The New York Times, Modern Love Column — When the Ball Dropped, Our Life Fell Apart
When the Ball Dropped, Our Life Fell Apart
Six years ago, on a frigid New Year’s Eve, my teenage daughter and I, along with our two cats, became homeless. Just before midnight, we closed the door to what had been our home for six years and headed out into the night.
This was in Middleton, Wis., just west of Madison. While others had spent the day preparing to ring in the new year, Kristil and I had devoted ourselves to moving our possessions from the apartment on Patty Lane to a storage unit.
We had planned to stay with my twin brothers until I could figure out our next step, but that arrangement — worrisome from the start because of one brother’s volatility — fell apart almost as soon as we arrived when he grew angry and kicked us out, leaving Kristil and me huddled in the stairwell with our cats and belongings.
“Now what?” Kristil asked.
“I don’t know.” It felt as if the fragile scaffolding that had been holding us up had completely given way.
Nearly two decades earlier, when I got pregnant, my greatest fear was that I would fail as a mother. I had learned in a sociology class that children born to single parents were at a significant disadvantage: less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to become pregnant as teens, with higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse and significantly lower rates of college attendance.
And it had been a real struggle, but I hadn’t failed; I had worked steadily to keep us afloat. Kristil’s father, a charismatic but troubled man who had spent most of Kristil’s childhood in and out of prison for robbery and other crimes, had contributed little financially. My other family members weren’t in much of a position to help either.
As an introverted, bookish, biracial child, Kristil was subjected to bullying at school, and the fact that we had to move so many times as I changed jobs didn’t help. Neither did our regular visits to see her father in prison, which left her feeling scared, confused and resentful.
What I lacked in earning power, however, I tried to make up with love and determination. I vowed to use all the strength, smarts and resources I could gather to reverse the odds for her. And for years it seemed like it was working. Kristil was thriving at school. If anything, our tenuous financial circumstances — and the grim lessons of her father’s incarceration — motivated her.
During Kristil’s freshman year of high school, she announced that she wanted to attend a high-level college and began researching what was needed to be accepted into such a school. I figured the University of Wisconsin would be a great option to strive for, but Kristil had higher ambitions.
One summer day after her freshman year, we drove to the public library to pick up books Kristil had on order. Awaiting us were three bins containing some 60 books, many of them “how-to” manuals on getting straight A’s, mastering standardized tests and winning admission to Ivy League schools.
At home, Kristil lined them up in stacks along her bedroom wall, then mapped out her reading and study plan for the summer. Thus began Kristil’s execution of her high school career. She read, wrote and studied relentlessly, joined every club she could and excelled at all of it. I also held up my end, keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table, and supporting Kristil in her various pursuits.
It was midway through her junior year, just as all of her college planning was ramping up, that things started to unravel. First, I lost my job at a local company where I had been doing administrative work. A few months later, my mother died from the cancer she’d been living with for 18 months. And finally, Kristil’s father, who had been out of prison and sending us a bit of money, was incarcerated for the fourth time, for burglary.
We got by on unemployment benefits and by selling our possessions, but not for long. Rather than despair, Kristil redoubled her academic efforts, making plans to apply to as many as 30 colleges, taking and retaking the ACT and SAT and investigating scholarships.
During the fall of her senior year, as we sank further into debt and could no longer pay our rent, she turned to her early decision choices. She already had accumulated enough credits to graduate early from high school.
And then, on Nov. 5, we received the eviction notice. Seven weeks later we were shivering in that stairwell, wondering where to turn.
I dialed the number of someone I normally would never call in the middle of the night — my father. The moment he answered, I dissolved into tears. He said he would help pay for a night or two in a hotel — that was all he could manage — and off we went.
The next morning, I awoke to the sickening realization that Kristil and I had no place to live, no idea where we were going to go and no one to help us. Kristil didn’t say much, but I knew she was scared.
“It’ll be O.K., Mom,” she said. “We’ll figure something out.”
But it was my responsibility to figure things out, not my child’s. She already had done all she could to change her life, finding hope and determination in our misfortune. As she wrote in her application essay: “Watching my mother struggle and wait for my father to get out only so he could slip right back in was painful, but it was also inspiring — inspiring in the sense that it gave me a reason to strive for a better life, a reason to keep trying and a reason to care.”
I just needed to help her across the finish line.
That winter, as Kristil readied and sent off her dozens of applications, devoting herself to each one, we bounced from cheap hotels to my father’s house (hours away) to a brief rental before ultimately finding ourselves in my aunt’s basement.
One evening that spring we were looking at books in Barnes & Noble when Kristil said, “So I got this email. It says they want to meet me to do an interview for college.”
“An interview?” I said. “Yeah, from Yale.” “Yale?”
It was the first of many interviews she was offered with admissions officers from top colleges. And then came the bombshell: acceptance with a full scholarship from Barnard College at Columbia University.
They wanted to fly her to New York to see the campus for herself. As we hugged, I burst into tears, but she was calm and steady.
Months later, when it was time for her to move into her freshman dorm, we were still living in my aunt’s basement, still without a home. Nevertheless, we boarded a flight to LaGuardia and soon were standing at the Columbia gates on Broadway. When it was time for parents to leave, I couldn’t bring myself to let go.
“You have to catch your plane,” Kristil said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be all right.”
It was Kristil who turned to go first. She knew I wouldn’t. I watched her walk into the campus and disappear.
Heading down Broadway alone, pulling my suitcase, I cried. I was terrified — for my little one, for myself, of life in general. How would she manage? How would I? I kept walking, my face glazed with tears.
Back in Wisconsin, I had a lot of work to do. It would be another three months before I was able to regain a home, almost a full year from our eviction.
A short four years later, I was back in New York, this time for Kristil’s graduation. After getting myself to campus, I made my way through the crowds, searching faces for my little one.
Then I saw her, heading toward me in a dark dress and sandals, her long curly hair clipped in a loose twist. She held out a bouquet and said, “These are for you.” Bright, pink peonies.
I had never had a peony before, nor had I ever smelled anything so sweetly fragrant. Later I arranged them in a clear glass vase on my windowsill. I’ve since learned that peonies are hardy perennials; no matter how harsh the winter, they bloom again in spring in all their beauty.
The next day, Kristil graduated at a rainy ceremony on the lawn, followed by a reception with the English department and another event at Radio City Music Hall. After it was over, we went to the hotel; it felt surreal to be overlooking the city under such different circumstances.
I am still pained by the memory of that difficult year, but Kristil shows no signs of slowing down. She now lives in Sweden, where she’s pursuing a master’s degree, but she’ll be back in Wisconsin for New Year’s Eve.
I bought us matching pajamas that we’ll probably be wearing as we watch the ball drop on TV. In a home that’s ours.