I love coming home to this bedroom every day, bathed in light. White, neutral, with some texture from the burlap, fur, and wood; and graphic high-contrast from the black-and-white pillows and framed picture above the bed. I love the dried purple flowers and how they, with the blue stripe from the pillow, are the only muted colors.
But from a different, wider, angle, we have my industrial clothing rack on my side of the bedroom, and my DVF animal-print silk ruched dress that I found for a hundo at a second-hand store is decor-art at the head of the rack. I love the rainbow pop of color. That dress is such a piece of art. But we’re probably getting rid of that piece (the clothing rack). We certainly don’t need it seeing as a small family could live in the size of our closet, so the free-standing rack and the pieces I’ve chosen to showcase on it are sheerly there as decor for the time being.
We had a few people to thank for our recent 10-day vacation in New England. So I stopped by The Paper Source and picked up the cutest lobster stamp you have ever seen for $6 bucks. I already owned the white card stock and red envelopes– the perfect colors for a lobster-themed, New England thank you. That underwater octopus/fish wrapping paper was too perfect not to pick up as well. I’m obsessed. I want to stamp everything I own with that lobster. It was exactly what I had in mind when I went to the Paper Source with the specific intent to find a lobster stamp. I was hoping it wouldn’t be some cartoonish, tacky one. Mission accomplished.
The other day, I went to Tryst and “built” my own delicious salad with mesclun, black beans, red grapes, veggie burger, feta, green apple, and sunflower seeds. It was $12.00.That night, Alex and I both had a “refresh” moment about saving money. Like anyone who isn’t running wild with gratuitous money spilling out their drawers, we try to enjoy our lives in the present and enjoy being young, with making every shortcut possible and leveraging whatever networks we have in place. We buy tickets to Miami, when they’re super duper inexpensive, and stay with my family who lives there for free and eat what they cook. And that’s vacation. We fly to Boston and do the same thing, staying with his parents who live there and eating whatever they’re cooking for dinner and using their car to drive around New England. We spent one night in 10 days at a hotel (The Hanover Inn, when we were visiting Dartmouth), and it was the same rate as The Holiday Inn because it was a Tuesday and about 80% of the hotel was un-occupied. That’s vacation. Our vacations are always, going to cities where we know people who have homes. I’ve never in my life been on a vacation to somewhere like….Turks & Caicos, or Bahamas, or Hawaii, or Positano, or Saint Lucia. In my whole 18 years being a child under the roof of my parents, we never once went on “vacation” like that. We went to Miami to stay with my dad’s sisters, and Nebraska to stay with my mom’s sisters. No travel whatsoever. Thank God where my dad’s sisters–due to our Cubanness– happened to live was Miami– a warm happy place with palm trees. Or the extent of my travel beyond DC would have been…Nebraska. With all due respect to Nebraska! We never visited the West Coast, never went out of the country, never went anywhere really, except to Miami/Nebraska because we had free places to stay there.
Obviously in comparison to a large percentage of people in this country I’d probably be considered rich for the sheer fact that my parents were homeowners, but the people we were always around were eons and eons above us. Washington is a tiny little city with a LOT of rich people, especially at the private school I went to (on scholarship/financial aid). Even at the public school I went to from kindergarten through 5th grade, one of the nicest in Montgomery County, the families were worlds beyond us. I basically grew up around people whose financial lot in life we couldn’t have been more different from except if we’d lived in the projects on food stamps, which we did not. Everyone I was surrounded by took yearly trips to tropical locales just to celebrate New Years Eve, not even as their summer vacation. They had more than one car, and it was a nice car, a new car; and they skiied in Aspen and Vail and Telluride; and bought what they needed at standard places like Nordstrom and Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. My mom shopped at TJ Maxx and thrift stores and drove a station wagon we bought from our janitor, prior to which it was a 1980 Isuzu with no air conditioning, radio, or electrical anything.
