The Struggles and the Joys

This afternoon, I’m more aware than ever of the richness of my life. During our entire marriage, I think we lived 6 to 8 years above the poverty level, and even then, we always seemed to be struggling financially. We’ve always been technically poor. We’ve never had an excess of money. But oh, we’ve had joy!

I need to put it into context for you. You know when you run out of toilet paper and you have to make do with napkins until payday? Well, we spent whole years with neither napkins nor toilet paper. No, we didn’t have paper towels. Coffee filters could be awfully convenient at times like those, since we were out of coffee, too. Might as well put them to good use. Are you getting a clearer picture? I’ve never been open about this online because it makes us uncomfortable to share such details.

During those scarce years, I took my 3 year old daughter into a friend’s beautifully appointed bathroom once and she shouted, “Look, mom!” I thought she’d exclaim about the thick towels with beautiful lace trim, the handmade shower curtains that could put any designer window drapes to shame, or the plush rugs on the floor. It was a work of art, and my friend made me ashamed of my pathetic attempts to decorate my stark, colorless bathroom. My daughter’s next words stopped me cold. “Look, toilet paper!”

That crazy moment was excruciatingly embarrassing on that day. This friend had heard every word. She probably thought that was the saddest thing she had ever heard. She would not understand that we made the incredible choice to use our toilet paper money to rent a movie. After all, we were still out of coffee and there was half a jumbo pack of filters left. For our little girl, who seldom went to the movies or to a restaurant, that trip to Blockbuster to get the $.99 video rental and the three-pack of microwave popcorn was the highlight of her month. That memory didn’t just last a moment, but instead it sank into her long-term basket of happy thoughts. I hung onto the image of her proudly hugging a video of her choice and carrying it by herself to the register counter. Additionally, the mental image of my little girl oohing and aahing over toilet paper made a fun insider joke that kept us all laughing for years. We lacked so much, I know, but never joy.

We’re a lot better at managing our finances these days. We seldom run out of toilet paper anymore, and our double-wide mobile home is comfortable, air conditioned, and has some cool surprises inside. We don’t have an excess of income even now, but we still have the same amazing gift that God provided to two very young, extremely clueless young people who decided to get married against everyone’s better judgment. We have the ability to look at our lives, day after day, and pull out beautiful, joyful memories filled with the happy smiles of our children.

That beautiful little girl was followed by two other strong, happy boys. Each of them can tell you incredible stories of lack. They can describe the long years without cable and the incredible fact that growing up, they owned video game systems two decades older than their friends’ gaming systems. This is before the phrase “vintage” made that cool. In fact, nothing we owned ever impressed any of their friends as being very cool.

Here’s the crazy part. Our house was always full of kids, and though we rarely had money to order pizza, we had boxes of Mac ‘N Cheese to make, hot dogs to cut up into it, and boxes of Little Debbie snacks to share. That and plenty of Kool Aid with real sugar in old, stained Tupperware pitchers. Oh yeah, and lots of laughter. Kids left their homes with mothers who cooked way better than I did and crowded onto my living room couches to watch a TV that might be even smaller than theirs, to watch VCR tapes from our collection that were very old but still fun. We introduced kids to Veggie Tales and teens to “Terminator” and “Rocky.” We had so much fun. Joy filled the house during those amazing moments.

These days, the house is almost empty a lot of the time. The nest is emptying as my last two chase pursuits that are going to take them out of my house. One is in college, one went straight to work, but eventually ended up studying a trade, and they’re both out of the house during most of the hours that I’m home. I have a tendency to feel melancholy about that. I mean, so many of my best years were hectic, stressful, overwhelming, full of noise and messes, and now are far behind me. Yet, I am finding that God keeps putting jewels in my crown. Right now, in the form of lovely nieces and nephews that we get to spoil with our love and attention. In the form of students that I teach at a private school. In the form of friends who may not always understand me, but who have walked this path beside me for decades. Joy pops up all the time, and I like to stop for a moment frozen in place, soaking in the memory, the feeling, the experience. I like to snap a picture or a video with my ever-present phone. These moments show me that the best isn’t in the past. The best is still happening now.

My jewels have never been in a form easily recognizable by financial experts. My greatest treasure has never been something that can be boxed up and stored. My treasures are in human form, in people whom I love. In memories of moments that will live in my heart forever, long after this brain has let them all go. My treasures are still being amassed, one of whom will be here in early December, my first grandchild. (He was born, and he’s beautiful!!! There’s another on the way on July 2018.) These jewels are not countable, measurable, and cannot be weighed to reveal their worth. However, they are impossibly valuable to me.

I’m doing a Bible study with some lovely ladies online this month. Today, we’re reading Proverbs 8. The chapter is mainly dedicated to describing the importance of wisdom. In this passage, Wisdom speaks as if it were a human being, and it describes itself as a priceless possession and a valued family member. The verses that stood out to me were these:

19 My fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold; and my revenue than choice silver.

20 I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment:

21 That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance;

They are surrounded by monetary references, but my heart zoomed in on these exact words. The fruit of wisdom is described this way. I’m reminded as I read of my Papi, Louis Alberto Rivera, my grandfather who raised me. He was constantly telling me to look to my family if I wanted to find joy. He reminded me daily and sometimes hourly that in Christ, the most important things we can find are a relationship with Jesus, and a loving family bond. My grandfather oozed wisdom, and his life was rich.

Those who love wisdom inherit substance. This reminds me of a cautionary tale: A friend of mine whom I loved dearly had everything a person could ever want. She was married to a wealthy man and had lovely children. Her parents doted on her, and she was fashionable. She didn’t need to cook, but when she did it was tasty, and she kept her fancy house spotless. From my vantage point in my messy, chaotic life where we were always struggling to make ends meet and where my domestic efforts never produced success in the form of a neat house or delicious food, I envied her. I found out over time, however, that her kids treated her with disrespect and didn’t seem to enjoy being with her. The money was not enough, and they still struggled financially due to poor choices and wasteful excess. When I saw how this family’s life really was, I understood that God was giving me a glimpse behind the scenes so that I could value what I had.

I came home from learning the truth of her situation, and the kids and I sat together in the living room chatting about the movies we were watching, the TV shows we liked, sports teams (even though I hate sports), and even the food we liked — frozen $1 pizza on this particular day. Our living room was always filled with lively conversation, I realized. Our faces generally defaulted to smiles. It occurred to me that my children and I had a great, busy life. I decided never to allow myself to forget how blessed our family was to have the bond that we shared.

Now, as the house is emptying, I can thank God that we still enjoy our time together in a group. The living room fills up with chatter, the kids pace around talking over one another, excited about their favorite new topics for discussion. They still love to discuss movies, but as they’re all old enough to vote it’s politics, too. A son-in-law has been added whom we all love. Life has been so good. I have my jewels, and I’m incredibly rich. Is there anything else I could possibly gain from financial wealth? I honestly don’t think so.

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