3rd Story of Transgression: Poverty is Transgression (or Fashion Doesn’t Exist When You’re Poor)

It was 1987. Everyone was preparing for 8th grade graduation. It was a preteen girl’s first chance to wear a formal gown. My friends were picking out their gowns and excited about the dance.

Except we couldn’t afford a gown. We were poor. So poor that we had begun the school year living in a friend’s garage, and then a house that was soon condemned for mold infestation and a broken septic tank. We were regularly eeling off the jetty for meat or eating white bean and hamhock soup for days at a time.

My mom’s solution was to offer me her wedding dress from 1976. She thought it was a beautiful dress and she was highly sentimental. It was a gift in her eyes.

I was mortified. I couldn’t tell her so because she was a narcissist who ruled our home with her emotions. I couldn’t tell her that her precious dress brought me tremendous shame, that it was so out of fashion it was like wearing an “I am Poor” sign when I could usually hide the extent of our poverty. It would hurt her feelings and that wasn’t allowed. There were no teenage temper tantrums in our house. No one was allowed to be angry, or ungrateful. So I just smiled and bore it, like so many aspects of our lives. (Is it a wonder I spent 8 years in a marriage of grinning and bearing it? That’s what a good girl does.)

I wasn’t teased. I have no idea what anyone else actually thought. But I knew we were transgressing by being poor. And I believed that our poverty was plainly visible the day I walked across that stage in front of 100s in a 1970s wedding dress. I couldn’t hide our transgression any longer. More than anything I remember the constant burn of shame in my cheeks and chest. Ouch.

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Image: I hoped to find the photo of me at 8th graduation, but this will have to do. This is my mom in her wedding dress and me, the flower girl. I was born a bastard to a teen mom, beginning my life as a transgression. My mom married my adoptive dad when I was 3. They divorced when I was 10 and we never really knew financial stability again.

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