We all know a life is worth six bucks, but as a child I found out the first betrayal is worth five dollars. There are some betrayals that are so base and so entirely intimate that one is seared forever in the sacred memory and by the sanctity of the moment.

1963 Five Spot

I must have been three or four years old. I know I was young. I was not yet in school. I was the only child of a single mother and I was free to roam my Midwestern neighborhood unattended up and down the block — but never beyond the corners. Up the hill on the corner lived a family in what can only be described as a tarpaper shack. They were absolutely poor in every sense of the word. They were beyond dirt poor.

They were mud poor.

The children only wore underwear in the summer. Their lawn was muddy patches of dog feces and cat urine. Their play area was a set of industrial steel pipes sticking out of the mud in angles to make areas for clambering and swinging. Our neighborhood was in the process of turning. The old, poor, prairie was being replaced with new housing in middle class subdivision developments.

There were still pockets of housing holdouts where the property owner wanted a better price for the land that the tarpaper shacks occupied. There weren’t many young children in that desolate neighborhood, so the youngest child in the shack at the top of the hill and I were good friends. We played together every day. He often ate lunch and snacks at my house. I don’t remember ever stepping foot in his house.

One day — as my friend and I were playing in one of the mud piles surrounding his shack — my friend told me his mother was hungry. I remember pausing and looking at him and then saying, “I’ll be right back.” I ran down the hill to my house and found my mother napping. I went into her purse as quietly as I could, and with my heartbeat pounding in my tongue, I slipped a crisp and shimmering five dollar bill from her pocketbook and crumpled it in my tiny fist and ran out the back door back up the hill as the screen door slapped behind me in the wind. I pressed the money into my friend’s palm.

“This is for your mother.” He shook his head and handed back the money. “No, this is your money. Not mine.” “It’s for your mother. Buy her something to eat.”

I pushed the money back at him and he let the crisp bill flutter down into the mud as if it were on fire. “I don’t want it,” he said. “Keep it for your mother,” I shouted over my shoulder as I turned and ran back down the hill to my house.

Ten minutes later the back doorbell rang. I froze as I heard my mother wake up from her nap to answer the back door. I strained to hear the conversation but the only words I heard came from the voice of my friend’s mother, “Davey gave five dollars…” and with that, I was in a cold panic. I began to run in circles in the living room.

I could feel the heat from my mother’s, embarrassed, red, face searing me as she thanked the other mother for returning the five dollars. I ran to my room and hid in the closet. The screen door slapped shut with a final thud. I heard the heels coming after me. When my mother is angry she pounds her heels on the floor as she walks. She was barefoot and the pounding of her heels across the kitchen linoleum shook the house. I was trembling in the darkness. The closet door slowly slid open. I was grabbed by my upper arms and thrown on my bed. My head was spinning.

I couldn’t focus.

I was being made to look at the overhead light and then into my mother’s face as she shook me and dug her fingernails into my arms until I bled. She screamed at me: “Thief! Dishonest!” I was bawling and gasping for air and I was made to stand on my bed as my entire body was pressed back-and-forth in what felt like slow motion.

The beating seemed to go on forever. As I was being shaken, and while I was wailing, I became part of the wall. I watched from beyond as that sad scene was being played out. I remember thinking then, as I know now, how bitter the bile of the recognition of the first betrayal tasted — and how feeling its unfamiliar sting for the first time began to grow and find resonance in the hollow of my body — and how it unwillingly became recognized and familiar in the guise of a friendship.

My mother hadn’t betrayed me. I had grown to expect that kind of terrorizing from her. I was inconsolable how my friend had sold me out to her to take that beating. I was confused how a good deed had gone so wrong. I was astonished at how all feeling and sense could so easily be filed away and dismissed in the torrent of tears washing from my eyes and in the snot pouring out of my mouth.

I was forbidden from playing with my friend again. At the end of the summer, the family moved away and their shack was torn down and a beautiful, sprawling ranch house filled their corner lot. I never saw my friend again. I don’t remember my friend’s name or even his face; but his betrayal still stings within me every day.

26 Comments

  1. Ms. Emily —
    I think it is important for us to share those stories and to bring the dark secrets out into the disinfecting light of the memory of the now.
    Many do not understand the cruelty of a mother and how it malforms your expectation for living.
    I was sharply reprimanded by one commenter here in another article as being a fascist for finding release — and even joy — in college in the idea it was “Okay to hate your mother.”

