It was 6:00 pm. I stood at the gas pump, filling up my car yet again and watching half of a hundred dollars trickle into the tank. I had not yet got home from work so I was still in my nice office clothes, tired and in a hurry to get to the house.
Just across from the gas station there is a two story building with a store on the lower level and apartments above. The building has seen better days--the paint is fading and peeling and the railing is rusted. An exterior stairways leads down to a concrete pad and a parking lot. Weeds crowd the cracks in the concrete and small bits of debris litter the edges.
I watched two women start down the steps from the apartments, each carrying laundry. The younger woman carried a large plastic basket and was smoking a cigarette as she descended. In front of her was an older, heavier woman carrying a big plastic hamper that was clearly heavy and difficult to manage. The two women stopped midway, perhaps for a breather or for time to let the younger one finish her smoke. The older woman seemed to be having a hard time breathing; maybe the hamper was so heavy that it made the steps a challenge for her, or maybe she had trouble with her knees and it was a painful descent.
As I stood there by my nice car in my nice clothes and watched, I wondered at the differences between us. Why was I the one with the nice car and clothes and these two the ones who had to carry laundry from a second-floor apartment and across the street to a laundromat? What in our lives had mandated where we are today? Could it have been me living in the walk-up apartment over a secondhand store?
Life sometimes seems random, like a pitch that turns into a home run for one batter and a strikeout for another. Lord knows I did not start in the best of positions. There might have seemed little hope for me considering I married and had a child at 17, no high school diploma, and then had three more children in relatively rapid succession. For many people that could have been the three strikes that put them out of the game.
Is it choices or chance that make us successful? What choices put me at the gas pump and those two struggling down the steps? I realize that I am conjecturing here--those ladies may be content with their lives and what they have accomplished. For all I know, they could be breast cancer survivors, have escaped abusive situations or not have a bill in this world besides cheap rent and utilities. For some, that could be all they want from life and they are satisfied.
At 17 all I wanted was a little home and a little family. We had a some cash ($1500) from a car wreck insurance settlement that we used for a down payment on a small house. My family's disappointment in my lack of a diploma and and my own dissatisfaction with not having finished something I started pushed me into night school after my second child to get that degree. At 20, all I wanted was some land and a house in the country. Three years later we moved to West Virginia, bought land and built the house I still live in. And that could have also be a fatal, failing choice because West Virginia has never been an easy place to make a living, and choosing a place as remote and far from any city with potential employment was not smart. But it's what we did and we paid for that choice for several years. In fact, it probably cost us our marriage. My first husband left and returned to the place we had left, where work was plentiful and the living a lot easier.
I chose to stay. As a single mother with four sons, that was probably not such a good choice either but when you love a place your roots go deep. Remarriage and another baby, my husband and I working for minimum wage--again, it would seem like the odds were stacked for failure. And yet, we didn't. We persevered, finding opportunities to work a little more, ride together to save money, and continue the farming we had been doing to keep the ends together.
What put us finally on the track to a less precarious lifestyle was the Pell Grant. Starting college at 36 with five children seems like another opportunity to fail but day by day we made it work; I continued to work part-time, a very good neighbor did childcare for our baby son and we kept going.
When I look at the choices I've made, I can't say they were all good. It's been a journey with some surprising twists and a few turnarounds, but a journey upward all the same. Where along that path might I have ended up in a second floor apartment with a laundromat across the street? As a young mother with so many children? As a newcomer to West Virginia with no clue about the economy of the state? As a divorced woman with many bills, a minimum wage job and a home and family to maintain? I ask myself those questions and then ask why it didn't happen. I'm not sure I know the answer except that we kept trying, we kept working and we kept loving our home and state.
Retirement is the next step in my journey and again the possibilities for failure loom. We might not have enough money. We might get sick or hurt and end up with huge medical expenses. Many bad things could still happen to put us into that apartment.
There are no guarantees. I suppose that's the bottom line to this saga, this thing we call life. Any one of us can be the winner, and we all stand a chance of ending up a loser. All we can do is continue to try, explore and take a few swings at some of the good pitches we're thrown.
As for those two ladies, God bless them. I hope their lives are as interesting and fulfilling as mine has been, and that the dry laundry will be a little lighter on the return trip.