Hi there, Dear Reader. It’s early afternoon here in New Hometown, Florida on Friday, August 27, 2021. It’s gray and gloomy outside, as well as hot and humid. Currently, the temperature is 89˚F under mostly cloudy skies. With the wind blowing from the east-southeast at 9 MPH (14 KM/H), the feels-like temperature is 101˚F (38˚C). Today’s forecast calls for scattered rain showers. The high will be 91˚F (33˚C). Tonight, we can expect light rain. The low will be 77˚F (25˚C). The Air Quality Index (AQI) is 40 or Good.
On days like today – steamy, dark, and gloomy days – I often experience flashbacks to my last five and a half years in Miami (2010 to spring of 2016). That half-decade or so was, and still is, the most difficult and painful time of my life. My mom suffered from various ailments, the most serious of which was dementia, which manifested themselves after a six-hour-long operation in June of 2010 to repair her spine. I don’t know if Mom would have had dementia regardless, but there was some speculation by her primary care physician that perhaps “being under” the effects of anesthesia and her advanced age might have hastened the onset of that disease.
And even though sometimes I’ll have the occasional happy memory from that time – there really weren’t too many good days for me then – most of my flashbacks to what I call “the Dark Time” are unpleasant.
There was, for instance, the infamous incident in late May of 2010 when I discovered that my older half-sister Vicky was using Mom’s Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to buy groceries for herself when she went to Winn Dixie or the slightly pricier Publix to do grocery shopping on behalf of my mother.
When my mom got sick and could no longer run the household, Vicky – who is 13 years older than me – volunteered to do some of the chores she assumed I could not do on my own due to my disability, cerebral palsy. Stuff like doing laundry, paying the bills, cooking, and grocery shopping – I had never done those things, at least not for the long haul, since my mother had never expected to be incapacitated.
Mom balked at the idea of letting my half-sister handle the finances; in May of 2010 my mother was physically incapacitated by back pain caused by some of the discs in her lower spine pressing against raw nerves, and she had yet been operated on – the surgery was still two or three weeks in the future – so she said she’d handle the finances. Vicky has a peculiar habit of waiting till the last minute to pay her bills; she doesn’t send payments on time and often goes to stores like Sears or CVS to pay utilities. Mom knew that Vicky had had her phone and electricity services cut due to late payments.
On the other hand, Mom thought that since Vicky had a car and had lived independently for most of her adult life, she could probably handle the grocery shopping and do the laundry, two tasks that Mom didn’t want to burden me with.
In theory, things were to go something like this. Since I had volunteered to handle the cooking – after all, I was 47 years old and was eager to take on that responsibility – I would plan the meals and make the shopping list for the week. Vicky would then use the EBT card (which works like a debit card) for Mom’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) account at Winn Dixie or Publix and buy the things on the list I made for the week.
When Mom started getting SNAP benefits in 2010 – a social worker sent by the state of Florida had determined that Mom’s low income and dire circumstances qualified her to receive various health-related services via Medicaid as well as SNAP, which are colloquially still referred to as “food stamps” – the Department of Children and Families at first determined she only needed $190 a month on her EBT card. That was a bit less than what Mom was spending at the supermarket each month, but since she was confined to a hospital-style bed and not physically active, her appetite was not what it once had been. And since I lived at home, I could pay out of pocket for whatever the SNAP benefits did not cover.
This means that when I made my shopping lists, I knew that I had to make sure that those $190-a-month benefits were spent carefully and wisely. And even though math is not my forte, I know enough about grocery shopping to stretch those meager EBT bucks on a monthly basis.
Now, since Mom wasn’t eating much even then, those EBT benefits could feed both my mother and me well enough. I could get by on two meals a day – breakfast and dinner – if I husbanded the food supplies with care and discipline. And if I needed to get stuff like junk food or go to a nearby restaurant occasionally, I could pay for it myself without depriving my mom of stuff she needed to survive.
What I could not do was feed three persons on $190 a month, and I thought my half-sister, who was making $25 an hour as a registered nurse at the now-closed Metropolitan Hospital of Miami, understood that.
