The year 1981 was an eventful year, making national and international history. Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States. The U.S. Embassy hostages, held for so very long in Iran, were released a few days later. The economy was plummeting all over the world, and unemployment was higher than it had ever been. Federal taxes were brutal. Inflation was legendary. We took out a second mortgage on our humble house at the standard interest rate of 16 ½ percent. We borrowed $10,000 which was supposed to provide us with income for the entire year.
We were property managers of low-income apartments in the Mojave Desert. Our tenants were struggling to pay their rent while living in old worn out apartments. Evictions were common; my husband went nearly every other day to file eviction notices at the courthouse. With rent collections down so low, my husband decided we would live on our borrowed money. Of course, he didn’t tell the owners of the properties that we were doing this. He felt this reflected poorly on him as a manager.
With a new baby girl, a two-year old son, and a five-year old daughter, our expenses were already stretched beyond our financial ability to pay for them. Each month was a balancing act and guessing game: which bills to pay, how much to pay, and how little did we need to just squeak by on a quickly emptying checking account.
I like to think of that year as this: The Year I Didn’t Win Publisher’s Clearing House.
Each year that big brown envelope came in the mail, and each year I had thrown it out in the trash. The year 1981 was different. I held that envelope in my hands and it seemed to grow warmer by the second. ‘Why not?’ I thought, as I tore the sealed edge. ‘Why not indeed?’
The envelope held a bundle of letters, stickers, and more than that, promises. “You could be the next winner of $1,000,000!” All I had to do was to fill out the enclosed papers, decide whether to subscribe to a magazine or not, get free mystery prizes, and put all those into an envelope and return it by a certain date. My hands literally shook as I reviewed all the offers, as I thought about ‘what if?’ that this meant. I ignored a crying baby, a brewing fight between the other two kids, and filled that return envelope, sealing it with a loud slurp.
I forgot about it. Life went on, with clothes shopping at Goodwill, and buying out-of-date produce. Hamburger Helper © and chipped beef on toast were seen frequently on our table. I occasionally cleaned those emptied apartments, finding furniture that we could use, or blankets that just needed a very thorough laundering. Yes, life went on.
But then, the mailman came and I found another brown envelope in my porch mailbox. “You have been selected to be among the twenty thousand people who could be the next winner of $1,000,000!” With disbelief written on my every feature, I ripped open the envelope, and there was the letter that explained everything. I reread it, again and again, looking for nuances of language, phrases that could be misinterpreted. Finding none, I pulled out the rest of the package of more stickers, more offers, and mystery prizes. I filled out the papers, declining the magazines, but staying in the contest. I had that return envelope filled and sealed before the postman made it to the end of the street.
I didn’t forget about it, but I did push it to back of the queue, behind cleaning, laundry, bill paying, and child rearing. As I said before, life went on. Then the water company came and turned off the water. We hadn’t paid our bill for the last month, $28.92. I cried, I begged, and I promised, but the water went off anyway. I needed to take cash down to the water company and pay the bill. There was no way to reach my husband and scream hysterically into the phone. We had one car, an old Ford Granada. So I paced the floor, waiting and waiting, and told the kids NOT to flush the toilet. They did anyway.
He came home and after listening to my ranting for about ten minutes, he said that he had some cash from rent collections, and that he would go pay the bill. An hour later the same water employee came out and turned on the water. He tried to look apologetic, but I knew he wasn’t. Everyone we knew was counting out their pennies and looking forward to seeing President Reagan clean up the mess of the past decade of disastrous politics. I made grilled cheese sandwiches (with day-old bread) and tomato soup (4 cans for a dollar) for supper. I started speaking again to my husband around 9 p.m.
The weeks dragged by. We went to Pic-N-Save to get shoes for the kids, and found some socks as well; they were ‘seconds’ which meant there were flaws in them. Well, the whole year was flawed as far as I was concerned, so we bought the socks and the shoes. Our credit card usage had never been so high, but we had no money, and a promise of money in the future gave us mental permission to use the Visa and MasterCard. I watched for the postman with the intensity of a stalker.
And he came, with the blessed brown envelope in hand. I met him at my mailbox and took it from his hand, along with the Visa and MasterCard bills. With anxiety born of desperation, I ripped the envelope open. The letter read, “You have been selected to be one of eight thousand people eligible for $1,000,000!” I fell back onto the couch, one that had been in someone else’s apartment and had needed only minor fumigation. The kids looked up from ‘Sesame Street ©’ and then turned back to Big Bird. Again the promise loomed before me, and with it the security it could provide.
I followed the procedures, declined the offers, and filled the return envelope with the papers I had checked and double-checked. I caught the mailman before he got to the house on the corner. Hope was once again alive. Then my husband came home as I was wrestling with the bills, trying to see how close we could come to paying them all. He asked, in all seriousness, “Do you think we could get by with $600.00 this month?” I looked at his sweet face pinched with worry, and put my head down on the table and started crying.
The apartment owners came home from a long cruise and met with my husband to go over the collections and bill paying. When the owner saw that we had not taken a salary for seven months (yes, seven months), he swore and said, “Dammit, you gotta look after your family.” He wrote a check for the back pay, and told my husband in certain terms, “Don’t ever do this again!”
My husband deposited the check and didn’t tell me until the next afternoon. The mail had come, and I was holding the letter telling me that, regretfully, I didn’t win, but not to give up because next year could be my year. I looked at my husband as he told me that we had gotten paid back pay. We could pay our bills, but not all of them. It would take years to pay off the second mortgage (at 16 ½ percent) and all the credit charges.
The envelope went into the trash, and we hugged. Then I fixed dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce. I used a whole pound of hamburger, at 59 cents a pound on special that week. And, life went on.