"Have you ever been inside that house? It's the welfare house."
I can still see the dirty face of the twelve year old girl across from me. Saying those words to her hangers-on with disdain and disgust in her voice. She had a French accent and matted hair. Her face was chubby and angry looking. Probably having just had a fight with some other neighbourhood kid, her clothes were dirty too.
As an adult I can look back and remember those traits about her and realize how ironic her words were. I sat on my front step, a Judy Blume book in my hand. Clean hair, clean hands and a quiet demeanor. I wasn't bothering anyone when she came up to me, but my sister had been hanging from the giant tree on our lawn and taunting anyone who walked by. A bit mouthy, my sister was equally clean and well dressed. Yet we both took these words to heart. My sister started to cry and asked what she meant.
"Your Mom is dirty and your house is a mess. You're on welfare!" She clarified, just to be sure we both understood how beneath her we were.
Neither was true. We were not on welfare. In fact, my Mother had an excellent government job. Even though it was only one salary, we didn't go without. We didn't have the excess either, not a lot of extra, but enough. Inside our house was not a mess. True, on the outside, the bushes lacked pruning, the grass rarely got cut and we never planted flowers, but my Mom was a single parent. She didn't have the time nor the inclination to make the house look better on the outside. She was too busy trying to keep everything going on the inside.
If I close my eyes, I can still bring myself to this moment. It was the day I realized that my life might be considered substandard by onlookers. It hurt. It cut. It made me cry at night. I was angry that I wasn't living the romantic life I read about in Sweet Dreams Romances or other teen novels I had become addicted to. That girls' face has stayed with me my entire life. She's pushed me to constantly analyze my life and ask "Am I still that girl? Do people still look at me and see The Welfare House?" Have I convinced everyone that I'm different now?
I don't know where she is, who she is or if I could pick her out in a crowd. I can't even remember her name. Does it even matter? It's the look on her face, the misinformed hatred. I'm angry with this girl for dividing my life in two. Before she came along I was so crazy in love with my Mother she could do no wrong. After this girl I think I always held her a bit responsible for how I was made to feel.
Even now I take stock. Comparing me today to that girl on the front porch twenty years ago. I'm embarassed to admit that. I file away the luxuries of my life and look within myself to see if it's enough yet. Do I have the close-knit nuclear family I once defined a good life by? Do I have enviable life rather than one to be scorned? Am I ready to face that girl head on and let her challenge me again?
I don't want to be better than anyone else. I don't want to stand out or shine brighter. I want to be average, equal, worthy. I just don't want to be the girl in The Welfare House ever again.
I wrote this post a month ago, one night at 3am. As I fall asleep I have flashes that move fast and more often than not, this girl is amoung those flashes. Logically I know as an adult that she has no bearing on my life. She was wrong and I knew that. But that someone else saw my life differently than I did, and in a negative way, was more than I could stand. Even today, that's the part that hurts most.