Those first few months were at once exhilarating and terrifying. I loved being on my own, and never felt the fear I imagined I might feel coming home alone in the dark. It was wonderful to shut my door, lean up against it and realize there was no one there but me.
Emmy N. was a long-timer in the recovery meetings I attended in Boston in the 1990s. She was quiet, earnest, and always had a smile for a newcomer, and whenever she spoke, I listened intently to what she had to say. In the first few years, I had learned the hard way that when people suggested that you “stick with the winners,” and look for qualities in people who had what you wanted, it was important to be careful and discerning. My first sponsor, for instance, was a woman who was tall, blonde, and svelte. I definitely wanted her easy style, grace, and sophistication, but she broke every confidence of mine in a matter of weeks, and I never made that mistake again.
‘Never judge a person’s insides by their outsides’ was a lesson I took to heart after that.
While I didn’t ask Emmy to be my sponsor, we became closer while attending a home meeting started by a mutual friend who just had a baby and was finding it hard to get out to meetings as often as she needed to. Several of us were invited to come to her home in the early evening, and Emmy was a regular there.
It was a time in my life when everything seemed difficult. I was sober less than a year, my newly ex-husband and I had joint custody of my seven-year-old daughter, and getting her to and from school, finding work that allowed me time to be with her after school, was not easy. I was entertaining dreams of being a working musician, had found a job at a pub in town where I could sing and play piano from 5 pm t0 9 pm a couple nights a week, but that job ended three months after it started.
In all the time I had envisioned life on my own, I never thought of how difficult it might be to support myself. When we separated, John stayed at the house, stayed in the same job, and had very little changing to do. He took on a roommate to make up the mortgage difference, and voila.
I, on the other hand, wanted change. I never really loved the house we’d bought a couple years earlier. It was old, in Roslindale, and everything looked as worn and tired as the boarded up Mom and Pop stores in Roslindale Square. I had done my best in that first year to tear down the old wallpaper layers and paint, put in a new linoleum floor in the upstairs bathroom and some cheery wallpaper, but it never felt like my home. I took myself across the Charles River, making friends there, finding jobs there, and starting over.
Still, while John and I never made a lot of money as Catholic school teachers, we had enough. We lived thrifty lives; we rarely bought new clothes, and we didn’t spend a lot of money on things like tickets to plays, Red Sox games, or movies. More and more, after Jess was born, we engaged in ‘tag-team parenting,’ where one parent was free for a couple of hours while the other took care of our wonderful daughter. Babysitters were expensive. In the first few years, money for day care was like turning over my meager part time job check to the babysitter, and really, was it worth it?
I was speechless. I know I thanked her, but I don’t recall saying anything else. My mind was racing. We didn’t even know each other that well, just from meetings. No one had ever given me a gift so extravagant, and I certainly had never asked for something like this.
When we did separate, in the summer of 1990, I was rudely awakened by the reality of life as a single mother, where one never had enough money or time. Now I was challenged to make ends meet on half the income (at best) and the bills now always came here, to my mailbox.
Those first few months were at once exhilarating and terrifying. I loved being on my own, and never felt the fear I imagined I might feel coming home alone in the dark. It was wonderful to shut my door, lean up against it and realize there was no one there but me. Three nights a week I had that luxury, when Jess was with her father. By the time it was my day to pick her up from school, I couldn’t wait to see her, had had quite enough of myself for a week. As difficult as those days were, I think she got the best of both parents, wildly happy to be with her after the few days of separation.
Still, even though I had excellent secretarial skills, could type fast, and knew grammar like the English teacher I was, pay was poor and only for the hours I actually worked. There were times when I looked underneath cushions to find coins that would add up to the thirty-five cents Jess needed for milk money. Once, a grown-up at school asked her if we were vegetarians, seeing her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches day after day, and she said, “No, we just can’t afford meat.”
In my naïveté, I thought having a car might just be too expensive. How much cheaper to get a T Pass once a month, eh? But after a month of that, waiting for trains, buses, and realizing how much time it took to get from Somerville to Roxbury and then to MIT and then back to Roxbury at 2 to pick up my daughter from school, I bought a used Honda Accord for $1,000 that would do. Actually, it started smoking after driving it for a month, so I sold it and bought a better used car that lasted me a couple of years. I learned how to make it, month to month, but was still spending far too much money on therapy appointments that were not covered by insurance.
It was at one of these times, when the bills could not all get paid, again, that I shared at the cozy house meeting how I didn’t know how I would manage one more day. I often shared the same thing, especially close to the end of the month. After the meeting ended, Emmy came up to me and quietly asked if I would accept a check from her for $1,000 as a gift, not a loan.
“My husband and I are doing well, and it would please me to know I could help you through this tough time, just a little,” she said. “I see how hard you’re working on your life, your sobriety, and I’d like to do this.”
I was speechless. I know I thanked her, but I don’t recall saying anything else. My mind was racing. We didn’t even know each other that well, just from meetings. No one had ever given me a gift so extravagant, and I certainly had never asked for something like this. When I looked into her face, there was nothing but love and kindness, not a hint of judgment or pity. I also saw that she believed I would make it, and at that moment, she was the only one who did.
That money was spent well, and quickly, of course. Her generosity lasted long after the bills were paid that month. I thrived on her vote of confidence in me. It helped me hold my head up, and better than that, it helped me feel like I wasn’t alone, and there were others who cared about me, were rooting for me, and were on my team.
One day, while making amends for harms done in the past, a regular part of my recovery life, it occurred to me that I was in a position to pay Emmy back the money she had lent me. For years I had been making a living wage, and my finances were in excellent condition. I wrote her a note, since I hadn’t seen her in years, and thanked her for her generous gift to me ten or more years before. It meant so much to feel supported by the universe, and helped ease the level of desperation I was sinking into at the time.
She wrote back, thanking me and telling me that the money could not have come at a better time. Her husband had taken ill, and she was on a fixed income now, and it was like manna from heaven. Just as her check had been to me.
Eileen (Kalinowski) Wiard lives in Taos, NM and is the author of Inside Outsiders, published by Nighthawk Press, a YA novel about belonging and bullying. She has been published in Sojourner’s, Mothering Magazine. Her CD, Yesterday’s Rain, is available on iTunes, Amazon and CDBaby. She lives with her husband in the Land of Enchantment. Check out her web page, eileenwiard.com.