WHEN A HOUSE IS A HOME
By NANCY PATRICK
American author Sandra Cisneros wrote “House on Mango Street,” one of my
favorite stories to teach in a literature class. The story focuses on the protagonist,
Esperanza, and her life growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago in the 1950s. Most critics agree that Cisneros bases Esperanza on herself and her frequent negative childhood experiences, largely caused by poverty and lack of education.
The crux of “House” suggests that Esperanza’s family had so disappointed her with
their inability to provide her with a life of middle-class respectability that they destroyed
the happiness she might have had. Ironically, the house on Mango Street, the first house
owned by Esperanza’s parents, actually implies their commitment to hard work and
upward mobility; however, Esperanza feels ashamed at its meagerness in contrast to her
dreams. Cisneros, identifying with her character, despaired of her own large family and its poverty, once saying she was “nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife.” Although Cisneros suggests that family holds one back from achievement, her story reminds me that even when families share similarities, children can react quite differently to their situations.
Although poor and uneducated, my own family did not embarrass me even though I had plenty of negative experiences of my own. On the contrary, I had a sense of pride in my parents’ accomplishments in spite of their limitations. My dad came from a family of five siblings, born and reared in Arkansas during the Great Depression. In his mid-twenties, he ventured from the known to the unknown by moving to Texas to follow his older brother in several business ventures, one of which became his life’s work and means of supporting his family. Because my dad’s functional illiteracy limited his skill set to physical labor, my uncle hired him to do the installations in the lawn sprinkler business. Daddy’s employment, which did not include partnership, provided steady work that supported our family of four modestly.
My mother stayed at home and did all the cooking, cleaning, laundering (clothesline and ironing board), sewing, budgeting, shopping, and disciplining. My sister, Peggy, and I behaved as expected: we did whatever our mother told us! Our mother, a sad woman, suffered from severe depression her entire life. She often expressed her unhappiness in violent outbursts of anger and never hesitated to “spank” us with whatever utensil she could grab. She also could cut us to shreds with her tongue-lashings.
Though often bleak, our family life belonged to us, and we did not know the difference between our families and those of our friends. We just accepted the reality of our home and family. I cannot speak for my sister, but I say honestly that I never thought of running away or abandoning my parents once I had the chance. I saw beyond the behavior to the reasons behind my parents’ behavior. They had both lived hard lives of poverty with their parents’ own forms of abuse. When our family first came to Abilene in 1955, my parents rented a tiny house that still stands at 318 Willis St. The house has 500 square feet and functions somewhat like a studio apartment. Each night, our parents opened the rollaway bed for my sister and me in the tiny bedroom we all shared. I’ll never forget the night Peggy and I began screaming shortly after getting into bed, discovering that we were interlopers in a scorpion’s space!
After that house, we lived in another rental for my first and second grades at Fair Park Elementary in our neighborhood. In the meantime, my uncle had branched out into some home building and had built four small, two-bedroom houses on Park Avenue on Abilene’s north side. Our new home had 1,300 square feet that included two tiny bedrooms with a connecting closet, a little bathroom we all shared, a living room, kitchen, and dining area. The mortgage for that brand new house in 1959 was $7,000. My parents reveled in their new status as homeowners.
This little house remained our home until well after my sister and I married and moved out. Peggy, four years younger than I, awakened my sense of responsibility as a big sister, a role I took seriously. We may have disagreed over the years we shared our little room and our double bed, but we have always loved each other. This special bond between siblings exists because no one else in the world knows the real story of what went on behind their house’s closed doors.
Our parents, far from perfect, often hurt our feelings with mean, ugly words. Ironically, they were overly strict in some ways and much too lax in others, so Peggy and I encountered adolescent problems because we lacked direction from our parents. Acknowledging those shortcomings, I still credit my parents with providing for their children’s basic needs. Not only that, Peggy and I knew our parents loved us. They sometimes did not know how to show it, but we somehow discerned that they did. Consequently, we did not share Cisneros’ negative feelings about family, so we both became somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother—and always each other’s sister.