home. And I’ll pick out the cereal."
The fear of the giant, generic plastic bag of bullshit cereal shut us up. For the rest of the drive we listened to my mom sing along to Madonna's Lucky Star. I nodded and bobbed my head in an effort to be cool. My brother mouthed 'YOU SUCK' over the top of the front seat, but I just pretended like I didn't see him.

We pulled into the parking lot of the giant grocery store chain and poured out of the car.
"Can I ride in the cart mom, can I ride in the cart Mom, can I?
"Shaun's riding in the cart, he's two, you're six. Get over it."
"Can I hold the food stamps? I want to help. I'll hold them for you."
I don't know what possessed her to hand me the little coupon book of 'money' but she did. Happily, I flipped through, counting the coupons and holding them to my nose to smell the fresh ink. The fives were my favorite. The purple ink on the white paper was the same color I wanted my yellow and white checked room to be. At six I considered yellow 'for babies.' Purple seemed so girlishly elegant.

There we were. The Butler family. Trolling down aisles. One kid, Shaun, perched jauntily in the baby seat of the cart, reaching for anything his sticky paws could latch on to. Jordan sat in the cart sucking his thumb, baby blanket shoved up his nose for comfort. At four, Jordan commanded a certain amount of respect that Brandon and I had yet to garner. People listened when Jordan spoke, because it wasn't that often. Every now and again he'd deliver an important statement or answer a question. He would pause, thumb still in mouth, blanket held to his nose with his other hand while he carefully considered his words. He'd withdraw his tiny thumb from his mouth with a pop and issue a one word answer. Usually a simple yes or no. Sometimes he'd throw in a shrug of his little shoulders, or a nod of his curly mop.

There he sat, in the front of the cart, a little viking leader, silently heading up grocery reconnaissance. Brandon would hang off the side of the cart noisily pointing out every item we passed. I would usually crouch in the bottom of the cart, the spot reserved for cases of what God-fearing Mormon folks in Utah call 'pop.'

"Mine." Shaun's dirty fingers stretched toward a colorful bag of animal crackers at the end of the aisle. While perusing her shopping list my mom was able to anticipate Shaun's moves and successfully block potential disasters, at the same time yelling at Brandon to "Watch out for that woman's cart!", "get out of the way!" or "Quiet down!"

I waited until my mom was bagging produce items, distracted by Shaun trying grab an orange from the very bottom of a fruit pyramid, before expertly falling back and heading to the bulk candy section. Bulk food. A poor child's dream. I went straight for the gummy worms, pausing to down a few chocolate covered peanuts on the way. I glanced around and grabbed a handful of gummies. I sneaked a peek at my mom who appeared to be feeling up tomatoes like a horny teen and went for the gold. Sour Patch Kids. My bulk binge was interrupted by a wrinkled man bagging dried prunes by the dozens, so I sidled back to the cart. Mom looked at me as I pretended to be absorbed by an banana display.
"What are you eating?"
"What? Nothing?"
My mother has psychic abilities. I am convinced of it. Or else the chocolate smudges and powdered sugar lingering in the corners of my mouth were a dead giveaway.
"I'll beat you within an inch of your life if you don't stay away from the Goddamn bulk candy. I'm serious." She shook her Dreaded Finger within inches of my face.
I backed away and called up my movie fantasy. This was a favorite of mine until around Junior High School when boys began to dominate my fantasies. In the fantasy, I am an amazing star, better than Drew Barrymore in E.T. My fans are so intrigued by my private life that movie crews have been hired to follow me throughout my day. A variation on this theme is when I am actually on location, starring in my movie. The crew is anyone around me, and they are all in awe of my superb acting abilities. Behind my mom's back I rolled my eyes to the 'cameras' as if to say "adults, whatdya gonna do?' then sashayed over to the hamburger meat. In my mind I could hear the roaring laughter of my adoring public at my Shirley Temple antics.

The hamburger was calling to me. "Come touch us. Come play with us." I couldn't help myself. I must stick my pointer finger deep into the packaged hamburger. It's a sensation I can only liken to popping bubble wrap. It felt so good. I have honed a technique where I push the plastic to it's limit, pulling back only when my finger threatens to break through the wrapping into the meat. I winked to my ‘audience’ and went to work. Once I'd left my mark on every hamburger package I sauntered back to see if it's time to go to the cereal aisle yet.
"I saw you, you little shit." A fat woman in one of those motorized shopping carts for the elderly stabbed her cane aggressively in my direction. I stopped, my mouth agape.
"Yeah, I'm talking to you, little prissy. Don't pretend like you don't know what I'm talking about either." She mistakes my silence for denial. Really, I am shocked by her massive girth. In all my years, I had not seen a woman this huge. She looked like Jaba the Hut, even down to her big fat tongue darting in and out of her greasy lips. Her neck was lost in enormous rolls that began at her chin and accordianed into her chest. Bowling ball breasts rested on the handlebars of her motorized cart. Doughy flesh mottled with purple stretch marks and veins poured from the exhausted waistband of her hot air balloon sized polyester pants.

