The winter before I graduated high school, my father packed his truck with a cooler of food, drove me to Wilderness State Park, and left me in a cabin for three days to ruminate on the kind of man I wanted to become. It was already dark when we arrived and the parking lot sat empty—a drifting, lazy snow idling its way down from the sky. We packed two sleds full of wood and the cooler and began marching into the woods, our breath heavy against the shadow of trees that wove their brittle fingers above us.
The idea for a weekend alone in a cabin had come from his time as a social worker for the Bay Mills Indian tribe in Sault Saint Marie. This will be your spirit journey, he told me in a tone of hushed excitement, as though he were conveying something both spiritual and adventurous. As though he were the first white man to appropriate this experience. His investment in the idea of this weekend—this moment for his son to meditate on manhood—was unmatched. My father has always had an obsessive attachment to ideas that verge on zealotry; he consumes all projects until they are utterly his own.
I was skeptical of this project. It typified so much of our relationship—he would design a place and an activity for me to decide who I was, as though much of who he was hadn’t already imprinted on me. The boundaries of that decision about myself, and whatever that decision amounted to, already being largely set by my father left me wondering who this weekend was really for: me or him.
I remember the walk out to the cabin much clearer than I do the rest of the weekend. The crunch of our boots on snow, the silence that carried us through two miles until we reached the cabin. I was focused on my breathing, putting one foot in front of the other against the too-loud squeak and groan of aching tree trunks. Ice had not yet swallowed the lake somewhere beyond the pine trees and I remember hearing the thrum of waves against tree bark as we got close to the cabin. Looking up, I saw my father standing in a clearing looking up into the sky, his face open, snow landing on his face in tiny pinpricks before evaporating.
I owe $17,345 on my student loans. When I graduated from Michigan State University in 2014, my debt was $26,456. I have all my payments set to autopay so I don’t have to look at the money being funneled out of my bank account. I am making progress, but progress is slow. When I began working for a public radio station in Michigan, the starting salary was $30,000, which felt great. The year before, I worked as a member of Americorps VISTA, a national volunteer organization which pays its workers at the poverty level of wherever you’re placed enabling “you to live very frugally, like the community you are serving” according to their website. I’d skirted by during the program because I’d put my loans into forbearance and was housed in the dorms of the community college I’d been working for. But, as I began juggling a car payment, car insurance, student loans, and rent, $30,000 started disappearing at an alarming rate.
Like my father, I have a bad relationship with money. I fear checking my bank account, find the idea of budgeting stressful. Like him, I want badly for money not determine the course or purpose of my life despite its endless power to do so. There’s so much about debt and budgeting that feels like a personal failing. It feels embarrassing both to admit what you’re paid and also to admit you don’t know how to make the amount you’ve been paid stretch far enough. It feels like copping to the fact you’re not worth much. And, failing to budget what you do have feels like acknowledging your worth has been correctly assessed: you really don’t know what you’re doing.
On the drive up to Marquette for a camping trip in the summer of 2019, my sister Naomi would not tell me how much she owes. Naomi went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. She was told by her teachers, and by our parents, that this would be a good decision—that she was talented, that music was in her future. She was eighteen when she took out her loans, and does not know how long she’ll be paying them back for.
“I just wish I’d known this is what it would be like,” she said at a gas station along Route 2, one of the last gas stations before you turn north across the Peninsula and the roads turn longer, emptier, flatter. “I wish someone would have stopped me from taking out as much as I did.”
“Seems like there should maybe be a safeguard, right? Someone to make sure you’ll actually be able to take on that much debt,” I said.
“Yeah,” she nods. “I just feel like I can’t do anything except work and make payments. Even just going camping… I feel guilty.” Naomi lives with our parents now. She works at the local veterinary clinic as a technician to help pay her bills. She releases her songs on Soundcloud and YouTube. Sometimes, she plays gigs at the local bar. She is undeniably good at what she does, but when I ask her if she thinks she’ll be able to make a living doing it she always shrugs. “It’s going to take a long time for me to break even.” It’s as though the promises were made about her future have turned into a quantifiable value: a number on a student loan website that slowly, almost imperceptibly ticks away.
It costs $6.99 cents for a twenty-four-pack of ramen noodles. My mother used to buy three packages at a time and stock the pantry. There were three primary flavors—beef, chicken, and pork. The beef and pork were too salty; the acrid taste of the flavor packets would stay in my mouth hours after eating them. I always ate the chicken ramen packets. I ate so many, in fact, that even as ramen becomes increasingly trendy, I can’t enter a ramen restaurant without feeling sick.
