Hand to Mouth by Lila Little

By Story of America Team

My name is Lila Little. This is my story. 

I was born in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, while my father worked for Aramco. Lila is an Arabic name. It means Night.

I am 57 now, and so many memories flow through me, and the tears flow out. I have not always been poor, but I will be poor from now on.


lilafilter.jpgI went to both public and private schools, and spent some time in a Catholic boarding school. I have lived in and visited many countries, and feel so enriched by my experiences. They taught me to fear nothing, to shun nothing and no one. I truly see us all as one.

I got a degree in nursing from McNeese State University in 1989, and moved to North Carolina from Louisiana in 1990. My father, who influenced me more than anyone, had died in 1987, so there was nothing to keep us there. My mother came along with us, and got a place close by.

I worked hard, my first job being at Duke University Medical Center. There was never a day I did not go through its doors that I did not think “this is it, the big game, the top of the mountain.” And it is — there are more stunning things and amazing procedures that happen there than just about anywhere, and I was able to be a part of that. It was intoxicating, and exhausting.

After three years there I took my show on the road, literally, to be a home health nurse, and a travel nurse. I loved my work, and would still do it if I could, but all the hours on my feet, the pulling and lifting, turning and positioning of people finally took its toll, and I had to stop work in 2010. I miss it.

My daughter, Sarah, gave birth to Chloe in 2001. Steve, my husband, and I helped raise her from the time she was 14 months old until she was nine. My daughter had gotten married in that space of time and had a son, Gavin. They had moved west and ended up in Mesa, Arizona. Her husband was abusive. Once he beat her so badly she should have gone to the hospital — she didn’t.

Video featuring Lila’s daughter, Sarah Little.

Sarah and Gavin eventually came back to North Carolina and moved in with us, so we were five in a 2-bedroom house in a poor part of Orange County. I was quite sick during this time and lost so much weight I was down to 85 pounds. There was no income coming in, so I got myself well enough to go back to work one more time. It was one time too many, and soon I found I just could not go on with the hours. Eventually we were evicted from the house. 

Sarah’s husband came back to North Carolina and took over. He got the Mormon Church busy paying for a house for them, but Steve and I were dropped off at a laundromat where I had found work for $200/wk. We slept on the concrete floor in the back room, and because we were taking up space, my employer dropped my pay to $160/wk. There was a microwave, a refrigerator and a bathroom with a toilet and sink.  

We lived this way for a time until I found a position as a housekeeper at a place out in the country. No money, but there was a bedroom and food, and use of a car, so I took it hoping I could find a paying job somehow and get us out of the place we were in. Steve stayed on at the laundromat, but the owners  sold the place and the new people did not need a man sleeping in the back, so he was out on the street.

Somehow I convinced Sarah to let me move back in with them and to get rid of the husband. She now had three children, Aiden being the youngest. She said yes to that, but not to my husband coming. So he remained out on the streets.

I was sleeping on the floor, but at least I was with my family. Sarah got a job at a local call center, we applied for food stamps and hit the food banks when we could. My sister pumped money into the household when she could, and saved us from living in the dark and cold many times.

It was a nightmare manifested in the daylight. I can not begin to put into words what the experience was like, is like, trying to live day to day, getting enough to feed the children, diapers, all the things you need  that nobody thinks about.

While working at the call center, Sarah became pregnant again with Daihmin. I watched over the other children while she worked long hours at low pay. Mike, her fiance, took work where he could find it but that was difficult with long commutes at minimum wage.

When I became too sick to look after the kids, Sarah was forced to leave her job to look after me instead. No Family Leave Act for her, but she did get unemployment at $146 a week. Not nearly enough, but something. That was at the end of April. And at the end of June, Gov. McCrory cut that off too.

Being poor is the most expensive way of life there is, period. You learn to say “no” a lot, mostly to the children. They never go to a movie, or the festival night at their school, never have sleep-overs or parties. Those things cost money. There is no television, no new toys. Almost everything they have someone else had first. Some days the children are sent out to play early because there is nothing to feed them for breakfast. 

We smile and say thank you, but a fire burns down deep, a feeling you do not want to name. 

We have had fundraisers online, and many have given, and many have called us beggars, whiners. How many times have I been told by someone who never had to skip a meal how to “fix” my life? It usually involves a church somehow, a relationship with a deity. I am much nicer to these people than I want to be. It is a mask you learn to wear.  

People think the poor are lazy moochers. I do not know any of these, though I do know people who have given up, been told “no” so many times they just can not ask anymore. I am still yelling.

My daughter now has four children, Daihmin being the last. They felt they had to move from North Carolina and went to Arizona where her fiance’s family lives. They were supposed to help them out, but just kicked them out instead.

My daughter got a job, which is good, because they are in a week to week motel paying $1000 a month for the privilege. Once again, when you are poor or homeless, you pay more. I do not know what is going to become of them, and I feel guilty I can not help.

I am mostly done, with everything. I feel so badly that I let my daughter and grandchildren down. I know there is little chance that they will ever lift themselves out of poverty, and they will grow up never knowing life is any other way —  hand to mouth, day to day.

We should be able to fix this. We live in America, not some third world country. I tell myself this, but I know it is a silly dream, there is no hope in the future for any of us in this sinking boat. But I still yell. 

Video featuring Lila Little at an Art Pope informational picket in Burlington, NC.