Rags to Rich-Adjacent and Back

Photo Credit: Jeremy Sallee / via Unsplash

Chances are, when you hear the word sheltered you think of a privileged, overly-parented child who has been protected from even the most minor inconvenience.

You may be surprised to learn that impoverished and under-parented kids can be sheltered, too. But these are kids with an opposite experience: A lack of exposure to convenience. One child would stand mouth agape, shocked at the existence of a soup kitchen, while the other would experience the same shock should they set foot in a Whole Foods.

The common denominator is growing up in such a way that one finds oneself in disequilibrium the instant they leave the nest and enter into the unfettered ordinary world. Neither the privileged nor disadvantaged will have occasion to take stock of their global inexperience until early adulthood when they find themselves bumbling into a wholly foreign status quo.

I’m an elder millennial born in 1981, but I was a ward of the state of California, raised in a permanent legal guardianship with my retired depression-era grandmother. We learned to sew and embroider and make household glue from a mixture of flour and water. We made stilts and telephones out of empty aluminum cans and twine. We made elaborate dolls and their houses and furnishings out of cereal boxes, and fashioned their clothing from scraps of paper and fabric.

Though we were poor, we were seldom food insecure. We had food stamps. I only recall one instance of opening the front door to find a box of groceries left on our porch by a observant stranger, and only seldom did I find those enormous black-and-white-labeled cans of Government Cheese in our pantry. We were those oft resented folks who “lived on the dole” yet frequently had steak, though in stark contrast, I never once saw a fresh blueberry in person before my 18th birthday.

Though we were well-fed, we only rarely had access to new or modern things. We had a washing machine, but no dryer, and often dried our clothes in the oven or by hanging one or two garments from a heater vent. When we had enough quarters earned at the aluminum can redemption facility, I would clutch a big black garbage bag of wet clothes on my lap, sit on my skateboard, and roll down the street to the laundromat to use a dryer.

Though I sometimes went to school in wet clothes because the vent hadn’t done its job or there were no quarters for the laundromat, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to feel sorry for myself for being wet at school. I had been sheltered from the convenience of a constant source of clean and dry clothes, and so I wouldn’t have had reason to expect it.

In 1988, our family took our first (and only) vacation to visit cousins who lived across the Bay in Modesto. It was the first time I’d been on any of the bridges that joined the East Bay to the Peninsula. It was also the first time I set foot in a house built after the 1950s.

My cousins lived in a new two-story home in a cul-de-sac. I remember entering the home and being whisked onto a tour of the home and its many rooms. I oohed and aahed at the waterbeds and the modern kitchen appliances. I couldn’t believe the refrigerator could dispense ice and water directly into a cup. My sisters and I spent hours hollering at one another through the intercom system. The bathroom had two sinks (!) and a bathtub so massive that I exaggerated to classmates back home that I’d been in a house with a swimming pool.

As the youngest of three girls, and the final recipient of all the hand me downs, my possessions were holey leotards, used underwear, worn out shoes, and naked Barbies whose feet had been chewed off. My first bike was given to me by a neighbor. My knees hit the handle bar when I pedaled, and the tires were flat, but I was just happy to have a bike of my own.

Imagine my disbelief when, at the end of our vacation, my cousins sent me back home with several new dresses and a brand new porcelain doll in a fur lined velvet dress.

I assumed they were rich, though now I realize they simply had two working parents which gave them access to comforts beyond the bare minimum.

The year I fled my childhood home and family of origin, I was invited by a friend to Thanksgiving dinner at someone’s vineyard property in Napa. Before that evening I’d never been in a home with square footage in the multiple thousands, and certainly I’d never seen a home that had been thoughtfully pieced together with the assistance of a dedicated team of architects and designers. I probably didn’t even know there was such a thing before that night.

The sprawling house was surrounded on all sides by an elaborate landscaped yard. To gain entry to the home, we traveled down a long, labyrinthine walkway interrupted by a koi-filled moat. The enormous front door so reminded me of a drawbridge that I half expected our arrival to be announced by a royal manservant with a french horn.