It sounds cliched to even write those sentences, about ‘skiing in Vail and Aspen but they’re true. The people I knew were yearly visitors to Aspen and Vail and had the family photos in their living rooms to prove how yearly a tradition it was. Even the ones whose families didn’t go to a place like Tahiti for New Years Eve, at the very least had the basics covered. What I’m saying here is that even if they WEREN’T rich enough to vacation every year (let alone….ever), they also weren’t in a position where the cost of a $200 semester of ballet classes or an electric bill was “a thing.” A thing to discuss or question or assess or worry about. Neither was repainting the living room walls, or getting carpet installed. They just lived how people who don’t have money constraints live. Comfortably. Or, more than comfortably. They decorated their homes, turned their garages into guest apartments because it was a better use of space, went on vacations, enrolled their kids in all kinds of extracurriculars, belonged to country clubs, had parties, had nice cars, moved into different neighborhoods, re-did their kitchens, sent their younger children to boarding schools, golfed and played tennis for leisure– not that there’s anything wrong with that!!! (To quote the famous Seinfeld episode). They had trampolines in their backyards, finished basements, movie rooms, and Brookstone waffle makers (yes, simple kitchen accessories were the little things I noted as I spent Saturday mornings in their marbled kitchens, because I wanted our family to have a waffle maker let alone a fancy one).
Sometimes, even including the families who were just ‘normal’, I can’t believe the wealth I grew up around…the families at Saint Albans, NCS, Landon, Stone Ridge, Visitation, Holton Arms….I mean DC and its surrounding suburbs (Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac) is one of the wealthiest areas in all of America, probably second only to Beverly Hills 90210, and I was surrounded by it. But my intent isn’t to describe the things they had as a bad or negative thing, like ‘oh that horrible family who skies in Aspen and has a hot tub in their back yard’, because it’s not negative and they weren’t horrible, they were awesome and generous (at least the people I was personally friends with or else I wouldn’t have been friends with them) and I was envious of those families and would love to have that kind of comfort in life one day. Who doesn’t want to ski in Telluride and have a gorgeous home for their family? Having money (enough to not struggle, not anything crudely over-the-top) isn’t the fault, it’s the ideal. Nobody wants to struggle to pay bills or not go on vacation. Unless they’re insane.
I just sometimes can’t even process it because I didn’t personally know one person who was as poor as we were. Or even came close. When I describe what people had that I didn’t, it’s not meant to belittle their vacations and home renovations, our family was just so so so far from having any of that—like it was so supremely out of the realm of possibility or attainment– that it boggled and boggles my mind to this day. I was acutely aware of the cost of every single thing in life, from toothpaste to band aids to ballet class because there was just nothing dispensable in our family. Nothing. We never had anything “on-hand” because you only bought it if the need presented itself. Like I would literally walk to the CVS at Spring Valley and buy my own Neosporin when I had a cut because we didn’t just…have that shelf with first aid supplies. I just had to figure it out. Even as a 22 year old I’d sometimes open the spare closets at houses of friends of mine and literally marvel at their spare linens and everything-you-could-ever-need medicine closets. Like, ‘woowwwwww families just… have these things.’ Our house never had “the essentials”– bathrooms or laundry rooms or closets stocked with things families have. I bought my own laundry detergent, my own school supplies. I bought my own appliances– my own blender, when I wanted to start making smoothies for breakfast when I was 15. My parents just didn’t have the extra $40. I had to buy my own things if I wanted them. Our kitchen had nothing, ever. It was the same when I was 6 as 19. Measuring spoons, glass baking pans, muffin tins, nope. Nothing. No trappings of a home that families have. When I’d want to make some dessert for fun, because that’s sometimes what 13 year old girls do, like “let’s make brownies and then eat them”, I’d have to go buy not the mix (well, that too), but literally the compartment in which to cook the brownies because we just didn’t own those superfluous things. My mom didn’t cook and my dad would make his Cuban dishes with one pan. Who needed more. I prayed my friends would never just, go searching through our cabinets or decide to bake something on a whim because they’d find that….our kitchen was a sham. We rarely had enough utensils even. I’d grab like 50 of those plastic fork-spoon-knife packages at restaurants and keep them in a drawer for myself.
My friends to this day probably don’t understand the extent of it because it’s the kind of thing YOU DON’T WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW! (When you’re a kid/teenager, at least). The complexities of it build deep within and you learn so much just from observing and listening to your own parents versus what it’s like when you go over to friends’ houses. I never talked about it, until later when I got more confident with my voice and stopped caring, and would refer to it with a sense of humor.
