A funny and touching memoir about an impoverished girlhood.
Poverty is never glamorous, as DeKam makes clear in her debut, but it’s sometimes possible to escape from its stranglehold. Born in 1972, DeKam was the third daughter of parents who vacillated between charming incompetence and abusive neglect. Her mother, Colleen, was a faded Irish beauty–turned–“champion complainer” prone to welfare fraud. Her father, Fred, was a dreamer, schemer and restless wanderer who dragged his family from New York to California and everywhere in between and then abandoned them for months. Fred was charming yet distant, and DeKam adapted quickly to his unreliability. Her mother didn’t learn the same lesson, and she stuck with her alcoholic husband, even when he stranded her in a tiny Wisconsin town with no job opportunities. While Colleen seemed incapable of taking charge of her own life, her daughters learned the power of independence, and each eventually broke free of their dysfunctional heritage. In a genre crowded with tales of difficult childhoods, DeKam’s plainspoken memoir stands out. Her voice is honest, and she doesn’t wallow in self-pity or give in to bitterness, even when recounting trying circumstances—the house in upstate New York that lacked indoor plumbing, the cockroach-infested studio apartment she shared with her parents in Arizona. In the most affecting passages, Meier describes the shame and anxiety that come with growing up poor. In one memorable scene, she visited a grocery store with a friend and had to use the family’s food stamps for the purchase. Her “anguish about how to pay” is palpable, as is her relief when the friend tactfully ignored the situation. While much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, there are also darker moments, such as when Meier’s oldest sister permanently left home after discovering that her mother had opened credit accounts in her name. Meier’s inevitable breaking point comes years later, when she realized that her “feckless, lawless, and dysfunctional parents gave me that self-reliance” she needed to make her own way in the world.
An affecting, tragicomic account of growing up poor.