'Gramma and Grampa Were Living in Horrible Conditions'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As the Internet increasingly becomes TV and the written word continues to recede, it’s so gratifying to be able to feature long but captivating stories written by Atlantic readers. That’s especially the case for our next contributor (who prefers to stay anonymous because she’s involved in a legal dispute). Her story involves unsupportive and judgmental parents for whom she ultimately comes to the rescue, a heartbreaking tragedy with her husband, and the many sacrifices she made for her children in the face of hardships tied to the housing bubble, soaring student loans, and a dying newspaper industry, where she worked for years. And you can tell she was a professional writer by the quality of her prose:

I winced and almost stopped midway through reading Neal Gabler’s “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” it was so painful. And so true: I just turned 60 and am looking forward to an impoverished retirement. I kick myself over and over again for a series of stupid mistakes that was essentially my life. I’m college educated and thought I was pretty smart—heck, I studied economics as an undergraduate—but obviously I wasn’t smart enough to avoid bankruptcy and near poverty.

Some things: I’m an Asian American woman who grew up in a blue-collar household. My father was an auto mechanic; Mom was a secretary who hooked a state job with benefits and good medical insurance, something my father didn’t have even as a union employee.

When I announced in high school that I wanted to go to college, they scoffed. Girls didn’t need an education, they said. They get married and their husbands support them while they stay home and raise the babies. (This was a common belief among traditional Asian families.) “I’ll show you!” I shouted.

After high school I attended community college for almost free, as we could back in the ‘70s in California. I then received a Cal Grant scholarship and transferred to a UC campus. It was a struggle: My parents were not supportive of my efforts, and I discovered there was a real disadvantage to not coming from a background where one’s parents were college graduates and who could guide one through the ropes of university life.

I went over the two years allowed me by the scholarship to get my bachelor’s degree, but I was extremely proud. I got out of school without owing a penny to anyone, unlike my three children. (More on that later.)

From there I went into journalism and got a job working as a reporter at a daily newspaper in the Midwest. I met my husband, got married, and very soon after had our first child. I quit my job to look after her, reasoning we’d save a fortune in child care. Then we had another child, and another.

Then we found out my husband had a slow-growing benign tumor on the brain stem. After thousands of dollars in expenses not covered by our HMO, living on disability and unemployment benefits, and very generous help from my husband’s coworkers and our church, he died, leaving me a young widow with three young children.

Social Security survivors’ benefits and other government aide programs kept us afloat and in our suburban home. (People who heap scorn on those who receive “welfare” have no idea that many of us are families who don’t do drugs while buying luxury cars and home theaters on the taxpayers’ nickel. Our children attend school right next to theirs and they would never see the difference, either in appearance or in school performance.)

I went back to work part time and we lived frugally but well enough. If we went on vacation, it was on camping trips at state parks and road trips to see nearby attractions. (We could drive to Mount Rushmore in a day-and-a-half and stay at nearby campgrounds for a modest daily fee.) I never remarried, partly because I did not want to lose widow’s Social Security benefits, partly because I’d seen too many friends' disastrous experiences with step-parenting.

That low-budget idyll ended when my oldest was accepted at a private college on the West Coast. They offered her a scholarship, but that didn’t cover living expenses, dorm fees, or textbooks. How could I deny my child such an opportunity to go to a well-regarded liberal arts school?

So we entered the hell that is college loans. I also made my first major error by draining my retirement savings to help her out, then took out PLUS loans for the remainder of the expenses. Then child #2 was also accepted to a private college on the West Coast. I took out more loans, and she and her sister got jobs to help pay for personal expenses.

When child #3 was accepted at a state college in the Northwest, I sold the house, figuring I didn’t need it anymore since the children were all taking off to start their own lives. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the Great Recession and the crash of the real estate market. The house sold for less than half of its projected 2007 value, though I was lucky it was enough to pay off the remains of our mortgage.