The prettiest most exotic place I’ve ever been, to date, was with someone else’s family, because that’s always how it is/was. My friend Whitney invited me to Cabo, Mexico in 2009, one year after I’d graduated college. I’d been working as a temp at the Corcoran and bought the $400 round-trip ticket myself and stayed with her family, the kind I always wished I’d had– with parents that were married and still in love even with grown children, that had a tradition, like going to Cabo every Spring. In college, when I went to Barcelona to study, my first time to Europe, I was a transfer student getting credit for Dartmouth classes so I got the same financial aid I did as if I were attending a semester at Dartmouth. That’s the only reason I was able to go. My dad’s stepfather had just died, a pawnshop owner, and gave my dad $10,000– of which he used $800 to buy my round trip ticket to Barcelona for me, and help out with my daily food/spending money.
My parents never had any money from the time I was 0 years old to now. Ever. It was like…pay the mortgage, get some basic food in the house, enjoy life as much as we can (a matinee movie– a treat, or an evening of Ledo’s pizza for dinner–I remember those nights well), and that’s it. Everything was like an… ‘if’ or a ‘when the next paycheck comes.’ Seriously when I wanted to have friends over, I personally went out and bought our snacks for the evening–popcorn, candy bars, or my parents would do it and then some utility bill would suffer in its place. Z-E-R-O disposable money.
Just this week, my dad brought over a sign he’d found in his things and it ABOUT broke my own heart even though it was me. It was a sign I’d written up and printed out to put around the neighborhood, so people would hire me for dog-sitting.
I literally CANNOT believe how I phrased things in the ad, like saying “I do not have a specific amount of money I should be paid and I am adjustable to anything. (something reasonable).” Like….oh my god, what? “Just something reasonable, guys. I’m a reasonable person.” haha. I also say “I already have baby sat two person’s dogs in my life, including Michelle Gilbert and Jeff Goldman.” As though any passerby would be see the sign and go, AHHHHH, OLD MICHELLE GILBERT AND JEFF GOLDMAN, if this Alina girl has pet sat THEIR dogs, she must be trustworthy.” The fuck?? I acted like it was 1750 and anyone seeing the sign in the neighborhood would know the names mentioned. “Yes of course, the venerable Michelle Gilbert and Jeff Goldman. Why, if they trust this child with their pets then I must too.”
I began dog-sitting to earn money when I was 9. The note was written when I was no older than 9 or 10. It’s so heart-wrenchingly endearing for me at 26, to see how I put myself out there to secure work so I could earn my own way at such a young age. “Just leave me a set of your keys and your dog will be fine.” HAHA, oh okay. When I saw this I wanted to SQUEEZE my old self, with that American bootstrap spirit. I hustled so I could buy my own, whatever it was. My own school supplies, my own Bath & Body Works lotions (they were so coveted, mid- ’90′s), my own groceries, my own birthday presents for friends…otherwise my mom would just open some random closet and go “oh here! just give her this quilted wallet I have, I can put the tag back on it and wrap it up real nice.” Bless her.
My friends certainly know this aspect to my mom. She was always reaching into some compartment of a wall (secret hiding places) and pulling out some $5 TJ Maxx clearance find that my brother or I could repackage for a birthday present since she had no money. If I didn’t want to be mortified I just had to take matters into my own hands. I bought my own ROOM furniture when I was 13. I saved up like $500 dollars from dog-sitting (apparently Michelle Gilbert and Jeff Goldman’s dogs, among others), and we’d gotten an Ikea catalog in the mail and I remember feeling like I’d discovered THE WORLD’S biggest secret as I flipped through it, that all this nice looking furniture was this inexpensive and that my 13 year old self could afford it; and I made my dad drive me and I purchased my own fold-out bed so friends could sleepover, and my own bedding and pillows and lamps. I remember that shopping trip vividly. I literally can feel myself, as I type this, skipping through the different sections of Ikea that day, delighting in the bins of $3.00 throw pillows. It was one year after I’d started at my private school and I felt like I could finally invite my friends over for sleepovers and be on their level. My friends probably remember that room- the pink and yellow walls and the futon they slept on many times. I paid for it all.
