My 16th birthday looked a lot like Christmas three weeks earlier. My mom brought out my gifts: a speaker, a thrifted sweater and an envelope with two pieces of paper with: “IOU $50. Happy birthday. Love mom,” written on them. She apologized for not being able to get me anything, but I wasn’t upset. Those IOUs, or “I owe you’s”, meant more than any gift.
After hugs and thank you’s, we walked over to the local Indian restaurant, had a meal with a close family friend and watched each of our favorite movies together. Spending that time with the two people who meant the most to me was certainly better than $100 — in IOU form or otherwise.
My mom’s favorite movie at the time was a documentary called Three Identical Strangers. It’s about secret experiments done on twins who, in infancy, were separated from each other through an adoption agency. Each of the siblings was sent to a family in a different economic class as an experiment on nature versus nurture. After serendipitously meeting, they became best friends — as if they’d been brothers their whole lives.
While the other siblings lived in much larger, expensive houses, they all gravitated toward the home of the triplet who was adopted by a family of lower socioeconomic status. It didn’t matter what kinds of luxuries they had at their homes; the two other young men seemed to find their brother’s home cozier and more loving. His parent’s inability to buy expensive gifts made them more thoughtful, taking the time to think about the best gift they could obtain within their budget.
Growing up, my home was similar: simultaneously vacant of luxuries such as marble countertops and furniture from this century. My mother and I often spent nights awake, wondering if we were going to be able to keep our utilities on. While we were lucky to always have a place to eat and sleep, there wasn’t much more than that, for the most part.
Yet, our home was filled with love. The carpeting in our one-bedroom apartment was stained from spilled ashtrays and indents from my friends sitting together for hours on the floor. Instead of the perfume of fancy candles, the walls were infused with the smell of popcorn and weed from late-night movie marathons.
But my mom was always embarrassed by where we lived. She said that she didn’t like the area — there were rats behind the dumpsters, drugs being done on street corners and the best view your apartment could have overlooked the freeway.
Because of this, when I was younger, she would move us to a nice neighborhood for a few months so I could go to a good school in the area. We would always end up moving out of those neighborhoods — it was too expensive to live there, but I would still commute to school. Because of the area my school was in, most of my friends came from families that were significantly more affluent than my own. While their parents were doctors, lawyers and Grammy-award winners, my mom was a receptionist.
She thought that my wealthier friends would laugh at us after learning just how poor we really were, but that ended up not being the case. Whenever my friends and I hung out, it would be in my one-bedroom apartment rather than their two-story houses. We didn’t have much, not even snacks — the only option, more often than not, was microwavable popcorn that my mom tried to “enhance” with hot sauce and lemon juice.
As minimal as it was, it tasted better than anything “fancy” such as pita chips or name-brand ice cream. It didn’t matter what luxuries we had or could give; my friends seemed to have simply found us to be the most loving and fun to be around. Maybe it was because I didn’t have a car, so they had to come to me. Maybe it was because my house was the only one that we could smoke inside of.
But I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve interacted with my friends’ parents beyond a simple “hello.” Comparatively, my friends and I drank with my mom in our living room the week before classes started.
The gift of our small space was that it allowed us to become closer; there were no stairs to run up or a basement to hide in. My mom has watched my best friends and I grow up, from middle school to our impending college graduations. They all love my mom, and she loves them like they were her own.
My family could never afford to throw birthday parties or go on vacations. We couldn’t and still can’t afford to get each other expensive gifts for any holiday or birthday, if we can afford a gift at all. I think that not having money made my mother and I love a lot more and a lot harder, not only with each other but with our close friends.
Love was the only thing that we could always afford. And it was worth more than any gift or dollar amount.
I still haven’t cashed in those IOUs.