  2. When I read this story, I can understand where the friend and his mother were coming from in returning the money. There is a strong sentiment that sometimes keeps people from accepting help from others — even if they could really use and benefit from the help. If the outside help is accepted, it signals defeat in some way. That’s probably the reason why the money was returned, even though the $5 probably could have fed the family that day.
    This can be seen in elderly people who might need some extra money or assistance:

    Findings indicated that the elderly were quite reluctant to seek or accept help. Assistance or services perceived as earned or available to all elderly were the most acceptable, while those that required a public declaration of poverty were unacceptable.

    It’s too bad your mother didn’t see the value in what you were trying to do. That’s a horrible betrayal.

  3. Hi Chris!
    Yes, you’re dead right the family had pride even though they were mud poor. They didn’t want a handout. The woman’s son betrayed HER by telling me she was hungry. She knew she had to return that money because it didn’t belong to her.
    Thanks for that excellent elderly link! We can all learn that lesson.
    I agree my mother did not handle the situation well. Instead of trying to understand I was trying to feed the hungry, she instead felt I was trying to steal from her. If she’d been awake, I would’ve told her what my friend said and I’m sure she would’ve found a way to get the family some food without any additional embarrassment.

  4. David,
    I agree with you whole-heartedly. I too have been confronted by others when I make negative feelings about my mother known and clear.
    I simply cannot and will not care about the opinion of outsiders when it comes to my relationships.
    I would imagine that this was a hard first betrayal for you at such a young and tender age, David. Surely your friend does not know what his betrayal cost you and the way it has branded you since.
    Regardless, you should always feel warm about your selfless act as such a young boy. It is a very special child who recognizes the suffering of others and makes such a brave attempt to ease that suffering. What a wonder you are! 😀

  5. I wonder if the situation would be different today?
    Do people have more of an entitlement mentality today than they had in the past?

    The older end of the generation born between 1979 and 1994 — known as Millennials — has been labeled the “Entitlement Generation” …

    A Google search for “entitlement generation” shows 18,900 hits for this phrase.

  6. Emily!
    Yes, not loving your mother is generally scowled upon in the world in which we spin, as you already know… Sometimes you have to be careful with those you don’t know when you speak because uttering anything other than love for a mother shatters their world, but not ours, because — as you know — we’ve already been shattered.
    You’re right that we have our truth and they have their truths but we still must honor what we know and what we’ve experienced without caring for what or how the other mainstream condemn us.
    I couldn’t believe my mother behaved so violently over what was such a small indifference, really. There was great opportunity to learn about caring and doing the right thing in the right way. It could’ve been a tender, shared, learning opportunity, instead of a beating down of misguided intent.

  7. Chris —
    It would not be different today with my mother. She still views that episode as me stealing from her; not me trying to feed a hungry mother.
    If I were in the form of the parent today, the story would be wholly different, though. We’d feed the mother together, my son and I, and I would celebrate his kind heart in trying to do the right thing with the information he had at hand.
    I think the Entitlement Pendulum is swinging back out of the muck and into betterment.
    Over the weekend I overheard a conversation at NYU. A young woman — who was a senior at NYU — was lamenting her loss of community after her freshman year when everyone lived in a dorm right next to Washington Square Park. After your frosh year, you’re moved to any of a dozen of dorms at NYU that can range from 4 miles away to 2 miles away from the center of campus. The young woman said, “Get to know your neighbors during freshman year, because they’re the only friends you’ll have for the rest of your stay here.”
    She went on to say there are 25,000 undergrads and 25,000 grad students and law students and med school students and altogether there are 50,000 students within a 4 mile radius of campus.
    That’s huge!
    She also went on to say it is much harder to get into NYU now as freshman than it was when she was a freshman — and there’s proof in that argument that the students you teach now are much more respective and interested in learning than those from six years ago.

  8. When my mother died I hadn’t seen or heard from her in about 15 years. But the instant she died I felt it. I told people about it. Later I found out she died at exactly that moment. How wierd is that? Mothers? They can really suck.

  9. Hiya Root, and welcome to Urban Semiotic! I appreciate the great work you do helping people understand and use WordPress.com.
    Your comments are prescient and painful. I can feel the sort of visceral wounding that engulfed you.
    I know some people who cannot wait for the moment of their mother’s death — perhaps they should heed your warning and wonder how it might feel in the eternal end to get what you wish for…
    I haven’t seen my mother for 7 years. This is the second stretch of a 7 year drought from contact…