Our furniture was budget (literally ALL thrift store, TJ maxx or free from a neighbor or friend except for the one year my mom got an advance on a book she was writing for Eunice Kennedy Shriver and bought a Crate & Barrel couch that no one in our family will ever forget– its image will be ingrained in my head for the rest of eternity because of how nice/special it was, and then our dogs later ruined it), our food was budget, our cars were budget, our ‘vacations’ were budget, our life-enjoyment expenses were budget…. never once in 26 years was my family like “hey, we’re going to San Fransisco for a week for Christmas, or July 4th, or..JUST BECAUSE, and renting this house, you can invite a friend along.” We didn’t do things like that. We didn’t go places. I went to the beach all the time in the years I was at my private school, always with some other person’s family because it was the other people’s families who went to the beach and rented homes 5 steps from the water and I got to just…..go along.. My friend’s families did things like going to San Fransisco 3 times a year– during the holidays, summer, and for no occasion at all. Just the sheer sake of travel. Oh man, what I grew up around. I had clothes on my back, amazing parents, amazing friends, the best education ever, experiences of a lifetime by getting invited along with other people’s well-off families, but I was basically dirt poor and in awe of how every other family was. Their homes with Ethan Allen & Pottery Barn furniture, their vacations, their cars they were given when they began driving, their kitchens, their Christmas and birthday presents. As a kid, I always particularly keyed in on the kitchens– because they always had slick, modern, clean, nice, refrigerators and built-in dishwashers and fancy appliances like electrical Kitchen Aids. It’s funny what you key in on, and I always noticed the fridges and dishwashers and general kitchen appliances, because of how old and outdated and ugly or nonexistent ours were.
We had one dishwasher from the time I was born onwards, and it wasn’t “built-in” because that would have meant our kitchen had been…designed. It was like a $100 Sears dishwasher that you had to manually roll up to the sink, plug in, it would sound like bombs were dropping for World War 3, and then you had to roll it back to its designated spot. When I was about 11, this dinosaur broke and we never replaced it. And the panic when friends would stop by impromptu…. “ohmygod are there any clean dishes??!?!” And I would holler at my mom begging her to clean some cups real quick because Ellie was about to stop by and we had no clean dishes. Because we didn’t have a dishwasher. The worst was when it was too late, and someone stopped by, and they wanted a drink of water, and they’d reach into our cupboard and there would be no clean dishes and they’d be like, “‘I’ll just get one from the dishwasher” and my stomach would clench and I’d lie and say it was broken, not that we just didn’t own one. Because you care about these things when you’re not grown-up yet. Ellie was always the best though. I know she remembers the gillions of times she wanted a drink and there were no clean cups and I’d rush into the kitchen and nonchalantly try to brush it off and quickly clean one for her, not calling attention to the fact that we didn’t own a dishwasher. It was so embarrassing every time no matter how well I knew her. Because no one I knew didn’t NOT have a dishwasher. It was inconceivable. I realize millions of people don’t have dishwashers now and didn’t then, but not the people at my school. Not the people we lived around. A family has a dishwasher, it’s just something they all have, and we didn’t. None of this was painful, by any means. It wasn’t some painful or traumatic realization; it was just…something to matter-of-factly hide because it was less hassle than having people realize the things you didn’t have that they did, and something to desire for some other time in my life.
And when I’d observe people’s nice things in their homes, it was always more awe from an intellectual standpoint. I genuinely was never unhappy in my life. I was always happy. But I’d go to their homes and be like, “well Alina, it appears that this is how the rest of the world lives. Nice kitchens. Nice fridges. Dishwashers. Nice sunken living rooms. Vacation photos from Telluride. And I wonder if you’ll have this one day, when you’re 45 and have your own kids. ‘Till then I guess you’ll just keep dog sitting to keep up the best you can.” That was basically my inner monologue. “Ah, another friend with another beautiful stainless steel GE refrigerator. Maybe one day, friend.” (And isn’t it interesting, to think that I’d notice nice refrigerators the most? I guess they’re the heart of where food is, and when you’re a kid life revolves around getting home from practice or this or that and rushing to the fridge to get a snack, and having friends over and going to the fridge for a midnight snack. Guess it makes perfect sense).
