“A few months ago,” the email began, “you did a story about a time you went to a laundromat in Charleston for the first time. You didn’t know how to work the machines or how much it cost to do a few loads of clothes and were surprised it ended up costing around $25 to do your clothes.
“My sister saves some of your columns for our Mom and when I saw that one laying on her counter, we got talking about it and laundromats and a few dozen other things.”
But mostly, “M” said, they talked about the times in their life when they’d had to scrimp. “The years we lived off little more than Ramen noodles and hard-boiled eggs.”
I laughed when I read that part of her email, as those two foods, plus generic cereal, had made up most of my diet for a few tough years when I was in my late 20s. I emailed her to tell her as much, and she and I began talking, via email, over the course of several days about the art of getting by. The little tricks we’d learned during our time as single moms.
“One year in particular,” M wrote, “my kids were being extremely secretive about their letters to Santa. They knew she didn’t have any extra money and was stressing about it, so they wouldn’t tell her what they wanted because they didn’t want her to spend her money on them. But being kids, they still wanted the toys the other kids at school were talking about.
“Their strategy was to write letters to Santa. That way, he could get them the toys and Mom wouldn’t have to spend anything,” she said. “Except we weren’t living on a Hallmark set, you know. The only way any of those Christmas wishes came true was because I was busy listing half [the contents of] our apartment for sale on eBay.”
Complicating matters, M said one of her kids asked Santa for only one thing — an all-white FurReal cat — one of the most popular and impossible to get toys that year. Getting one meant spending a few hundred bucks or standing in line for hours just for a chance at one, with no guarantee it would be solid white.
“We still have the real, live white cat I ended up getting from the shelter that year when I couldn’t find an affordable one like my girl had her heart set on,” she said. “I tried to get a FurReal box to put it in. Couldn’t even manage that. You should’ve heard her scream when she saw the real cat, though! She never once said she would’ve rather had a fake one.”
“Once those kinds of times are finally behind you, you mostly forget what it’s like living paycheck to paycheck,” she wrote. “But my sister and I both had laundromat-type stories of our own. Your column hit home with us and reminded us of a time when things were so much harder.”
But what prompted M to write was something her sister recently did.
“I’m proud of her for this and told her I was going to write and tell you,” M said. She made M promise to not use her name. (Which is why I’m not using M’s name either.)
“My sister just recently moved into a house with a pretty new looking washer and dryer already installed in it,” M wrote. She said the pair was about the same age and quality as ones she had bought for the place she’d been renting.
“Even though she could’ve really had some fun with the few hundred bucks she might’ve gotten from selling them, she went to a laundromat not far from her house and when a mom came in with a bunch of dirty clothes, asked her if she had a place to hook up a washer and dryer if someone gave them to her for free.”
Which her sister did. She even arranged to have the set delivered and hooked up.
“‘She said something like that maybe wouldn’t have been a game-changer for us back then,’” M said, “but it would’ve made the game a lot easier.”
So, I’d like to tip my hat to M’s sister for finding such a classy way to pay it forward. With her nearly new side by side.