short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Saturday, August 28, 2010


It was in college that I would first have to fight a seemingly unbeatable foe. At home, in the hands of highly abusive parents, I nonetheless knew I would ultimately win whatever battles befell me. I was small, but I was a “spitfire,” as many of my relatives called me. When I got bigger, I fought back vigorously and physically. When I was a teenager, I saw a light at the end of my tunnel: college. The foe was beatable.

Now, though, there was, indeed, an unbeatable foe: the college financial aid office. When I first applied to colleges, I knew that financing an education would be a problem. Poverty had greeted me at birth and, like a frightened but swaggering Chihuahua attempting to bolster his own self-confidence, had nipped at my heels most of my life. Nonetheless, being an incurable optimist, I assumed that college funding would appear from somewhere. It did. As a result of my SAT scores and my having been selected for Who’s Who Among American High School Students, the University of New Hampshire wrote to me and promised me four years of education, fully covered by scholarship, if I would come there. I considered that possibility, but it would keep me near home. That was not an acceptable option because it would keep me near home. More than anything else in going to college, I was looking for an escape from home. That was the reason why I had applied to Penn State University even though the entrance requirements for out-of-state students were extremely rigorous (top 10% of the incoming student body) and out-of-state tuition way out of reach. Penn State had accepted me but had not yet responded about the possibility of financial aid. At the advice of my high school guidance counselor, I sent Penn State a copy of the letter from the University of New Hampshire. Someone from the Penn State financial aid office wrote back to me and told me not to worry, that all my education would be paid through a combination of scholarships, loans, and work study. Soon thereafter, the financial aid office put together a package that took care of my first year in full, with the indication that subsequent years would be similar—but they weren’t.

From a financial aid point of view, I made the catastrophic error of getting married my sophomore year. The young and probably not highly knowledgeable financial aid officer at Penn State who told me that being married would not make a difference was wrong. It did make a difference. While my marriage has lasted 38 years, my scholarship petered out in far less than 38 weeks. “Giving scholarships to married women,” Mr. Z, the older, male financial officer who had taken over my account, said, “is a waste of money. They just sit at home, doing nothing with their lives but living off men. So, go home and take care of your husband.”

I went home all right but not to take care of Charles. He seemed to be handling that well enough on his own. Rather, I assessed my situation, looking for an out-of-the-box solution to the dilemma of having only a few weeks of financial aid left and two years of courses to complete. The answer came quickly—I have trouble thinking in the box; actually, I have trouble even finding the box!—so it did not take long to figure out that the 78 semester hours I still needed in order to graduate would break easily into 39 semester hours during each of the following two quarters, both of which were paid for by already-granted aid, That meant I had to take triple the maximum course load each quarter. Thanks to an advisor who paid little attention to students with A averages, considering them skilled enough to make their own decisions, a non-computerized course tracking system at the time, and a secretary who was willing to file my 3-page grade reports rather than turn them over to my advisor, I was able to tiptoe under and past the radar and graduate two quarters later.

My mother’s mother (my father’s mother had died when I was only six, so all I remember of her was a photograph with me on her lap as a toddler) gave me a small “loan.” With that and income from cocktail waitressing in the evening and go-go dancing at night, I even had enough money to fund the first quarter of graduate school.

“Don’t pay the loan back,” Gram said. “Pass it on.” I have done that on many occasions in my life, passing along as well the philosophy of not paying back but passing on whatever kindness is shown.

Gram was quite unlike Ma, and sadly Ma did not return Gram’s affection until a few days before Gram died many years later. A woman of hefty proportions and traditional haircut, Gram was a matriarch. There was no doubt about that. When she spoke, one obeyed. The liberating thing for me, though, was that she did not hit. Moreover, she listened, and when she spoke, she had fun ways of expressing herself, like looking for something “all over hell’s kitchen.” Throughout my preschool years, she fascinated me with nursery rhymes that she never tired of telling over and over and, when I was older, with an old gramophone that we wound up to play records that would gradually slow down, turning the singer’s peppy voice into a drawn-out wail, as the winding ran out. The games, songs, and rhymes that Gram taught me are ones that I now find myself teaching to my own grandson. When Ma would call me her “plain Jane,” Gram would respond, “Pretty is as pretty does.” During my penny-starved early college days, Gram would write to me every couple of weeks and include a package of dentyne gum under whose wrapper she had inserted a five-dollar bill. So, it was not surprising to me that Gram was the one who would come to my rescue when I had fallen on the petard of the financial aid officer. Gram came to my rescue years later, too, moving in after Shane was born and doing my housework for a month. “No one should come home from the hospital the day after a baby is born,” she scolded. “You play with the baby; that is your job now. I will take care of the house, the other kids, and your house work.” And she did.