To this day I’m still dog-sitting, on top of my day job (government), on top of my side job (Refinery), to keep up. My things are still Ikea and thrift/second-hand store (GoodWood, Miss Pixies, or the free things my neighbors leave out). My vacations are still….as free as they can be. My parents still live in the same house (only, divorced now). They have the same beat-up furniture (Crate & Barrel couch no longer). They sleep on the same mattresses as 25 years ago. They’ve still never gone on a real vacation or stayed in hotels. They still can’t afford Christmas or birthday presents. My mom still buys things exclusively $9.99-and-under at TJ Maxx. There’s still not much in the fridge when you stop by and the fridge is still that same one–the one we had when I was 3, 6, 9, 14, 17, 21, 24, and now. There’s still no dishwasher. There’s no “guest bedroom” all decorated cute, the way all my friend’s family’s had. No renovations or additions, the way retired couples do when their kids have grown up and flown the coup– how they always re-do that bathroom they always wanted to fix, or build-up the back porch, or turn the old kids’ rooms into a fancy office. Just the same, exact, teeny tiny house I was born and grew up in. And about ten minutes from that house, I live in a rental. I don’t have a stainless steel refrigerator and oddly enough, I also do not have a dishwasher. I still have pretty much zero disposable income. I have about 27 g left of student loans, 6g in credit card debt, and a car payment that Alex and I split each month. We inherit our parent’s lives, for the good and the worse, and work to emulate the good things and break the pattern of the bad.
But the POINT of that trip down childhood lane began with the $12.00 salad I ordered at Tryst. And how Alex and I had a trip down memory lane together, with a renewed urgency for spending less, saving more. About every 5 months, something within me clicks and I really reflect and look inward and forward, with regard to money. You’ve probably noticed. About every 5 months I write some epic post like this. Looking back at the memories from growing up in a family with little spare money, surrounded by families with lots of it. I always dreamed of growing up and belonging to the latter. I dreamed of having a house with stainless steel appliances– my dreams aren’t gaudy or ostentatious, I just wanted more than an old, rusty refrigerator–with a husband I’m very much in love with and healthy happy kids, who I can afford to take on vacation. I wanted my kids to be able to have memories of that one place they go to every summer– doesn’t matter where it is. A spot in Northern California, Austin Texas, Bozeman Montana– some place that would serve as our annual family tradition, where the kids could take their friends along and look forward to every year. Where even when they’ve graduated from college and are 24 years old and have their own boyfriends or girlfriends and are living in some city not near their parents, we all still visit every summer. That annual, vacation spot to gather the troops. I always wanted that.
So. That $12.00 salad made us both think. About how much we spend on dinners and lunches out. So today, instead of going back to Tryst, I went to Harris Teeter and I bought Mesclun, and one green apple, and one avocado, and some red grapes (we had feta and pine nuts) and a box of frozen veggie burgers. And I came home and grilled that veggie burger and chopped my apple and avocado and made myself this salad for lunch, the ingredients for which should last me at least 3 more salads, versus spending $12.00 on one single salad at Tryst. And even if I lose the momentum of this moment in 2 weeks, the point is that it came, and it’s here, and that whether I fall off the horse or not I do try. To “re-do” my home (rental) without spending a cent, just by rearranging the pieces. To think for 3 months before I make the plunge and buy those magnificent Sam Edelman shoes. I try and I’ll keep trying, and keep aiming for those things I never had as a kid. Self-improvement and hard work and dreaming is in my veins. I love the me that created “Alina’s Dog Sitting Service” as a kid and successfully got jobs every summer (and school year) pet sitting people’s dogs, cats, and iguanas– yep, there were several iguanas in there–and I’m so glad my dad kept one of those neighborhood signs I made showing how I thought and spoke as a little 9 or 10 year old. “Now that it is the summer, anytime you need me to come, I’ll be at your house ready.” “I will come to your house, feed your dog, play with it, walk it, groom it, and whatever else you would need me to do.” So earnest. It makes me so proud of who I was and still am. How that person has always been in me and will always be with me. I’ll keep that sign forever, as just a heartbreaking token of a kid’s desire to add value and be compensated in return so she could pay for things she wanted. “I love dogs. I am truly good to them and enjoy any dog’s company.” It literally fills my soul with sweetness. I know that I’ll always just…do what I need to do. Get business done. Take care of myself. Keep trying. The dog-sitting business wasn’t my lemonade stand, concocted out of boredom. It was real. And I earned clients whose pets I took care of every summer, year after year, for 7 years until I went off to college. I still pet-sit, for friends of some of those same neighborhood families, who referred me throughout their networks. I still babysit for friends of some of those same families. “Reliable, trustworthy, kind” me who will “be at your house ready”, to work, and treat your dog or kid “wonderfully.” I’m glad I can always look to that “hire me” sign for strength and humor, and a reminder of who I am. And I’ll always have Michelle Gilbert and Jeff Goldman as references.