"Where is your mother? You're in big trouble missy." I stood there gaping.
"Answer me!" She croaked "You're family will be paying for all this hamburger you ruined with your grubby little fingers"
Still, I stared. Where her pants ended, rolls of white skin flubbed out where her ankles should have been. Even her feet were fat. She wasn't wearing shoes. Instead her bare feet were resting inside ratty old slippers.
"Say something you little monster!"
I said the only thing a six year old could say, when confronted by a strange, overweight, angry woman.
"You're fat." It was meant as an observation, I wasn't trying to be mean.
"You.. I'm.. You're.." She turned a rather eggplant shade of purple and stuggled to say something else, but only a strangled sound came out. She fumbled with the switch on her cart, hit reverse and flew back into the meat counter. When her gelatinous flesh stopped jiggling she slammed into drive and tried to speed off. The only problem, the cart was obviously built for frail senior citizens. The machine wheezed and puffed under her weight, so the getaway was made at an embarrassingly slow pace. She glanced back once, as she wobbled around the corner of the chip aisle. A few bags of totillas tumbled noisily to the floor in her wake, I believed from the vibrations she made rolling by. I mentally noted to steer clear of that aisle and turned to find my mom.

I discovered her on the beverage aisle trying to wrestle a juice box from Shaun's tight little grip.
"Juice! Juice! Juice!" Shaun began to wail. The crying child. Fear of shopping mothers everywhere. His snivels started low and increased in volume until he was screaming like a fire truck en route to a high rise in flames.
"Sshh! Zip it little man!" My mom stage whispered in frantic tones. The crying continued.
"If you don't knock it off I will spank your ass when we get out of here!" At this threat of physical violence, the crying escalated. My moms snarled lips twisted into a smile as a smartly dressed woman wearing high heels and pushing an adorable baby in her cart breezed by.
"There, there." She gently rubbed Shaun's back. As the woman disappeared around the corner, my mom's lips transformed back into their usual grimace.
"I swear to god I will beat the living hell.." She gave up midsentence, tore the plastic wrapping off the juice box, jammed the straw in the tiny hole and handed it over to Shaun. Immediately he stopped crying, producing happy sucking noises instead.
"Me too!" Jordan had popped his thumb out of his mouth long enough to utter the two words. He was promptly given a juice box then my mom continued her appraisal of the Campbell soup selections.
THWAP! THWAP! The faint echo of a bouncy ball thwapped closer until Brandon rounded the corner at top speed, crashing into the Hostess display at the end of the aisle.
"Can we get a bouncy ball, Mom? Can we?"
"Put it back where it belongs! And pick up those doughnuts you knocked off the shelf!"
"But----"
"NOW!" This last bit was delivered with an extra large helping of 'The Look'. Everyone knows not to mess with their mom once 'The Look' has made an appearance. My mom's 'Look' is used as an exclamation point to the threat of a beating, or it's given on the sly, when we are acting up in the company of polite folks.

After a minor dispute on the cereal aisle, and a major one involving eggs, we were finally safely in the check-out line. I was quite pleased with this months' haul. Lucky Charms were tucked in the cart between my favorite TV dinner containing the freeze dried bean burrito and a package of toaster strudel. After my brother joined forces with me for a full-on strudel offensive, she caved and we thoughtfully considered all options before settling on strawberry.

It took a good fifteen minutes for the cashier to scan all of our items. When the time came to pay up, my mom rifled around in her purse for a moment.
"Oh! Monica, give me the food stamps. I gave you to hold them."
"Wha?" Oh! The food stamps! I had been carrying them. Why had she let me carry them? What was she thinking? I was an innocent child. A mere babe! I was not responsible. I just liked to sniff the purple fives! The look of terror affixed to my mug gave me away.

"Oh god no. No. No! Where did you last have them?" I stared in open mouthed horror at my family and the cashier. All waited anxiously for my response. I swiveled my head to see the long line of impatient people behind us pretending they weren't listening to the unfolding crisis. My frazzled mind clawed through the last hour frantically trying to remember where I'd been. Bulk foods maybe!

"I'll get them." I said with an assuredness not felt. I ran to the gummy worms, eyes searching right and left, desperately hoping to see the envelope. Nothing. My heart beating in my head, I ran to the hamburger, desperately hoping to see the envelope sitting on top of the defiled meat. No envelope. My legs were shaking so badly that I stopped and crouched for a moment, afraid I might wet my pants if I didn't. Think! Think! Maybe the cereal aisle! I run for the cereal. Up until this moment in my young life nothing as bad as this had ever happened. Sure I had been in trouble before. All the usual shenanigans; gum in the carpet, writing in permanent marker on my bedroom wall, hitting my brothers. But that was amateur troublemaking. This was my family's food for the month! Everything and everyone depended on those food stamps. I rushed back and forth on the cereal aisle, not able to focus. I bumped into a store employee stocking shelves.