Alas, no. Vicky did not see things that way. She figured that since she was the firstborn child and the one with the most experience at independent living, she was now the de facto head of household and Mom’s primary caregiver.
In addition, she figured that since she was the one doing the laundry and the grocery shopping, she was entitled to buy groceries for herself with Mom’s EBT card.
Of course, she did not tell me this verbally. She knew I disapproved, and she knew why I would not go along with her sense of entitlement.
In fact, she went out of her way to keep me in the dark about what she was planning to do with the EBT card. The first time that I made out the shopping list to “break in” the card, she brought home all the items I requested and handed me both the list and the receipt. “Here you go, Alex,” she said before she sauntered into Mom’s sickroom and handed her the EBT card back.
A week or so before Mom had her surgery, I noticed that we were running low on basics such as milk, eggs, and bread. I also planned on preparing a meal that included frozen green beans. I asked Vicky if she would mind making a quick run to the store to get those items.
“No, of course not,” Vicky said. “I’ll go.”
“Great,” I said. “Now, we only have $80 or so left in the EBT card according to the last receipt, so please make sure you don’t get anything that’s not on this list. Also, please go to Winn Dixie. Mom has the discount card from there, and Publix is more expensive.”
Vicky stiffened at that but didn’t say a word. Instead, she watched as Mom dug into her purse, fished out her wallet, then handed her the EBT card. With that, she walked out to her car and headed off to do the grocery shopping.
That was the second time that Vicky did the grocery shopping for us.
It was also the last.
About an hour and a half after she left for the store, Vicky arrived with three bags of groceries. I helped bring them into the townhouse. I wasn’t expecting her to bring so much, but I was in a rush to get the food inside and put away properly, so at first it didn’t register that something was amiss.
Mom had taught me that when you buy groceries and bring them home, the first items you put away are the frozen products such as ice cream, bags of frozen veggies, or Stouffer’s entrees. I had requested a half-gallon of ice cream and a bag of green beans, as well as a few other items I’d use later that week.
As I unpacked the plastic bags, I finally noticed two things: the bags all had the green Publix logo, not Winn Dixie’s red one. Second, I saw that Vicky had gotten two half-gallon boxes of ice cream instead of one. What the hell….
I felt a flush of heat rising from the back of my neck. “Vicky,” I said tersely, “I thought I asked you to go to Winn Dixie. It’s much closer to the house, for one thing, not to mention cheaper.”
“I like Publix better,” Vicky said.
“And why did you get two ice creams? I only put one on the list,” I said.
Vicky shot me a look that clearly reflected a mix of entitlement, deception, and defiance. “Publix has a 2-for-1 sale on ice cream. I am taking the other box home with me.”
“At least you bought the bag of green beans I asked for,” I said in a slightly calmer voice.
“Yes, but I’m going to take half the bag home with me.”
I balked. “Look,” I said. “When I say I need a bag of green beans, I need a complete one, not half.”
Vicky stared at me coolly and said, “Okay, I’ll go ask Mom if I can have half the bag.”
I should have gone with her to Mom’s room, but I needed to put the groceries away, especially the frozen items, so I focused on that task.
Not more than a minute later, Vicky walked into the kitchen as I sorted through the less delicate canned and packaged items, such as bread, cereal, and pasta.
“Mom said I could have half of the green beans,” Vicky said in a matter-of-fact, I-dare-you-to-challenge-me tone. “I’ll put them in a Zip-Loc bag when I leave.”
In retrospect, I should have gone to Mom’s room to confirm if it was true. But Mom had a visitor – her friend Maruja Velez, who was in her 90s but still spry and mentally fit – and I didn’t want to make a scene. Plus, sometimes Mom was that accommodating to her oldest child, so it was possible that Vicky was telling the truth.
Unfortunately, not more than five minutes later, I ended up having to make a scene despite my wishes to avoid one.
