58: Playing the Game

58: Playing the Game

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

Playing the Game

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.
~Roger von Oech

Church clothing drives. The same dinner every day for a week, maybe two. Generic toys instead of the ones everyone else had.

When I was a child, my mother went on food stamps after her second divorce. There was no alimony from her first marriage, and it didn’t seem like there was any from her second one either. Every Saturday, my mom would rush me and my brother to the local church, not for mass, but for their Saturday morning bag sale. A grocery bag full of used clothes would only cost a dollar, and the early bird would, indeed, get the worm, or first dibs on the better clothes. When I’d complain that all the other kids were wearing OshKosh B’Gosh—how could I possibly wear these generic overalls, and two sizes too big, at that—she would say, “You should be so lucky to have clothes to wear at all.”

My mom would always stuff as much clothing into each bag as she could; I don’t know how she did it. When she caught me watching her cramming our future wardrobe into a bag, she said, “We have to play the game.”

“What game?” I wondered. I learned she wasn’t talking about board games, like my favorites, Candy Land and Clue. “The less you spend, the more you win, literally,” she said. “And the more money you will save. It’s a game to spend as little as you can. Someday you’ll see.”

When the cool kids would laugh at my mismatched, unla-beled clothes, I would run home crying. My mom would simply say, “Remember, we’re playing the game. You should be so lucky to have clothes to wear at all.” But, at nine, I didn’t understand. I’d rather be naked.

That was how I grew up, but as a working adult I have not had to live that way. Until now. At thirty-two.

As a kid, if my family and I ever had one food staple, it was a ten-pound bag of potatoes, for my mother said that you can always do something with potatoes. Peel, grate, sauté, boil, broil … the options were endless. So I may have had a diet high in starch, but, as my mom liked to say, “We’re playing the game. At least you have food to eat.” She would couple the potatoes with canned corn—dented cans, of course, for they were cheaper. Sometimes, my brother and I would even help dent the cans, throwing them all over the store floor, probably over repressed anger for having to wear oversized overalls to school and eat potatoes for every meal.

When my brother asked if we could start having pizza for dinner like his friends, my mother said sure. She found a cookbook for twenty-five cents at the library’s used book sale and made a pizza—on an English muffin. I did a double-take. It almost looked like a pizza, but it definitely didn’t taste like a pizza. English muffins weren’t meant to be topped with generic tomato sauce, and an even more generic fake mozzarella cheese (which resembled rubber more than anything else). But, as usual, my mom had a quick quip and justification for this dinner, “We’re playing the game. You should be so lucky to have any food to eat at all.” She’d also point out that at least she had made something from scratch; she didn’t just open a can of Chef Boyardee (although I would have much preferred the latter).

At the time, I hated her. And English muffins. My friends got to order Domino’s pizza, and I had to eat these mini “pizzas” that tasted nothing remotely like pizza. Pizza crust and English muffins had nothing in common. Life was unfair.

When I had wanted the latest Barbie doll, my mom bought me the generic one (you know, those ones with the oversized heads that don’t resemble Barbie dolls at all) for ninety-nine cents instead. “No girls will want my fake Barbie to play with their real ones,” I said. “You should be so lucky to have a doll to play with at all,” she said. Yeah, yeah, yeah …. Did my mom realize how lonely this generic “Barbie” would be? “We have to keep playing the game,” she added. Yeah, a kid really wants to hear that; I was sick of playing the game. When would it be over? I just wanted a Barbie. A real one. “No one’s going to know the difference,” my mom said. “A doll is a doll.” But not to me. I knew the difference.

My mom kept saying, “This too shall pass,” and how we just had to have faith that this was an ebb, not a flow, and that we would be okay someday. But when? At nine, I barely knew what “faith” meant, let alone “ebbs” and “flows.”

Years later, I learned that my mom only allowed herself to spend ten dollars a week back then. Ten dollars to support me, my brother, and herself. Who knew that what I learned growing up would help me so much now? Now, more than twenty years later, I have been laid off and my bank balance is unbalanced (negative). How did this happen? They say “history repeats itself,” but this is ridiculous.

Funny how, as a child, I barely took to heart what my mother had said, all her “you should be so lucky …” comments. And, of course, that favorite phrase—“We’re playing the game.” But, now, over the last few months, I have recalled more of what my mother taught me than ever before.

Suddenly, I find myself “playing the game.” I go to thrift stores, trading and selling my old clothes. (Little did I know what an “in” thing thrift stores would be with my generation, all these years later. Now, I could care less about brand-name labels; in fact, I’d much prefer no label at all.) I watch as the store owner reviews my old clothes, and the way onlookers stand by excitedly, waiting to buy them, just like my nine-year-old self had once done.

With the few dollars I make from the thrift store, I buy a ten-pound bag of potatoes to peel, grate, and mash up. But I always avoid the English muffins … unless they don’t have tomato sauce and cheese on them.

My mom was right: As a child, I was lucky to have clothes, food, and generic “Barbies.” And, as an adult, I am lucky to have them, too (that generic Barbie is on my bookshelf now). I’m happy to still be “playing the game” … and winning.

~Natalia K. Lusinski

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