By Ranya Forgotson, The Curbside Chronicle
Where are you from?
I’m originally from New York City. Actually, Englewood, New Jersey. I was born during a parade on Thanksgiving day, so they had to go a roundabout way to get me to the hospital. I grew up in New Jersey, but my grandfather had a chain of stores in New York and we would go over there all the time. They were variety stores called Mildred’s Variety Stores. The store was named after my grandmother and so was I.
They had everything you can imagine. He got to seven stores and then my grandfather decided to move. He wanted to live his dream as a farmer, so he bought a farm in Oklahoma and we moved out here.
Did you grow up with your grandparents?
No, I lived with my dad. He took care of me, but my grandparents stepped in quite often. I was at their house most of the time. They wanted custody of me but he wouldn’t give it to them.
What about your mother?
My mother was very rebellious. She got pregnant early. She had kids and they got scattered all over the place. I know of six siblings. She had kids and just dumped them off. My mother left me in an abandoned house when I was a baby. My grandfather and father broke down the door and got me out. They said I was in bad shape when they found me.
My grandparents tried to shield me from her. They didn’t like to talk about her while I was growing up. I always saw this drunk lady that would come around the house and I didn’t know who she was. I came to find out: it was my mother coming around. She would leave presents and things for me but my grandparents would throw them in the trash. I didn’t know she was my mom until I was 19. She got real sick and came over to the house and told me.
How was your relationship with your father?
He did some things that were pretty awful. He was a drug dealer. That’s how he met my mom. He was supplying her drugs… I never could get close to him. He was always dramatic. Always a nervous wreck. Always looking over his shoulder.
I was 16 when I got married to my first husband. I was looking for a way to escape my father.
What did you want to escape?
The drugs. The lifestyle. I didn’t want that lifestyle. Constant people. The screaming. The hollering. The violence. Selling drugs in the house and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. Hitting women. He was very disrespectful to women. I’ve seen some things I shouldn’t have.
He kept on pressuring me to be like him. He’d have me hold stuff and hide packages around the house so no one could find them. He got me thrown into a juvenile detention center when I was 14. He went and shot somebody, and the police came to the house looking for him. All his drugs were in the house, and I was there by myself. I got accused of having something to do with the drugs. I didn’t want to snitch on my father.
How did you end up in Oklahoma?
I was 14 when I came to Oklahoma. My grandparents moved here for their farm and my father followed them. They were threatening to take custody of me because he was an unfit parent. My grandparents made sure I went to private school and got a good education. They even sent me to college. They always took good care of me.
My grandparents were good Christian people, very hard working, and instilled the value of a dollar in me. My grandparents always told me I had to work for what I get. They told me all kinds of things. They taught me. They told me when I was older I would understand. And I did.
What was your marriage like at 16?
I was trying to escape my father, and I successfully did. But my first husband was very abusive – physically and mentally. He was thrown in and out of jail constantly for drinking and drugs. It was a mess. The marriage was a mess. That’s because I was trying to escape my father and ran right back into the same problems…I’d been in the hospital a lot of times for bruises. I had a broken arm from him. He had grabbed me by the arm and threw me against the wall. I was small then and my bones were kind of fragile.
But my mother-in-law was good to me. I got pregnant at 16, and he went to jail. I didn’t know what to do, and she took me in. But she made me work and take care of my kids. She was a decent woman.
What was it like being a mom?
It was hard because I was young. And I had always wanted a family of my own. I wanted a husband and to be the wife and have kids. A family that I never had.
I started taking all kinds of odd jobs to help keep the kids fed. I worked on a hot tar roof. I put lights up at Christmas time. I still got scars from the blood bank on my arms. I was going twice a week for a couple years to donate plasma. And I worked a full-time job too as a cafeteria cook. It took a lot of work to raise them.
Did you ever remarry?
Yes, his name was Jimmie and we were married almost 11 years. He was a great guy. He took good care of me. Nothing like my first husband. He protected me from anybody he thought might hurt me. He died of cirrhosis of the liver almost 2 years ago.
How did you two meet?
I was friends with his mother and she thought that he was a perfect match for me. She used to sit on her porch and I’d go by on my way home from work. I’d sit and talk with her and we became friends. Then I got diagnosed with cervical cancer and was going through chemotherapy. When I got sick, she had her son drive her to the hospital to come see me. She was a little match maker like that.
What was it like battling cancer?
I was about 140 pounds when I was diagnosed with cancer. After I beat it, I got up to 450 pounds because water retention is a side effect sometimes of chemo. I started putting on the pounds with water retention and had a lot of health problems after that. I felt bad about the weight and people judging me and not knowing me. But I’m down to 300 pounds now and plan to keep on losing it.
You mentioned that your husband passed 2 years ago.
Yes, I didn’t know what to do. We lost the house and a lot of bad things happened. He got sick and the insurance didn’t cover everything. He needed medicine and we just didn’t have the money. We wound up in an apartment to save money. And then he passed away and I wound up in a warehouse. It was hard because he always knew what to say. He always knew what to do. And I didn’t know what to do.
What was it like living in a warehouse?
It was awful. It was dirty and nasty. But at least I had my cats with me. That’s why I didn’t stay at a shelter. You can’t have pets, and I couldn’t imagine giving them up. I love animals.
I kept my job the whole time I was homeless. I’ve been working at an auto care place for the past 7 years. I work 30 hours a week holding a sign advertising oil changes. But after my husband died, I wasn’t making enough on my own to pay for food, rent, and my medicine.
How did you find out about Curbside?
There was a Curbside vendor and he gave me your magazine one day. He suggested that I call you guys. I needed extra income. Curbside helped me get the extra money I needed to get out of this situation. There have been times when the food was real low but after selling magazines I got the money. I was able to go to the store and get some food.
What was it like moving back into housing?
I was scared to move back into housing. I was afraid of being by myself, but I’m okay. I got something to eat. I got a place to stay. I can take a warm shower when I want to.
What are your goals for the future?
I want to do better. Housing is fine for now. But I just want something better. Maybe a better place to stay. Maybe a bigger apartment. Maybe not having to struggle as much as I do sometimes with medicine and paying rent and dealing with life’s situations. I’d like to get the cats some nice toys. And sometimes, I’m not saying right away [because] I’m still grieving my husband, but sometimes, I don’t want to be alone. I think that’s human. Constantly being alone is hard.
What brings you joy in life?
Well, I do have a strong belief in God. I’m very spiritual. That helps me deal with my problems.
And I love people. I’m a people person. And I like helping people too. Financially I ain’t able to. But I can give a kind word or smile. I do that all the time. It’s natural for me to smile. I’m usually always smiling.
What are your hobbies?
I like painting all kinds of pictures. I’ve always liked art, [and] even as a child I would draw and paint. When my husband was alive, we had a room with paint and an easel. I used to make extra money doing that. People would buy my paintings from me. I haven’t painted anything lately. One day I wanna get some paint and canvas and start again.
What do you wish people knew about homelessness?
I haven’t always been homeless. For the majority of my life, I wasn’t. I’m 63 years old and I’ve worked all my life. Most of the time for minimum wage.
There are a lot of people that fall in my category. When I was younger, I worked at the Salvation Army for 12 years as a cook. When I was working at there, I seen people like me but I never thought I would end up in that situation. It doesn’t make me happy, but it makes me feel a little bit better that I’m not alone. My life hasn’t always been easy. But I’m coming out of it.