We entered and I was immediately struck by the vaulted ceilings. How much money must one have to be able to devote such a large space to nothing? I wondered. Every wall was decorated with gallery-worthy paintings, and each side table was adorned with a fascinating bauble and stack of photography books. I must have looked like a tourist the way I paused and audibly marveled at every single object that met my gaze.

I entered the kitchen to find a marble island the size of a sedan, covered in foods the likes of which I’d never seen. Wheels of strange, pungent cheeses sat stacked with flourishes of local greenery perched atop. A decadent flight of olives and cured meats sat in a row of hand carved bowls. These were not like the canned black olives we shoved onto our fingertips as children. These were sweaty and green, bathing in olive oil, which I’d also never had. I nearly broke a tooth biting into something I was informed was called a pit. Capers and chevre and fresh french bread that had been risen and baked by the hostess herself graced my childish palate.

I gasped out loud when I saw that the entire rear wall of the kitchen slid away in a track and opened up onto a massive, pristine patio. In a state of shock I stepped out and soaked in the stunning view of gnarled apple trees and rows of grapevines. There were several waterfalls that cycled into an enormous in-ground pool. A perfect, smokeless fire crackled in a gas fire pit surrounded by custom upholstered chairs. I was ushered over to one and urged to sit. A flute of champagne appeared in my hand and as I sipped, my heart raced and I wondered if this was a dream.

The dinner that followed was resplendent. We sat at a long oak table and were served several courses. I had absolutely nothing to say to these people, who happily reminisced about ski-trips to Vale (what is that? I wondered) and fond memories from their private school days. The main course was the pinnacle of Y2K culture: That fabled maitryoshka of Turkey, Duck, Chicken taken to another level and stuffed with a bacon-wrapped guinea fowl and an assortment of wild herbs. I’m certain I had to unbutton my jeans halfway through the night.

That night marked the first time I’d ever been asked, So, what do you do? with the expectation that I had a prepared, curated answer that could impress (or at least entertain) someone.

Even worse was the following question, What do your parents do?

It took years for me to find a socially acceptable way to explain that my mom was dead and my dad was virtually a stranger. There were times when I lied to avoid making people uncomfortable: Oh, my parents live and work in the City. What kind of olives are these? I’ve never seen them without the little red thingys inside…

Being sheltered didn’t just involve under-exposure to the things that required money.

My parents’ absence (and grandma’s neglect) meant that I had nobody to teach me basic decency, manners, and basic social mores.

I remember the shocked looks I received the first few times I ever ate in a restaurant — which was in my early 20s. I un-self-consciously stuffed my gullet with food, smacked my lips, and wiped my mouth with my sleeve or a disgusting napkin that I cast into the center of the table. I only began to question the value of what I didn’t know when I took notice of disgusted the looks I received. From then on I carefully imitated the other people at the table.

Additionally, I had very little knowledge of the types of attire I was expected to wear in different social situations. I cringe when I remember that I wore flip flops, yoga pants and a white t-shirt to a best friend’s funeral, at which I was honored to be a pall-bearer. I had no nice clothes, nor the means to purchase any. I remember the unanticipated embarrassment of flip-flopping along, my bra-less boobs jiggling as I carried my friend to his grave in front of his weeping mother.

My continued lack of parental guidance and resulting naivete led me to the bizarre decision to take out thousands of dollars in loans in order to attend a private Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado.

I had never been popular, cool, or privileged, but in college I was immersed in a very white, upper middle class social culture, and suddenly I was wealth-adjacent, which was intoxicating as a budding artist. I quickly realized that I could thrive as an artist in a community where my peers were more than willing and able to purchase my work and display it in their galleries. One friend even paid me $5000 dollars for a single painting, enabling me to buy myself a car. I’m ashamed to admit I was so taken by the notion that I could belong among the wealthy elite that I was willing to emulate them at the expense of losing touch with my true self in the process.