"Please, please.. Have you seen an envelope of food stamps?" I began to sob. A look I didn't know then but can now identify as pity settled on his face.
"Sorry. I haven't."
I motored back to the hamburger and stood there forlornly, too afraid to face my mom and the line of angry shoppers behind her. I tapped the back of a friendly looking woman and asked if she'd seen the envelope
"Oh honey, no. Sorry."

Dead girl walking. Feet dragging, I slowly returned to the checkout counter. My mom was already shaking her head and wiping tears from her face. The cashier has paused, unsure whether to continue scanning the last few items. The people in line had switched to other cashiers in an effort to avoid the embarrassing drama. Brandon, uncharacterically silent, was staring at the floor.
"I don't know Mom." I struggled for air. I had never done anything so terrible. "I'm sorry."

Ultimately we were forced to abandon our booty at the grocery store. Nobody said much on the car ride home. I cried the entire way. Out of shame and knowledge of the beating that awaited me. She will surely break out 'the wooden spoon' for so severe a transgression. But when we got home, it was worse. She quietly shut her bedroom door. Her sobs penetrated every room in the house. Great, body wracking sobs. I tried to blot out the torturous weeping by putting a pillow over my head. But to this day I can still hear the cries of a twenty-nine year old single mother, responsible for feeding four hungry mouths with three hundred dollars in lost food stamps.

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    As the web continues to heap together stamps guidance, we will strive to show them to you.

Reader Comments (11)

I'm trying to think of the words to describe how absolutely wonderful this chapter is. But I guess I'll have to do with "absolutely wonderful" and keep on reading. You were jealous of my first drunk post, I'm jealous of your general writing ability. You make me want to read more and more of you (and duh I do everyday). Excellen.
October 11, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterHeather B.
I remember that, its strange how two emotions can occupy the same space at the same time. Nostalgia and pure gut-wrenching pain. All that shit from those days is still with me. The strain, stress confusion, shame but most of all fear. Just plain old fear in general. It has never left me. I am constantly bracing myself for what's to come. It keeps me from ultimately enjoying the present. I am truly fucked up.
August 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBrandon
Yeah... I still hide food from The Surge. It stresses me out when he eats all the cereal.. How fucked is that?
August 13, 2006 | Registered CommenterMonicaBielanko
And I think I am way more fucked up than either of you, because of what I have done..and I have to live with it..everyday. everyday. and it never leaves me. never. everyday.
August 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermama
Oh, what a cute family gathering. Hey, I am still messed up from you guys too.

Thanks.
September 29, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMeeeeaaaaattt

"We got our food stamps, we got our food stamps!" I danced a little jig as my family united in white trash triumph. We didn't know yet that we were trash and that makes all the difference in the world.

i dont remember the days after my parents split, when we were on food stamps as VIVIDLY as you do, but i sure as hell remember the days before i realized that living in the trailor park (no matter how close to the front of the park we lived), living off food stamps & living off the charity of our more well off family meant we were white trash ...

July 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

i just want to reiterate, that im proud of my white trash upbringing, i wouldnt be where i am today without it, but i just reread what i wrote the other day and i felt the need to clear that up ... haha i'm a little paranoid like that sometimes, but i reread the story again and grinned all the way through it :]

July 23, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterkatie

This story is great. Memories. When I was married, mostly in the eighties, we were always on and off welfare. My husband was an addict and I must have just been stupid. Then my husband committed suicide in 1993, leaving me 30 years old, with three kids, ages 9, 7, and 3 to raise. Social Security was like winning the Lotto! Sigh. Anyhow, nice story.

October 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKat

This broke my heart.

December 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPenelope

Wow. I've been up all night reading your blog. And. Just. WOW. Your writing is amazing and fully brings back so much pain I endured through a poor childhood. I remember the days of stashing food from my siblings. The weird things such as a bottle of ketchup, that I believed to be the ultimate treasure. I grew up in a large Mormon family as well. However I am the only one of my siblings that is no longer Mormon. I'm stuck in Utah to forever live the daily shame of being a Non-Mormon mommy among playgroups of Mormon mommy's who don't want my little heathen's tainting their perfect angles.

Anyways your writing is amazing and I wish your family good Karma.

January 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHeather W.

I never had to experience this. This story made me cry. I bet the grocery store guy will never forget the look of anxiety on a little girls face asking if he's seen her envelope of foodstamps. Share this with your kids one day... it's such a reminder to be thankful.

September 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina

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