We weren’t poor, exactly; that would feel like a dishonest claim to make. There was always food and enough money to get by. But I remember the anxiety around money, the way it permeated everything. Sometimes, I would hear my parents talk in hushed tones about how things were going to be tight for the next couple of days. Usually, it was my mother talking to my father, who refused to manage the accounts because they made him nervous, as though if the funds fell below a certain threshold it might physically hurt him. He would get agitated when the money was low. “Where the fuck did all the money go?” he would ask, his voice rising loud enough for my sisters and I, huddled in the stairwell just above these discussions, to hear. “How did we spend that much?”
I remember, on pay days or when the budgeting had worked out like it was supposed to, my mother would ask us if we wanted to go out to eat, or to a movie. The three of us, my twin sisters and I, would always ask if that was a good idea, if we shouldn’t wait and forgo a movie or that platter of lukewarm noodles at Fazoli’s. We were only twelve and ten but we were already so cautious. We knew money was somehow related to pain.
My father’s family believes money will save them. At least, this is what my father tells me. His brothers and sisters are doctors, engineers, business executives, and so forth. When they go out to dinner together, they fight over the check. It is a game with unknown rules, but is always about deception and gamesmanship. They pretend to go to the bathroom and pay the bill, or they each pull out their wallets when the server arrives, making loud statements about how, it’s really nothing for me to take care of this. Keep your money. My father is a social worker. He is nervous about money, but he does not think it should define his worth. He still plays this game, though, still jockeys for the bill when the server arrives, as though not doing so would admit something.
When he tells stories about why his family cares so much about money, they all come back to his father, Tut. The way he tells it, Tut’s father could be affectionate, kind. But, at the height of the Great Depression, he fell into debt and became a drinker. One day, after Tut returned from school, his father threatened to kill him. It’s not clear why; there are no real answers here, but Tut’s father beat him within an inch of his life. He was saved by a coincidence—his brother returned from the army a day early. A day later and there would be no story to tell.
I don’t know how to imagine this scene. Does the brother open the door to see Tut on the floor, his father’s fist suspended somewhere above them both? What do they say to each other to break this weird, sad tableau? Maybe they say nothing. Maybe Tut’s brother opens the door and there is silence. Maybe their father falls out of some spell and sees himself, sees what he has done, and falls away from his son. Is Tut unconscious? Do they rush to the hospital? The details are absent. I wasn’t there, and neither was my father. It is a story that holds weight but is shifty, its borders faded.
“I think,” my father says whenever he tells this story, which is often, “Tut came to believe money would insulate him. So long as he was never poor, he wouldn’t be in danger.” This is how my father reads this story—which is also a story about debt, about how one event and a family’s response to it molded my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and now me. The story is mythic, passed from one generation to the next, a story with a moral about how to avoid beatings: don’t be poor. My father has rejected that lesson, in part because he must have known it wasn’t entirely true—a wealthy parent can beat their child just as easily as a poor one—but also because he saw how that fear of poverty warped his own family, how it built the often-rocky relationships he was left to manage with his own siblings.
This moral, don’t be poor, came with its own costs, leveraged a new debt without ever really facing the old one. I can see it from my father’s perspective: my aunts and uncles are running away from the first abuse still, trying to build walls of money around their father’s almost-death without ever really paying off its principal cost. My father is wrestling with it, at least. He is telling this story. He is passing it on along with everything else.
I do not know what my father’s anger has cost us, my sisters and me. We are divided on this. He has accrued a different debt with each of us. Naomi refuses to discuss him in a negative light. She is proud of our parents, of our father. She talks about his relationship with our mother in reverent tones—what they have is beautiful, she says. Zoe feels differently. Zoe, of the three of us, is the only one he ever hit. She remembers how scary he was to be around as a kid, how unpredictable his mood swings could be. She does not hesitate to use words like abusive and monster.
I am somewhere in between. I, too, remember how hard he was to live with, remember being afraid he would move from breaking plates and basement windows to breaking us. I remember testing him once, intentionally angering him, just to see what he would do. I locked the doors to the house, refused to open them when he tried to get in. Eventually, he broke through the door, picked me up by my shirt, and backed me against a wall, breathing heavily. He held me there for a moment, both of us pressed up against one another, waiting for something to happen. Then, he put me down and walked away.
Through Zoe’s eyes, I am making excuses. I should be able call a thing what it is, but I’m not there yet. I cannot help but see my father in a long line of fathers of whom he is unquestionably better. Whatever his anger has cost us, it is less than his father’s anger cost him, and his father’s father before that. Maybe that is enough. Or, maybe that’s the best we get.
