By Abe Villarreal

There are some memories of childhood that stick with you, others you can barely remember. I stop and wonder sometimes why those that you do think of from time to time stay with you. Maybe they mattered more. Maybe what was happening was an important event that helped shape you.

I can think of the time I was standing at the Safeway checkout lane with Mom. The cashier was ringing up the groceries. Potatoes, rice, veggies. Nothing too exciting. We were vegetarians and we were poor. My grandpa once said a little bit of rice goes a long way.

As the checkout lady told her the total, mom pulled out a little booklet filled with paper money of all kinds of colors – purples, yellows, blues, and greens. They were food stamps. She flipped through them and pulled out the appropriate amount to pay the bill.

I didn't think too much of it other than I knew it was different kind of money. At nine years old, you are too young to understand the welfare system. Mom has always been a private person and she didn't share information related to our economic well-being.

Until you reach a certain age, you don't realize that you are poorer than others. The food Mom makes you is the food you enjoy. The clothes you wear is the clothes you have. The fun you make is good enough for you even if it didn't cost a penny.

Then you get older. People look at you differently and you begin to look at yourself differently, because maybe you are different. Other moms use cash and credit cards to pay for groceries. Other kids wear clothes that look like the kind you see on T.V.

Through the years, I would catch my mom writing out a budget on a plain piece of paper. Each line said something different and had a different amount next to it. Food, rent, utilities, and on, and on. Then there would be a total.

Once she wrote it all down, I saw her take out money and count it to make sure she had enough to pay for what she was budgeting. Her face seemed worried sometimes as if maybe she didn't have enough. It was old school as it could get. A mom making sure she paid for the bare necessities. If there wasn't anything left over, it didn't matter. She paid for what had to be paid.

As I got older, I noticed that she didn't use food stamps anymore. She, and her family, were moving up the economic ladder. No, we weren't rich, but we were able to provide for ourselves without the help of the government.

She told me that the moment that she didn't need them anymore, she got off of them. We could make it by working hard and by saving money for emergencies. Both my parents started off as factory workers, and then custodians. They didn't have degrees, neither did their parents.

So, my parents saved money, and that meant we kids didn't get everything we wanted. Mom went from cleaning a medical clinic to working a desk job. By the time we were in high school, we moved from a single wide trailer to a house on one of the town's main streets. We still didn't have enough to go on big vacations or to have the latest cars, but we were moving up and we had what we needed.

When I see others struggling, moms figuring out how to get by, I think of Mom and her colorful book of paper money, and I appreciate how she managed to raise a family of four kids with a little help from others when she needed it.

But mostly with her own determination to prosper and to move us up in the world. I know that even if she didn't have the paper money, that she would have found a way to keep us fed and housed.

Love does that. It finds a way.

Abe Villarreal writes about life and culture in America. He can be reached at

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