As I said earlier, my half-sister thought that she could take advantage of the situation now that Mom was unable to run the house and had qualified for the SNAP program thanks to that social worker from the state. Vicky liked splurging on expensive restaurants and going to expensive entertainments along the lines of Cirque du Soleil or buying expensive clothes at Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue. She did not like, however, buying groceries or paying utilities on time. In short, even though she made over $25 an hour as a health care professional, had a 401K plan through her hospital job, and had fewer responsibilities than our elderly mother, she had her priorities all mixed up and was almost always short of cash.
So when Vicky saw that she could take advantage of the situation and use the EBT card to get food for herself, she attempted to do just that.
I happened to be walking into Mom’s room to see if Mom needed anything from the kitchen before I started writing on my laptop, which I’d set up on the dining room table so I could be reached in an emergency instead of going up to my bedroom and working on my desktop PC. I had calmed down after the earlier argument over Vicky’s choice of the supermarket, the 2-for-1 ice creams, and the green beans, and all I wanted to do was to make sure Mom was comfortable and not in need of icy cold water or a snack.
That calm did not last.
As I walked in, I saw Vicky coolly placing Mom’s EBT card in her wallet with a casual possessiveness that struck me as both odd and wrong.
“What are you doing?” I asked my half-sister.
“Oh, Mom said I could have the balance in the card so I can get a few things for myself later.”
“How much is the balance?” I asked, knowing full well that May of 2010 still had two weeks to go and if the EBT ran out, we’d have to wait till the U.S. Department of Agriculture refilled the EBT account with $190 on June 3.
“Around $50 or so,” Vicky said.
I turned to look at Mom. “Is it true that you gave Vicky the card?”
Mom looked over at my half-sister, then at me, not really sure how to answer. “Well, she is doing the shopping, so she thinks it’s only fair…”
Maruja looked sternly at Vicky and said, “I’m not an expert in how assistance programs work, but I do know that that card was issued to your mother, not you. You have a good job, and you get paid well, and from what your mother says, you’ve never helped pay any of the bills here, and you don’t live in this house. You might get your mother in trouble if you use her benefits for yourself.”
“Vicky,” I said, “I don’t think you should take Mom’s food stamps card. Give it back.”
Vicky looked at me defiantly. “No.”
“Vicky,” I said again, fury rising with me like a lava flow in a volcano, “give Mom her card back. If I can’t trust you to use it properly, I’ll do the grocery shopping myself.”
“You?” Vicky said derisively. “You don’t have a car. You’ve never done grocery shopping before. You can’t do it.”
“Au contraire. I’ve done grocery shopping a few times when Mom went to Colombia in 1985 to visit the family and you were working the night shift at American Hospital.”
Vicky’s face contorted with anger. “No. I am not going to give the card back. Especially not because you say so.”
My mother was still of sound mind, if not of body, on that day, and it suddenly dawned on her that her oldest adult child was trying to get away with an unethical, immoral, and perhaps even illegal act. Mustering up every ounce of inner strength and parental authority within her, Mom spoke in a firm, steely voice.
“Victoria Eugenia Pineros,” Mom said in the no-nonsense tone she affected when either one of us crossed her, “you will give your brother the card. Maruja is right. You could get us all in trouble if the government finds out you are using benefits that you were not personally given.”
“Give me the card, Vicky,” I said.
Vicky glared at me with fury in her eyes. I thought she would gladly claw my eyes out right there and then; such was the look of hatred and resentment that she gave me.
I stood my ground. If Vicky thought she could intimidate me into letting her do the food shopping from then on, she was gravely mistaken.
I held out my hand. “Vicky, give…me…the…card…this…very…instant.”
Vicky stared at me coldly, and for an instant, I thought she was going to refuse yet again. But when she saw that she had no support from either Maruja or our mother, she angrily reached into her purse, withdrew her wallet, and threw the EBT card at my feet.
As I bent down to pick up the card, she stormed past me, muttering all sorts of nasty things as she strode angrily out of Mom’s room, and left my mother’s townhouse. True to form, she slammed the door closed on her way to her silver Toyota Corolla.
Once a drama queen, I thought, always a drama queen.
 Now Kendall Regional Hospital.