My peers owned their own houses outright while I worked full-time at a toy store and lived in a dark, ugly apartment complex and subsisted on crackers and cheddar cheese. My hair fell out in clumps from malnourishment, and I was constantly told, “You look ahhhhhmazing!” Little did anyone know my skeletal appearance was the result of poverty, not the strategic adherence to wealthy beauty standards nor the recreational use of Adderall.

Eventually, I fell in love with an artist who’d been afforded every opportunity to develop his skills. I was so impressed and inspired by him, and I loved the powerful feeling of importance I gained from his mutual admiration and approval. I realize now that he fell in love with the many ways he could tokenize me: I was the most Mexican person he had probably known his entire life, which is laughable. Additionally, the tales of my horrifying childhood were an endless source of entertainment to him — there were many drunken nights he sat listening to my stories as though I were detailing my experiences hunting wild game in South Africa. I convinced myself that he genuinely loved my scrappy resilience, but looking back I was nothing more than an exotic pet.

His friends took me under their wing. I should have seen the writing on the wall when they pressured me to spend hundreds of dollars I didn’t have on a wardrobe they curated for me, and then when they blatantly included or excluded people based on whether they were “cool.” Looking back, I probably got a pass simply because I had raw talent that had value. Artists have always been the playthings of the wealthy elite.

The instant it was clear I couldn’t keep up, I was invited along less and less. I remember the psychological pain I felt when these people — who had been my best friends, or so I thought — began habitually and pointedly excluding me. More than once I stood directly beside them while they made dinner plans and scurried away without so much as even looking at me. No exaggeration.

It all came to a spectacular apex when the boyfriend took me on a trip to his parents’ multi-million dollar estate and bought me a ring, which I naively interpreted as a precursor to an engagement. But when we returned to Boulder he promptly started sleeping with a score of other girls behind my back (including the “friend” who had paid me $5000 for a painting). When I found out, we broke up and I seriously contemplated ending my life.

The speed with which I was in, accepted, and valued, then out, rejected and betrayed was like nothing I had ever experienced. I finally understood that for some people, a person of little means genuinely has less value than someone within their own class.

Thus ended my brief Cool Rich Girl cosplay.

To say that I was disillusioned by what I experienced was a massive understatement.

To be fair, I’ve met many extremely generous and humble people of wealth. Having money (or not) does not determine what quality of character a person has. However, there is something unnerving about the fact that a certain level of wealth affords one to develop a delusional preoccupation with the appearance of success and happiness via things and social standing rather than the real experience of happiness through the unconditional love shared with others.

My mom was incinerated and tossed into the bay when I was fourteen, and I have had to scrub countless toilets to afford a next meal. I’ve lived in a tent out of necessity, a thin membrane of vinyl the only thing separating me from a pack of howling coyotes. I’ve also had that brief foray into the world of The Haves, and it was too ugly for me to bear. I never want to return.

The moment I graduated from the private college, I packed up and moved to Chicago. I moved into a 500 square foot apartment with a my new working-class boyfriend (who would eventually become my husband), and together we resumed a scrappy can-do life together.

I’m not sure why I found myself just now detailing my journey from rags to rich-adjacent and back again.

I suppose it’s because I see nothing but magic when I look around our modest mid-century home in this nothing little town in the fly-over state of Indiana. I look at the way I’ve been harshly aged by years of mothering without the privilege of Help. I look at my husband who has loved me fiercely without condition, no matter how big or small I am, and despite the fact that I now live in pajamas. I look at our two happy sons who know the wealth of a loving family and want for nothing, and I pray that all people could be so lucky as to have all of this.

2 thoughts on “Rags to Rich-Adjacent and Back”

  1. This is everything, Melina. You are a true wonder. This was meant to be read and shared. You have such a gift to not only tell a story, but let me feel like I could be living it along with you. I can’t wait for more.


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