This article was originally published on the first page of the Huffington Post in the blog section.
I graduated from college during the recession of the ’80s. I had the same youthful high hopes that all college graduates have and I assumed I’d find a job. After all, I was a Phi Beta Kappa honors student with work experience. But the only jobs I could find were part-time, low-paying teaching positions. To make ends meet, I cleaned houses, the same job I’d had at 16. I owned almost no furniture. I ate very little. I was always sick but I couldn’t afford a doctor. I felt betrayed. I had studied so hard but there was no reward.
A few years later, I was lucky enough to get a job in Japan. I taught in a community college and wrote for a Japanese newspaper. My profession was well-respected and I was well-paid. My apartment, transportation and health care were all paid for. I saved money. I traveled. I had plenty of time to work on my novels. I never worried. Those years I spent in Japan were the only time in my adult life that I felt successful and securely part of the middle class.
I married and had a wonderful daughter. We lived in a nice apartment in Tokyo and we had a housekeeper who cleaned and cooked twice a week. My greatest joy was all the time I spent with my daughter and husband.
When my daughter was older, we moved to Maui so that she could attend a good private school and grow up happy and healthy. Not long after this, things began to go wrong. My husband discovered he had diabetes. He rapidly went blind and lost his business. He was hospitalized and that’s when we discovered he had cancer. He died a few months later. My daughter and I were on our own. Then the recession hit.
I had two priorities: survival and to give my daughter a good education. So I taught for a private school and worked in a hotel. But even though I worked hard enough to develop heart palpitations, I had trouble making the rent.
Meanwhile my daughter flourished. She was an honors student and I vowed to keep her in the school she loved. I knew that cleaning houses was a good way to survive on Maui, but at first I was too proud to work the same job I’d had in high school. Finally I swallowed my pride and started cleaning houses.
The work was hard. The heat and tropical climate on Maui are wonderful if you are sitting in a deck chair enjoying the view. But they are not so great if you are vacuuming and scrubbing, up to your elbows in hot water. After work, I made dinner for my daughter, often falling asleep at the kitchen table. At night, I lay down saying, “Oh God, please don’t let me die in my sleep.” When I woke up in the morning, I always breathed a sigh of relief. I know three women my age who have suffered fatal heart attacks.
When I first moved to Maui, I was shocked to meet people who couldn’t afford to leave the island. A few hundred dollars for a plane ticket was impossible for them. But now I was one of them.
Piece by piece, I sold off all of the jewelry my husband had given me, plus my family heirlooms, to pay for my daughter’s education. I sold a beautiful strand of pearls to a debutante from Chicago. On the day we agreed to exchange them, I put the pearls around my daughter’s neck and showed them to her in the mirror. I explained how valuable they were.
“As beautiful as these pearls are, you and your wonderful mind are much more beautiful and precious to me. I guess from now on, we’ll call these ‘our pearls of wisdom’ because they are going towards your education,” I told her.
She laughed and hugged me.
Despite everything we never had enough money. I begged and then pleaded for financial assistance to keep my daughter in school. I held garage sales. The families I cleaned for rummaged through their closets and generously donated items. I sold cookies and brownies. I cried on the day I learned how to apply for aid because work as slow. Somehow I managed to work on my novels a few minutes a day, my only solace.
I quickly learned that most of the things we consider middle class essentials are really luxuries. The list is endless, from television and a land line to hair products and household products to vitamins, most medicines, fast food, drinks other than water and all non-essential groceries.
We eat mostly fish and rice with vegetables and fruit from the farmer’s market. I splurge on tea and coffee. Sometimes I cut my food intake in half so there is more for my daughter. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 years. When they get holes in them, I mend them. I gave all of my cute Tokyo clothes to my daughter. When I can afford to buy clothes, it’s usually at the thrift shop and almost always for my daughter.
I began to feel I had slipped so low that I was no longer respected. I lost self confidence. I stopped talking about my writing. Soon nobody knew that I was a writer or that I’d ever gone to college. Nobody knew me. I became invisible.
But hard work and sacrifice does have some rewards. My daughter graduated and she was awarded a full scholarship to a top private university on the West Coast. People still ask me, how did you manage to raise such a wonderful girl and get her through private school all by yourself? I never know what to say because it still seems like a miracle to me. So many times I thought I would fail, but somehow we made it through.
Before my daughter left for college, I told her that true success is not just about money. True success is measured by how happy you are. Always strive for happiness, I told her.
I’m still cleaning houses and eating very little to save money for when my daughter comes home on vacation. I worry that I won’t have enough money to feed her. I try not to think about my own future. Retirement is something other people do. I assume I’ll work until I die.
Each day as I go from one cleaning job to the next, I stop to talk to the working homeless who live on the beach and who own nothing more than some clothes and a cell phone. The next minute, I’m talking to someone who owns several, multimillion dollar beach-front homes and a private jet. I walk a treacherous tight rope between these two worlds, always afraid of falling. Sometimes I wonder, “Am I the face of the new American middle class?” I hope not. I really hope not.