VIOLA - Leaping out of the car onto a worn grass path where garter snakes often slumber in the heat of the spring sun, Finn and Ruben take off like rockets. I putter along behind them, searching for signs of spring. Now more than ever, I can’t find a good reason to hurry. After being bombarded by the news all morning, I’m ready to be outside.
With today’s pandemic update weighing on my mind, I recall a scene from years ago.
It was the toughest spring I can remember, no money and a lot of worry. My daughter, Jessica, a toddler, could waddle upright, but not for long. I alternated between holding her on one hip and holding her hand while she stood. Red clips held most of her hair back from her shiny forehead; a few wispy curls had escaped in the humidity.
The heat was oppressive in the noisy, crowded room and the winding line moved slower than a woolly bear caterpillar. The two of us were quiet. I was focused. Jessica was soaking in the situation, her green eyes big and curious. It was my first time in that building or even in that section of Milwaukee, and I’d worried my car wouldn’t make it or we’d get lost.
The standing made me weary and I wished I could have left Jessica at home. But I couldn’t—we were alone. I was trying to navigate life as a young mother. For the moment, we had at least 30 days of a roof over our heads, but we needed food. We hadn't seen Jessica’s dad for days, maybe weeks.
The two dogs race down the path toward me, ears flapping, Ruben’s tongue hanging catty wampus out of his mouth. I give them each a treat, telling them what good boys they are to check back in with me. Catching a new scent on the breeze, they take off again, leaving me with memories I haven't revisited in years, brought on by the pandemic putting a halt to my work.
I needed to apply for food stamps. Hours later, we were still in line, and it was getting late. Tempers were strained. Fatigued people were sitting on the floor, dragging themselves forward whenever the line moved. The thick air stank of sweat and fear.
A booming voice shook the room into stillness. “We are closing in 30 minutes. We will reopen tomorrow at 8 a.m. If you stay we cannot process your application ,but you’ll receive a voucher to use this evening.”
My stomach clenching, I looked at my daughter, who didn’t understand why we were there. I told the lady “Two people,” showed her my address on a bill that hadn’t been paid, along with my driver's license, and filled out a form. Unsmiling, she handed me two vouchers. I considered saying three people, but hewould have had to be with us. I wondered where he was.
Today I spy May apples, trout lilies, spring beauties, hepatica, bloodroots, and a few new Dutchman’s breeches. The dogs are standing on top of a downed tree, looking up at a chattering squirrel.
At the grocery store, anxious to get home and fix something to eat, I looked for whatever would be cheapest and easiest to make. Macaroni and cheese. Milk. Graham Crackers. Raisins. Pushing the cart, I added and re-added the prices as I put food in and took it out.
Jessica sat in the cart seat. I opened a box of raisins and she was content, happy to have me talking to her while she snacked.
Entering the checkout lane with the fewest people, I began to perspire and my heart started racing. I was afraid to use the voucher. I thought of how my mom would cringe if she knew. My dad’s hard work had always brought plenty of food to our table.
As I put my items on the checkout counter, a lady came up behind us in line, startling me. As she smiled at Jessica, I threw the food back in the cart, mumbled “I forgot something, excuse me,” and we bolted back out of line into the grocery area.
Walking down aisle after aisle, circling back to the checkout counters to see if they were empty, I gave up. I couldn’t do it. I left the cart, including the box of raisins, and walked out of the store. The stigma of having to use food stamps was overwhelming.
The memory ends there. I don’t remember going home, what or if we ate, or putting Jessica to bed. The humiliation and worry that I felt that day, mingled with the odor of fear and sweat, stay with me even now, as I plod downhill to a wet area where I discover bright yellow marsh marigolds and smelly skunk cabbage.Although I’m not working now, I'm fortunate to have friends who would feed me if necessary. But I worry about anyone who doesn't, who is standing in line like Jessica and I once did. Let's end the stigma of having to ask for help to get through a rough time, pandemic or not. Let that be one less thing for people to worry about.