A college professor once told me I was a rebel without a cause. He recognized that I was someone angered by the injustices in the world. I had a lot to say but didn’t know what to do about it, except gripe. “There are a lot of causes out there,” he told me, “Pick one.” It was great advice. Unfortunately, I was young and did not understand that focus was necessary to create change.
My disillusionment with society stemmed from having been born in a family of ten who lived in a housing project. My father was a maintenance man and Mom was too busy raising eight children to work outside the home. The stress of having barely enough money to get by made my father quick-tempered and he took his frustration out on his children by abusing them. Consequently, I was exposed to frequent domestic violence in my most vulnerable years and many of my earliest memories are haunting and sad.
After I was born my mother was unable to have any more children. Nature had intervened on my behalf, because when I was old enough to attend school, Mom was able to get a job to pay for a parochial education. She was a Catholic and it was her dream that I attend Catholic school. At around the same time, Dad was promoted to supervisor of the maintenance crew and received a raise in pay.
That’s when they got the eviction notice from the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Suddenly, the household income was too high for us to be eligible for public housing. It was the only time I ever saw my father cry. “Eileen, where will we go?” he asked my mother, “What will we do?” It was the middle of the night. I had woken up because I was thirsty. All the lights were out except the kitchen light. My parents were at the kitchen table. I was shocked to see my father weeping in my mother’s arms. Something told me not to disturb them and I tiptoed back to bed. My parents never knew I was there.
My mother was a smart and determined woman. She visited every bank in town until she found one that gave her a low-interest home loan. When we moved to a house of our own just six blocks away on Carwithan Road, I was teased and ostracized by the other children whose parents could afford to buy them nice things. By the time I was a teenager, I was convinced my fate couldn’t have been worse.
One thing I noticed about our middle-class neighbors was that they limited the size of their families. Some were content to have only one child, upon whom they could lavish all of their finances and attention. It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out the less children there are in a family, the more money there is to go around. It occurred to me that, in our case, being financially strapped was not just a matter of bad luck. There were logical reasons behind it. Decisions were made over which I had no control that I thought hindered my chances in life. As far as I was concerned, my parents owed me an explanation.
Angry as I was, I approached my mother like gangbusters, demanding to know why she continued to have children she was unable to properly provide for. Mom was stunned. “You’re so difficult these days,” she said, “What happened to the little girl that loved me no matter what?” I told her not to try to get out of answering the question by making me feel guilty for asking it. After some more probing, Mom finally broke down. “I am a Catholic,” she said, “and the Catholic Church forbids birth control.”
To be continued. Part Two will be posted on Monday, August 2, 2010.