My mother started cutting when I was nine. On Sunday afternoons, she'd sit at the kitchen table arranging coupons into what looked like a coupon-themed game of Solitaire. She'd tuck a few under her shopping list while others would be doled into the appropriate category: bread, condiments, soap. Sometimes, after checking an expiration date, she'd sigh and let the now useless paper drift to the floor.
At her feet, a brown-paper shopping bag overflowed with advertising circulars, as if the bag were in training to carry actual products. My father collected the newspapers and circulars from nearby garbage cans, sidewalks, and front yards. I knew this to be the case because how else could we have received a circular addressed to Resident 211 South or 406 Parkview when we were Resident 307 Ridge? I assumed my parents didn't care that I knew, since, on those Sunday afternoons, I'd been tasked with extracting the glossy coupon pages from the less colorful, less hopeful newsprint. I'd discard sheets containing products that didn't align with "our circumstances"—things like beauty aids, extra-soft toilet paper, or anything with the word gourmet—and add the remaining pages to the bag for my mother to review, cut, and sort.
If I wasn't sure I might ask "Do we need brown sugar? Here's fifty cents off Domino's."
My mother wasn't a baker, but if it were a good enough deal she'd answer, "Who knows, we might."
Once, and only once, was I entrusted with the job of cutting. A lefty, I was doomed to fail, and after slicing the barcode off a two-dollar coupon for Bounty—the equivalent of a felony in our house—I relinquished the scissors and returned to my sorting job on the floor.
Those Sunday afternoons growing up were the only time I recall having my mother to myself. The task had been deemed a daughterly chore, whereas my father and brother would be off doing whatever fathers and sons did to bond. Rake leaves. Or attempt to fix one of our home's endless plumbing issues. (A coupon for Liquid Plumber felt like finding a winning lottery ticket.) During the week and most Saturdays, my mother worked as an admissions counselor for a community college, even though, at the time, she didn't have a college degree. I suppose the rest of the week's hours were filled with the tasks of a homemaker. Vacuuming. Laundry. Scrubbing the tub. My mother liked to keep a clean house. And of course, her twice a week trip to the store, the receipts saved in an empty Folger's can.
Her coupon-clipping started the year my father got laid off from his job at the bank. But, for as long as I can remember, my mother worked outside the home. She did this to create "opportunities for her children." And yet, if my brother or I dared to request something she deemed frivolous—designer jeans for me, an electronic game for him—she'd wave as if swatting a fly.
"I don't go to work to buy you stuff. I do it so someday you can buy your own stuff."
Now that I'm also a parent, her definition of opportunity seems as black and white as the ink on her shopping list: a safe neighborhood, a good school, a clearer pathway toward financial independence.
One opportunity my mother didn't take advantage of was to use our afternoons to chat. After all, we weren't the "chatty type," a disparaging term she used about our wealthy neighbor, Mrs. Goldstein. If Mrs. Goldstein cornered you, you'd be subjected to hearing all the details of her latest vacation or her grandson's achievements. (I still conflate Boca Raton with Harvard, and both carry a whiff of lilac perfume.) But, since our house didn't contain the "chatty type," those Sunday afternoons were quiet enough to hear the snip snip of scissors and my mother's murmured calculations. "We can get three cans of corn for a dollar plus a spaghetti sauce for two."
That was fine by me. With my back pressed against the fridge, I'd slip off into a fantasy world that involved popularity and a closet full of designer jeans. On rare occasions, my mother might interrupt my reverie to ask about school, and I'd answer, "It's fine." I didn't think she wanted to hear how Natalie had made fun of my secondhand sweater because it was monogrammed with someone else's initials. Or how Jenny told me she no longer wanted to be friends "just because." And it never occurred to me to ask my mother anything about herself. How her week had gone. What she hoped for. If she ever felt like I did, out of place and out of step with the world around me.
I still know almost nothing about my mother, just little clues she'd dropped along the years, like crumpled tissues or gum wrappers. I'd observed early on that she had a sweet tooth and enjoyed music you could dance to. She and my father once took a disco class, practicing steps in our living room and looking as ridiculous as one might expect. When I was in high school, she used her free tuition at the community college to get a degree in chemistry. For the next twenty years she worked as a lab technician, so she must have been interested in science. But this was such a short list of whats from a lifetime of living, and I never thought to ask why.
If I could go back and talk to nine-year-old me, I'd let her know things improve. That middle school is better than elementary and college feels like freedom. That she'll eventually land a job that allows her to use a credit card for convenience, although she still searches for good bargains. In exchange for this future vision, I would ask a favor of my daydreaming self. I'd instruct her to cut out and safely store just one of those Sunday afternoons spent in silence, so I could redeem it now—no expiration date!—to ask my mother, "Pennysaver for your thoughts." And to tell her, at last, how much I appreciated the game she'd so diligently played to transform the little we had into the things we most needed.
It's funny what you value when it's no longer in front of you. The softness of worn-down linoleum. The hum of an ancient refrigerator. The knowledge that there's someone prepared to do whatever it takes, no matter what, to provide food and shelter and opportunities.
By my tenth birthday, my father had landed a new job. I still didn't get the jeans I wanted, but our fridge was better stocked and we'd dine out every now and then at a restaurant that advertised Kids Eat Free. On Sundays, my mother continued to cut coupons, but only from the newspaper addressed to 307 Ridge, and she no longer required my help.