by Laura Widener
Nobody told me that life wasn’t going to be perfect, that I wasn’t the real version of the scratchy animated Cinderella, and I would never have the love of a wealthy prince or the bippidy-boppidy rescue of a hooded fairy godmother. The fairytales would have you believe that life is that magical and perfect. Instead of grooming me and other unsuspecting children with naïve souls and dreamy eyes for the raging seas of real life, we had the unfortunate circumstance of finding out for ourselves.
At least, that’s how my life began.
Other kids might’ve had the luck of attentive parents to explain what the real world was all about, instead of ones too busy snorting or injecting the next substance they bartered into their hands. But I wasn’t that lucky. Television and movies were a welcome escape from scouring empty cabinets and spoiled refrigerated cartons, or walking past my parents passed out in random places and wondering if they were still breathing.
I had a few friends I confided in, while I sought temporary refuge and meals in their homes, though they didn’t ever know the extent of my parents’ addictions. I still remember the warmth of that helping of lasagna I devoured at Michelle’s house while I asked her if that was how her life always was. “Yes,” she said, sounding surprised. And when I asked how, she said simply, “They work.” From that moment, I made it my goal to get a well-paying job so any child I ever brought into the world wouldn’t have the upbringing that I had.
The only perk of being an only child is that there weren’t more of me to ship off to an uncle’s house after my parents were arrested when I was 16; an uncle who probably would have let me go to a strange foster home had it not been for his wife. Whether it was kindness or obligation, it felt good to be with family, even if I thought I’d have felt more wanted in a foster home. With warmth and a fullness I hadn’t felt in a long time, I got back on track to finish school and graduate. I managed to walk across the stage to collect my diploma, despite my parents not being there.
Getting into college with bad grades was harder than I imagined. After six rejected applications, I gave up and just got a full-time job. Waitressing didn’t pay much, but it got me a car that ran and an apartment with air and heat. A few mistakes led to pregnancy and a permanent position as a single mother, since father-the-ex wanted nothing to do with us. The relief, fear, happiness, and dread that I felt in one big punch when I looked at the scrunched little face of my son, Jack, was nothing like the fairytales depicted of childbirth and motherhood.
The fairytale for me was paying my electric bill before the power company cut off the lights. It was the relief of a creditor accepting partial payments for the credit card I was dollars from maxing out. It was my boss letting me work overtime, even if I could hardly stave off heavy eyelids when I drove home. The real fairytale in my life was that I didn’t follow my parents’ footsteps and reach for a bottle or a baggie even when life had made me feel like the strewn remnants of a train wreck.
It was my mission through the years to devote as much attention to Jack as my barely-opened eyes could offer, show him as much love as my heart could muster, and give him as many hugs and kisses that my strength would allow. And he seemed happy. Despite the times when I cried and swore in the car when I depleted our EBT card and felt humiliated as I rationed items in front of a line of grocery store customers. Despite our cuisine of cheap hot dogs, boxed macaroni, and peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Despite our thrift store clothes and miniature Christmas tree with few dollar-store gifts wrapped beneath.
When Jack grew up, I hoped he wouldn’t feel any of the emptiness, or the lies and coldness that my childhood contained. I wanted him to look back and remember the tickle fights that left us both breathless on the floor, the air that swept past our faces as we swung together on the playground, and the way the lights twinkled downtown on special ice cream nights.
Would he remember the time we found a bulging wallet on the parking lot, when I struggled to put my hand around it as I lifted it from the pavement? “What’s that, mommy?” Jack asked me as I opened the folded leather.
My heart caught in my chest as I stared at the collection of bills within. Thousands of dollars. Enough to change our year—our lives. Beads of sweat rolled down my face as I stood under the summer heat and faced one of the hardest tests of my life, and it wasn’t even in the coldness of a classroom.
“Someone lost their wallet, Jack,” I told him. “We’re going to find the owner.”
And as we drove to the address on the license within, I told him about the wrongness of keeping things that didn’t belong to us, and the importance of doing the right thing, in the best words that a four-year-old could understand. But it was a good lesson for me, too. After we returned the untouched wallet, I explained to Jack why we didn’t need rewards for doing the right thing, even if it was offered and we could’ve used the money.
I never bought those fairytales for Jack. It was bad enough that I would have to clarify Santa and the Easter Bunny later on, but I didn’t need to dispel the false hope afforded by the band of fairytale princes and princesses. I found the balance between preserving his childhood innocence and learning about life lessons. Like how to compromise on a goldfish when he wanted a puppy, and the responsibility of caring for “Orangey” even when he didn’t feel like it.
Throughout the years, I would hear what felt trite and meaningless – “Things will get better!” and “Something will come your way eventually,” and the most irritating, “There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.” Each time, I thought about how it might feel to slap that person across the face just like the writers of those fairytales, but instead I just answered “yeah,” and went on with my life. Good things never just happened for me, and they would probably never just happen for Jack. He would need to learn how hard work leads to opportunities, and then onto good things that we could make for ourselves, while never relenting in our efforts.
Maybe my lessons will drill it into his head, and I’ll tell him of this moment, the time I sat in front of a panel of three interviewers for a management position I probably didn’t qualify for, and when they asked me, “What is your most significant accomplishment in life?” I reflected on the rocky road that was my life, and answered, while my nerves trembled in my body, “Realizing that we are the authors of our own fairytales, and if we stop writing and working, we will never achieve our greatness and our happy endings. And teaching that message to my son, so he will never stop writing his own story.”
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