I’ve always been competitive as a kid growing up. Had a big family of nine kids total. The situation with our parents was sort of like puppies fighting for nipples when there never seemed to be enough nipples. With that many pups, getting your share was pretty tough. It took the right kick in the right place to ensure your place in line without getting caught by the watchful eyes of my parents and sent to the back of the feeding line.
The best part of being part of a big family was the hand-me-downs. There’s nothing like getting handed down your sister’s Halloween costume of a homeless person. It always fit each kid too, no taking anything in or letting it out. It was one of our favorites. Plus, on Halloween, we found the parents with the bowls would offer us more candy than they offered the pretty princesses. Once in a while, even the other trick-or-treaters would donate from their own bags. We’d make that candy last for six months! Sometimes we’d each place a share into our family community Christmas bowl. Trust me, there’s nothing like seeing a wicked chocolate witch mingling with a marshmallow Santa for the holidays. The true spirit of Christmas!
Sure, we were poor growing up. With that many mouths to feed and parents who missed graduating from high school, we had to fight for our food. Dinner time was the most organized our family was, we each waited until my father was served before we helped ourselves. No smacking, no reaching, and no talking ’til my father finished and left the room. Sort of like he was the king. But after he left, it was every man for himself.
Everyone had a favorite; mine was potatoes. You wouldn’t guess it then. I was so small, my choice was to either have the waistband so huge my belt gathered my britches around my waist or absolute floods that hit halfway between my ankles and my knees. I usually wore the belt cinching them up with safety pins strategically placed on each side. That way, no one could see my unmatching socks so big the toes were doubled over. All of our socks were interchangeable that way.
Because we couldn’t afford lunch, we reused our lunch bags for a week. Some people consider that cost conservative. It isn’t like there was anything to ruin the bag. Every day a peanut butter sandwich and some change for a milk. Multiply that with the number of kids and my father’s meager income and you can get a fuzzy picture of where we were.
Still, I remember fighting this big kid named Mike in elementary because he wanted my lunch. The kids were standing in a circle around us as soon as I told him I wouldn’t give my peanut butter sandwich to him – sort of a modern-day David and Goliath story going on in the schoolyard. A hefty boy against a scrawny, four-eyed little girl too hungry to back down. One hefty punch was all it took. Yes, from him. I was a twiggy-armed girI half his size! I didn’t see him for the rest of the day – or anyone else for that matter. He’d knocked my glasses halfway across the playground and broken them. The rest of the school year I looked like one of those nerds from the television sitcoms with tape holding the nosepiece together. But the bullies still didn’t bother me after that and I’ve never trusted another Mike. And I continued to receive little notes in my lunch from my mom–usually the highlight of my day and the main reason I was excited about lunchtime.
We moved a lot too. The longest I went to school in one district was two years. There were several I went to less than half a year, and that was tough. As soon as my name was no longer “the new girl,” it was time to change schools. You can imagine my horror when at one school another girl stole my “new girl” title. I was pissed. That’s when I became “Michelle Z.” There were already two girls who had the name “Michelle.” It made sense that in addition to being new, I was also always the last in line. And no one could ever pronounce my surname. Nine letters long and starting with a Z; I was proud of anyone for making an effort to sound out the extensively long German name. Even the people of my immediate family had an individual way of pronouncing it. I chose the shortest – Zetner.
I remember in school one time, in third grade when we lived in Bradenton, Florida. I went to a school called Orange Ridge Elementary. Yep, third grade was a long time ago. But I’ll never forget that school and Mrs. Sanders, this black woman that kept forgetting I was in her class. The principal called over the speaker system to, “Please send Michelle to the office.” Mrs. Sanders explained she had two Michelles and needed to know if he needed Michelle Winters or Michelle Barker.
There was silence for a moment before he continued, “Could you please send Michelle Z-e-h-e-n-d-n-e-r to the office?”
My third-grade teacher exploded, “We ain’t got one of those!” That’s when I understood why she was a third-grade teacher.
I raised my hand from the back corner of the room. “I’m talking to the principal,” she reminded me. That’s when I explained my name was Michelle Zehendner. Her face softened for a second and then she said to the speaker, “Here she comes.” You’d think she’d remember me after that – but she didn’t. That’s okay because we moved a few months later.
I have a feeling my parents moved so much to dodge the bills. You can’t do that as easily now. Yep, those were the Good Ol’ Days. It finally occurred to me one Sunday after church. My mom had already run away from home to “find herself.” I don’t think she ever did, but I’m certain she had more fun searching than sticking it out at the “Zehendner’s Funny Farm.” So my father and five kids get home from church. I was the new mom at 14-years-old and four siblings remaining. My dad jumps from the car and runs up to grab a paper from our front door. He comes back to the car and announces, “We’re going to play a game, okay?” I was old enough to understand anytime my dad said there was going to be a game, you definitely didn’t want to be the loser.
But we loved games, so we were chomping at the bit. Perhaps that’s where my competitive edge stems from – everything was a competition. “Who can eat their liver first?” was always a game I lost at. But this game was to see who could pack their things the fastest. The amazing part was how many of the toys we’d been fighting over the day before were lost in the name of winning the game. For us, winning was everything!
I believe I won that time. My brothers were only six and four, so they still didn’t have their bearings straight. They packed all their toys. Clothes weren’t that important. Then again, they would have been happier naked with an excuse to remain that way. But it figured their toys were always first because they were never taken out of the box. They stayed in the bottom of the closet with the flaps tucked inside like big toy boxes. But if they ever got tired of their toy box, they’d simply stomp on it so they could have a new one to decorate with markers. They actually became pretty good at styling their boxes.
My sisters who were about 3 years younger than me were about eleven months apart. A lot of times my parents would dress them as twins, although one was blond the other brunette, and they were absolutely nothing alike. Still, the real fun came when only one outfit was packed and when we unpacked, they fought over who actually left their outfit behind. They became so engulfed in winning, they’d rip the outfit to shreds fighting over it. Needless to say, my family participated in cheap family entertainment. Perhaps I’ll share some later.
But we did something that day that I bet 98% of American families could never do. We moved within 5 hours – in my favorite white church dress and heels. So you can guess where my tenacity of being a single parent with a university degree, and standing up to fight rather than running comes from. I may have been born in the depths, but I’ll be damned if I don’t rise to the top!