Ironically, I might not have attended graduate school, had I not lost my undergraduate scholarship. Had I taken the slow route through school, Charles, a forestry major, would have finished significantly ahead of me and taken me to Montana from where his first job with the U. S. Forest Service beckoned. By graduating nearly a year and a half early, I had to wait for him for three quarters. During that time, I took all my master’s courses, this time only doubling the course load. My teachers, advisor, and department chair all understood my financial dilemma and did their best to help me by letting me finish as many of the requirements each quarter as I could handle. I passed the German reading exam required of German-Russian comparative literature majors the second quarter and the dreaded-by-all master’s comprehensive exams the third.

As soon as my exams were completed, I left for Montana with Charles, with only my master’s thesis left to complete. Talk about getting the last laugh on the financial aid office! I would end up paying tuition only one more time after that. That was for only one semester hour in order to be enrolled for the quarter in which I graduated. When I received my M.A. diploma, I exulted that the foe had been conquered again!

The Chihuahua had not disappeared, however. Although I did beat it from time to time, I never vanquished it. By the time I became a special needs parent for the third time — this time with Shura, the dying child artist I took in from Siberia — poverty and I had become old friends.

Poverty and I had, in fact, become sputniki (traveling companions) early in life for the 8-pack had been raised in poverty. For us, though, poverty itself was meaningless. It fell very low on the discomfort ladder, with physical beatings far outranking any other potentially significant contribution to our unhappiness. Moreover, while we did not have the brand-name clothes and the fancy “things” that our classmates from the city did, we had everything we truly needed. There was food after the move to the farm, and there was clothing because my grandparents worked at a textile mill. I, too, worked there as a teenager. We girls learned to make our own clothes, and some of our creations even became popular styles at school. Ma taught us the basics, but I especially liked to try new creations, such as patchwork dresses. All of us learned to harvest crops, preserve food, make butter and ice cream, and cook. As soon as we could reach the pedals, we learned to drive a tractor and took turns mowing and raking hay. We also learned how to yoke the oxen and use them to plough the fields in the spring. In the summer and fall, as soon as we were old enough to recognize the difference between a ripe vegetable and berry and an immature one, we were put into the fields, both our own and those of neighbors who hired us to work at three cents a pound of harvested peas, beans, blueberries. Thus, we acquired good skills and a strong work ethic.

In this respect, in spite of gifting us with a generally violent childhood, our parents did well by the 8-pack for they poverty-proofed us. One can never be truly impoverished if one has skills, talents, and diligence—and, as the Russians say, 100 friends.

As a poverty-proofed adult, I have rarely felt an overwhelming need for money. Surprisingly and heartening, however, whenever I have truly needed money, it has fallen into my lap. Even when I did not ask anyone for it, even when I did not know that there was Anyone to whom we could turn, the money to stave off potentially dire consequences has appeared from unexpected sources and often in the nick of time.

Thanks to intervention after intervention, our old foe would grow weary at times and lay down to rest, allowing us to do the same.

This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).


  1. I love this. Very inspiring story. So glad that you made it - you are obviously a person who works extremely hard. You deserve the best!


  2. What an amazing story. Nicely written too :)

  3. Elizabeth...this has given a peek into why you are such a strong lady...I love to imagine what the old financial aid guy would think now!

  4. Hi Elizabeth .. your story here certainly drew me right in .. wonderful words - sad too though, but uplifting too ...

    Humans make their own way .. overcoming obstacles in front of them .. and giving to others .. grandmother was amazing .. interesting how different traits can skip a generation ..

    Love this .. Hilary

  5. Jane, Lynda, Karen, thank you for your kind words. Karen, I am sure that the old financial guy retired thinking that he was right. These are the kinds of prejudices that are very difficult to change. I just hope that his prejudices did not cut short any woman's opportunity at Penn State during his tenure there.

  6. Hilary, thank you. You are quite observant. I am very much like my grandmother. I even find myself playing the games with my grandchildren that she played with me and even using her expressions.

  7. Your story is truly inspiring. Poverty has marked so much of my life, and while I didn't think so at the time, I'm sure that in the long run I am better for it. I admire your courage to stick with it and persevere - despite the many monetary setbacks. God provides - even if it does sometimes seem to come at the eleventh hour! :) Thank you for sharing your life - your words are deeply thoughtful, honest, and moving.

  8. Thank you, DJ. I am happy that you found something that struck a chord in the post.


About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.