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Government Cheese

It's the cheese I remember - a congealed, yellowy-orange block in non-descript paper, with, I think, blue writing. You needed the might of Solomon to cut through it, it was so thick. All I could manage were chunks - never firm slices.

No, the slices - they were for people who could afford the good stuff. Our cheese came from the food stamp program - the government-run agency for poor families who couldn't afford to feed themselves without help.

For a short time, we were one of those families. Not because my parents were lazy or waiting around for some kind of handout, by any stretch. Rest assured, Bettye and Jimmy were hard workers. They just couldn't find any work. At the time, jobs were scarce in Long Island, N.Y., the place my parents moved after spending five years raising my brother and me in a small south New Jersey town where they had few friends and even less familial support. They thought things would be better back in Long Island; there were factory jobs there, and they had friends there, too, and my mom missed her church - needed to be closer to her lifeline. Her people.

But her people couldn't find work for her. Or for my Dad. And when their money got low, my Dad got desperate - got back his old job in New Jersey and commuted back and forth from BayShore, N.Y., to Trenton so that he'd have some cash coming in. It was a decision that nearly broke us; Daddy would leave us on Sunday night, stay in New Jersey until after work on Friday, spend two days with us, and then head back to work - a grueling schedule that was all-at-once scary (for us, seeing as the man of our new home wasn't there to protect us) and lonely (for him, seeing as he had to be without us and alone for days on end, for months and months).

And then, the factory closed. And after all of that commuting, after all of that loneliness, after all of that searching for something better, after all of that holding on, our family's only source of income was… gone. And all of a sudden, it was be proud and starve, or suck up your pride and let your babies eat.

My parents chose to let us eat.

It wasn't a proud moment for my mom and dad, I'm sure of this. My mother is somewhere on the other side clutching her pearls and rocking back and forth and having a conniption knowing I'm putting all our family business out in the (e)street like this. But some things need to be shared, others said. Because according to this story, we're living in a time where the sole source of survival for a lot of vulnerable families - and especially the children of those families - is food stamps. And despite what my local congressman says (embarrassingly, he lends to the story one of the most ignorant, backward-thinking, outdated quotes I've ever read), our country is full of men and women - mothers and fathers - who would much rather earn their keep with a job than wait by the mailbox for the cash they desperately need to feed their babies for one more day.

This is what was going through my mind the other day at the grocery store, where my babies and I waited patiently as a mother juggled babies of her own while the cashier pored through her groceries, telling her what and what not was covered by her food stamp benefits. The particular brand of light bread she picked up was a no-go. Beans, a yes. She had to tell her older girl - she looked about Mari's age - to put the gum back into the candy rack. "No gum, baby," she said softly.

I recognized the look in her eyes - saw her shifting from one foot to the other, desperate for the cashier to be done with the questioning and the fumbling and the "you can" and the "you can't" pronouncements so that she could take her milk and her bread and her no-name cereal and her beans and her chicken and her rice and go on home - far away from the cashier.

Far away from the prying eyes of the women lined up behind her, impatient and annoyed that they had to wait for the food stamp mom to finish her business so that they could pay for name-brand cereal and fruits and vegetables and fancy drinks and sliced cheese.

Far away from the reminder that people think she's lazy and shiftless and would rather feed her babies with handouts rather than earn a decent wage so she could give her children what they need and even a little of what they want.

I guess I just want everyone reading this to remember that people are hurting, and just as easily as we make it, it could be taken away - leaving us to hurt too. Like my mom and dad did when they were struggling.

And like the lady at the grocery store.

God bless her and all of the other mothers trying to make a way out of no way.

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