Letter to My Adult Niece — About Her One Wild and Precious Life

Images from Sacramento’s 16th Street at Night

I love you, think about you all the time, always want to see you. I realize you’re too busy to bother with me, but want you to understand I know the single-mom drill, did it day in and day out for 40 years with 2 to 3 boys — depending on the situation. It’s very hard, no argument there.

Because you’re going through it, you may finally get why I quit my good-paying corporate job and the daily BART commute to San Francisco to take on freelance assignments from home in Berkeley; why I chose later to work at a small newspaper three miles from my house in Sacramento, although they paid poorly.

Commuting is the worst! When BART broke down my kids suffered — I wasn’t there to pick them up on time from daycare, got charged extra and warned if it happened too often, I’d have to make other arrangements for daycare. “Too often” wasn’t defined, so I worried and paid for daycare first, the cost came off the top, otherwise I couldn’t work.

Basically my kids lived with a grumpy, resentful mom. On Saturdays I started worrying I couldn’t get everything done on Sunday to start the workweek squared away. For many years I was a renter and didn’t have a washer and dryer. Nothing like Sundays at the laundromat followed by a rousing game of “let’s go grocery shopping!”

So you say “I’m not doing this!” I have reached that point at various times in my career. I understand. The decision to make life changes, however, comes with trade offs. In my case, it involved drastic pay cuts and constant money worries. I just refinanced my house and paid off $80,000 in accumulated credit card debt, which was absolutely crushing and paying on the debt was not sustainable in retirement.

How did that kinda debt happen? Well . . . Kids need experiences and resources to participate in American life. They need education, training, social outlets, equipment, special clothing, celebrations, toys, books, electronics and various travel and adventure opportunities, to name a few necessary resources for healthy growth and development. Then there’s college and weddings, grandchildren. Kids can’t grow up in a closet. They need opportunities to explore and participate in their world and that costs money.

When they were small, my children and my writing business had to come first, after that I’d buy my clothes at thrift stores. My car was 20 years old. My house never had a complete, professional interior paint job. I needed a new roof. It took me 17 years to afford a righteous redwood fence for my yard. (Whoo Hoo!) I bought my bed at a garage sale for $20. The sacrifice list goes on and on.

That is how I’ve lived for the past 40 years — taking care of my kids first. The truly special part of my unwavering commitment and sacrifice is that my kids are dismissive of my efforts, rude, self-centered, demanding, at times disrespectful and belligerent. Guess I made it look easy, should have complained more. But, in truth, I did my duty and don’t regret it.

Now that I’m retired, I relax — get up about 4 a.m. and write, then go to work on my house and garden, back to bed by 9 p.m. I don’t go anywhere in my rickety car except to run a few errands and get groceries. I have to save my gas. When my grandmother retired, she went blind and lost her wits. My mother died of lung cancer three years before retirement. Both of their life experiences were similar to mine. Work hard, get little in return. I’m the fool who expected something more, forgetting that life itself is precious. That’s a mistake.

I thought I could build a better life for me and my kids by myself. I was wrong. My grandmother and mother were both courageous women who persevered through incredibly tough times — The Great Depression, WW II, and I survived the Summer of Love. I’m no better than they were, which is to say I’m wonderful in many ways, in others, not so much. I will be 67 on Nov. 16 and damn proud of it. I’m surviving, but I’m not sure my struggle is better than anyone else’s. Getting here has been a lot of hard, often thankless work, I’m just grateful I made it this far.

So, as the poet Mary Oliver asked: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I’m still thinking about it and loving you.

The Summer Day — Library of Congress

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