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Growing Up Poor and Bernie’s Mittens

Childhood memories remind me where I came from and who I really am.

Unexpectedly, the #1 viral image from the 2021 presidential inauguration hit me right in the gut. Oh, it was definitely funny to see all the Bernie memes: the old man in a mud-colored parka, disposable drugstore mask, and bulky hand-knit mittens in front of landmarks and embedded in pop culture. But before the memes, I had an unexpected encounter with that image that stretches back to my childhood.

On January 20, I watched the inauguration from beginning to end, as I do every four years, with whatever children happen to be at home with me as a part of their homeschool day. This time I was accompanied by my 14-year-old son who was extremely interested in the proceedings and required a play-by-play from me as to what was going on. Not a problem—I enjoyed that.

But what was going on inside my head was a very different, and somewhat odd, train of thought. The first thing I noticed, and could hardly tear my eyes from, were the gloves.

Two prominent women at the inauguration were dressed impeccably and expensively in lovely coat/dress sets … and matching soft leather gloves. Now, I knew that most people could look at those gloves, if they even noticed them at all, with admiration, pleasure, approval, or even a critical eye toward fashion. What I felt instead was a little catch in my throat, a little loss of breath, a little wistfulness of childhood where items such as these meant one thing: here is something nice you can look at but will never, ever have for yourself. Countless things fell into this category—a  place to live for more than a few months, a car that ran, a school lunch that wasn’t obviously free, clean and appropriate clothing, a kitchen full of food.

Perhaps anyone who has lived through something difficult long ago finds themselves revisited by the memories and emotional impact over and over in life … not necessarily in a traumatic way, but in a straightforward, “here comes that memory again” kind of way. A remembrance that has colored your world and your vision for so many years that you don’t know how to live without it and would feel its absence if it one day left you alone.

Otherwise how is it that decades later, I can still feel a visceral reaction to something as seemingly insignificant as dyed-to-match leather gloves? It wasn’t covetousness—I  have no desire for those gloves. Was it envy? Harder to say, but if I don’t covet the gloves, how can it be envy? Was I having a pity party for myself? Nope—I know well how to have those but this wasn’t one of them.

I think instead it was a rush of feeling brought back from childhood, an impression of things completely out of my reach, of things that are too beautiful for me, too wonderful for me to experience or own. It’s a matter-of-fact feeling born of years of poverty—having so much less than anyone else around me, covering up my lack of a typical middle-class existence, hiding where I lived from others, and trying to fit in but knowing I never would.

A split-second of viewing those gloves produced a rush of emotion and thought that was beyond my control and running internally underneath my inaugural play-by-play for my son.

Which brings me to Bernie’s mittens. I saw the first pictures of Bernie meme-free and with no commentary. I smiled broadly and my heart went out to him in a burst of fondness and familiarity. I felt a great affection for his out-of-place parka, his cheap paper mask, and those glorious mittens. Not to mention the classic introverted and independent posture … unlike the elegant women in their matched-set gloves, here was someone I could identify with! For wearing the “wrong” clothes, for looking out of place and yet staunchly independent, and for not caring one bit about any of it.

I’m well aware that Bernie is worth millions and that there’s very little we actually have in common. Perhaps the only things we both share are a fiercely independent streak and apparent lack of concern for fashion. But if I had been at the Capitol that day, I would have gladly and with great relief plopped down beside him to watch the proceedings. It would have felt much more familiar and genuine than the discomfort of sitting with anyone else.

Growing up poor is one of those things that never leaves you—it seems to hang out just below the surface of your outward life. The memory of my childhood poverty hits me at unexpected times in some highly unusual ways. Last week, beautifully dyed gloves and bulky handmade mittens took me instantly back in ways I didn’t expect. A small part of me continues to live there, for better or for worse, and reminds me of where I came from and who I really am.

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