Of the three of us, Zoe has accrued the least financial debt. She went college and got a practical degree in Emergency Medical Services. She is deceptively slight but strong. The men who work in the ambulance rigs with her, often huge and comedically bulky EMS workers with square jaws and furrowed brows, will catch me on the street sometimes after recognizing who I am and say, “Damn, your sister is a fucking badass.” They say it under their breath as though she will hear them, as though their reverence should not be known. Zoe is like that—she exudes an energy that is free somehow, that she is untethered and able to do what she wants without caring about how it will be perceived.
When we talk about the future, Zoe talks about escape. “When I’ve paid off my loans, I think I’ll move to Colorado,” she says. She means she can’t feel safe in Northern Michigan, still so close to our family, to our father. I can imagine she would be happy, miles from us, trekking up mountains in her free time. I envision her taking long bike rides past grey open lakes, short runs up steep inclines, snow somewhere up ahead. Still, I’m not sure if escape is possible.
Back in the car, I was surprised when Zoe brought up “that guy she was seeing”. Normally cagey about relationships she didn’t hesitate, “I just found out he’s got a drinking problem.”
“Oh no,” I said, something tightening below my stomach.
“Yeah. Do you ever wonder if we gravitate towards people like this?” By “this” we both know she means like him.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope not?” We both laughed at my uncertainty.
“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”
In the spring of 2021, it will be seven years I have been paying off student loan debt. In the book of Deuteronomy, debts are ordered to be canceled every seven years. Not coincidentally, US bankruptcy laws allow a filing once every eight years. Student loan debt, though, cannot be released in bankruptcy. There are some debts that do not disappear.
When I paid off a car loan a few years back, a red 2007 Honda Fit I bought for $4,000, there was no celebration, nothing to mark the occasion. One month there was a payment notice posted to my bank account and the next month there was not. I do not know what student loan companies do, whether there is something special to let you pause and contemplate how meaningful the moment of final payment is. I hope there is a letter, or at least an email. It would be short, to the point. No need for long paragraphs with frilly sentences. Maybe it would just need to be one line, sitting at the center of the computer screen, in bold font: Your debt is paid. That would be enough.
I’m not sure there will ever be a full accounting, that we will all see our collective debts redeemed in a way we find satisfying. In the summer my father and I sat out on the back porch, grilling burgers, embracing the heat.
“What was I like?” He asked, unprompted.
“Uh…” I said, knowing what he meant but wanting him to say it.
“As a dad, I mean. Growing up.”
“You did a lot right,” I said, honestly. “But I also remember being scared of you for a long time.”
“I never hit you,” he said pointedly. “My father used to smack us around pretty good. I never did that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not sure that’s the point.” I don’t know what I wanted him to say then—I still don’t. Maybe what I wanted then, and still want, is an acknowledgment something happened that shouldn’t have. That a debt exists between us.
“Look,” he said. “I did what I knew how to do.”
“Yeah,” I said. We could agree on that.
On the third day in the cabin, I ate what was left of an old, too-warm block of cheese. The cooler, which I had stupidly left in the cabin, had become a soup of room-temperature packaged meats and a few floating apples. By the time my father arrived, with plans to spend the night and hike us out in the morning, I was already puking yellowish chunks into the snow alongside the cabin. I remember being worried; even though the weekend had been created for me, I had in some sense failed to execute his plan by getting sick. But there was no anger this time; my father brewed a pot of tea and we both went to bed early.
I wonder now if the weekend was his way of trying to prepare me for something, even if he didn’t have the words to articulate what. He had passed so much down without ever meaning to but this was something conscious and purposeful. A weekend in a cabin meant for reflection, as though by thinking long enough I could become someone better, avoid a generations worth of mistakes.
In the night, I woke up and vomited over the side of the bed, spilling hot gut acid all over the floor.
“You okay?” He asked, his voice reaching out from the bunk on the other side of the room.
“Oh, yeah,” I said wryly. We both went back to sleep.
In the morning, I awoke to find the vomit had been cleaned up, the cooler dumped into the snow, the sled loaded up for a haul back to the car. I tried to imagine him sopping up my mess, mopping up the bile with what was left of the paper towel, but couldn’t somehow. It’s still an image of him I can’t quite imagine, a small kindness, a kind of payment. To scoop up his son’s sick and carry it outside. To throw it into the trees and let it be found by the birds or consumed slowly by a waiting earth.
Rumpus original art by Genevieve Tyrrell.