As she counts her blessings, security isn't among them

December 14, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

She wrote to tell me that she knew she should count her blessings. That her children were smart and healthy and she and her husband had jobs. That she had choices and she should be content.

But she was angry, afraid and frustrated. "For a lot of us out here, the American dream just doesn't exist."

It hadn't started that way. Fifteen years ago, she married and moved with her husband to an inner-city neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. He learned a trade, made foreman in six months and was the model of a dedicated American worker. Workplace accidents damaged both knees, one hand and his forehead, but he never missed a day. His appendix ruptured, and he took vacation for surgery.

She had two kids. They decided that they would raise their own children, and so she spent their early years in the fog of domesticity. But slowly, the screw turned and she went back to school and then back to work, but only part time.

Then the recession came, and it stayed. The mills and factories that supported their blue-collar life are idle. Each year for seven years, her husband has earned less. His benefits were cut. His job is in such constant jeopardy that they plan their budget by the latest unemployment benefit figures.

The yuppification of their neighborhood halted, too. Now their street is like an island in one of the toughest areas of their city. Burglars make field trips into her and her neighbor's homes and then flee into the housing projects around her.

The city schools are magnet schools, with focused curriculums to attract bright students like her children. But there was a "lockdown" at her daughter's elementary school when an anonymous caller warned that the school would be in the line of fire during a drive-by shooting.

Their American dream is all out of kilter. She could make it right if she worked full time. As a nurse, she could make enough to afford to move, to afford to send the kids to schools outside the city. But she needs to be there after school because she can see immediately in their faces what kind of day they have had. And because she is afraid of what could happen if she was not.

"When they were babies, it was a given that I had to be at home. To nurture them, to help them grow. But I feel more of a need to be there now that they are almost teen-agers than I did when they were little. Look at what they are exposed to."

If not her, who would have been at her daughter's bus stop the afternoon it did not arrive? The driver inexplicably stopped the bus and took a young girl rider into the woods, supposedly to go to the bathroom. The driver then left off all the children far from their stop.

She is caught in a conundrum. She could make their life better, safer if she worked full time. But she knows the emotional costs if she did.

"Maybe I can't let them go. But if I lived in a community that was safer, if they went to schools that were providing a safe environment, maybe I could.

"We could be making more money. I have that choice. So it just drives me crazy when I stand in line behind some woman with a shopping cart full of steak, roast beef, and deli stuff and brands of cereal I can no longer afford and she is paying for it with food stamps. And I'm there with a pound of ground meat in my hand for tacos.

"My husband has given 17 years and two knees to his company, and he has no more security than the guy who was hired a week ago.

"I should be grateful for what I have, and I know that. But that only adds a whole new layer of guilt. We have played by the rules, and it hasn't mattered. It is always something else: braces, glasses, the car, the fridge goes. I live waiting to see where I'm going to get hit next."

She could afford roast beef and braces if she worked full time. But she knows all that it would cost her and her children.

"I'm not a career-oriented woman. My goals aren't for me anymore; they are for my kids. It is not that I am such a wonderful mother. I know I'm not. This is about talking about dreams at bedtime. My son wants to go to the Naval Academy and fly jets. If I'm not there for him, how would I know that?"

Comments on Susan Reimer's column? Call Sundial, the Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). After you hear the greeting, punch in the four-digit code 6150.

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