Also unfortunate was that the money accrued from the sale made it look like I had more income than I actually had at hand. The state college said my son was eligible for less student aid that his sisters, so we ended up paying full ride for out-of-state tuition, dorm fees, and other expenses. To my son’s credit, he immediately got a job and paid for most of these himself, but he and I still had to borrow money for tuition, which seemed to rise 10% or more every year.

I know, I should have made my kids pay for their own education, right? But I was looking back on my own experiences in college with my less-than-generous parents, and I swore I wouldn't make my children go through that.

Speaking of which, I made my most recent and, in my opinion, most fatal mistake. While working two jobs to support myself and my children, I began getting pleas from my father to come back and help with my mother, who was evincing signs of dementia.

My relationship with my parents had been poor since college; I’d had little contact with them, especially since they thought I was an idiot for raising my children alone in a “strange” city. (Actually, raising my children in the Midwest was a great decision, since living expenses were relatively low and the public education was very good.)

After my daughters came out to visit their grandparents one Thanksgiving, they reported that “Gramma and Grampa” were living in horrible conditions and really did need help. I went out that Christmas and discovered my parents’ house was piled floor to ceiling with shopping bags filled with junk and unopened mail, and the kitchen and living room were infested with insects and mice. My mother, who’d always done the family bookkeeping, couldn’t even carry on a five-minute conversation, while my father, whose reading and math levels were barely at the sixth grade level, couldn’t tell the difference between the phone bill and junk mail from a mobile phone company.

So I sacrificed what little financial stability I had to look after my parents. I sold off everything, quit my job(s), and moved in with my parents. I used what little money I had saved to clean and repair my parents’ house. I made them both see their doctor for the first time in years, and tests found that Dad had colon cancer and required immediate surgery. (He’d been living in pain for months but had been too scared to see the doctor; I think he knew what was wrong, but he’s always had a phobia of hospitals.)

All this time, I’d been too busy to look for work locally. On the one time I applied for a position and was invited to interview, my mother became ill and had to be rushed to the ER, where they found out she had an infection that had become septic. The employer declined to reschedule the interview. Why would he, with a glut of unemployed people waiting in the wings?

After our mother died, my relations with my siblings—who had done very little to help out—quickly deteriorated. They hired a lawyer and had me thrown out of our father’s house. At that point I was broke, with nothing in savings, and unemployed. My children rallied and helped support me until I was able to find a job and housing. By then they were all college grads and then some—two had gone on to graduate school and are now successful professionals—so at least some of my decisions did pay off in the end.

Unfortunately, like a lot of women in their 50s who lost professional-level jobs in the recession, I was only able to find a part-time job that pays half of what I made in the Midwest. I shouldn’t even have to mention that the newspaper business, where I started out my career, is done for. Going back to it at this point would be like going back to installing landline telephones for a living.

(When I first moved back to California, I stopped by the offices of a city paper where a friend worked as a copy editor, and I was stunned to find the newsroom a quarter of what it used to be. The huge building was almost empty, and most of the people working there were IT technicians in charge of maintaining and updating the website. I wondered who would be doing investigative reporting or those in-depth features the McClatchy papers had been famous for. Online media is great for “breaking news,” but the best journalism requires weeks of research and fact checking. Investors have no patience for that; they want startups that will generate money quickly while running lean and light.)

I’m still making payments on the PLUS loans, which can’t be discharged by bankruptcy (I tried). I also can’t allow my children to assume payments of the loans; since I took them out in my name, I have to pay them.

When my 2007 Honda Civic with 105,000 miles on the odometer died two months ago, I did not have the $740 to fix it. Again, my children came to my rescue and gave me the money, but it’s mortifying to have to ask them for help again and again.

I had hoped at this point of my life I would be financially independent and looking forward to retirement. Now, I’m just praying my health holds up so I can work at least until I’m 70. After that, I have no idea what my future will look like.

I know this story is very long and don’t expect you to run it, but I felt compelled to share it. I’m sure a number of people will say I was stupid to pay for my children’s college educations and even more stupid to give up my job to help out my parents, who didn’t help me when I needed it. But as Neal Gabler pointed out, it wouldn’t be my life if I hadn’t done those things that made it, such as it is.