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Chaos Theory

(by Renee Irvin)

My brother and I started out like most baby boomers, in a neighborhood full of kids, with family all around. We lived in a middle class Cleveland suburb, and all seemed happy and fair. But my father was a traveling salesman, and that life was shattered when we moved to a wealthy suburb of Chicago, away from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—people who look out for you, who feed your body and soul.

We lived in the poorest part of this suburb, the “Apartments.” My mother became isolated and miserable, and my father drank more and more. We were the poorest kids in the richest neighborhood, with nothing to eat and only one pair of shoes each. When my father did come home, he ate steak and we ate tuna fish. As hungry as we were, we didn’t care if he ever came home.

My parents divorced shortly after that move, and something happened to my mother; she literally disappeared. She worked on State Street and wore a velvet cocktail outfit that I watched her sew with great determination on her pedal foot sewing machine. I was ten, and my brother was eight. She left each of us $5 a week on the kitchen table to buy food, but we bought toys, what else? I tried to find any friend’s mother who would feed me, and I didn’t know where or what my brother ate. I would go to the grocery store and fill up the cart with all the food I ever wanted to eat, but when the cart was full, I would walk away and leave the store. I ate apples off of neighbors’ trees until they yelled at me to stop. People call it food insecurity now; I call it starving.

After a while, I had no friends. We were just wild children whom the neighbors said only ate beans from a can. I do believe, although I cannot confirm, that someone reported my mother to the authorities, and both of our grandfathers showed up with a truck to move us back to Ohio. My grandmother had packed food for the trip, including the best chocolate cake I ever tasted. We were skin and bones—all of us, including my mother. She was starving too, body and soul.

We moved in with our paternal grandparents in a tidy red brick house in the middle class neighborhood of Euclid, Ohio. Healing came for my brother and me just from having someone to care about us—helping with our homework, feeding us lunch and dinner. Our maternal grandparents bought us warm clothes, and I had real snow boots for the first time. The change was miraculous—for my mother too. The first thing she did was learn to drive. It was the beginning of her freedom from poverty—she got a job, and we moved into an apartment togther. We even had a milkman who came to our apartment every day and put milk in our fridge. This was very comforting. My mother started to attend ALANON, and I saw her smile more and more. Later in life when we talked about those times, she said that she had called for food stamps in Chicago was asked, “Do you have a quarter in your pocketbook?” She answered, “Yes,” and was told, “Then you don’t need food stamps.”

With healing, I learned that my mother made a mean roast beef and great chili. I still use her recipe for that chili. I have dedicated my adult life to making sure no one goes hungry. Some people grow bitter, but I grew better.


Renee Irvin is the former CEO of a physicians group in Connecticut, and is now an independent healthcare consultant in the administrative regulatory field. She is a graduate of the Missouri Auction School, with a specialty in cloth doll history, as well as other antiques and collectibles. She can be found on Etsy and @ragdollady.


1 lb. ground beef

15 oz. can red kidney beans, undrained

10 1/2 oz. can tomato soup

ground chili powder, to taste

optional: shredded cheddar cheese

In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook ground beef until no longer raw.

Add beans with their liquid, tomato soup, and chili, and stir until warmed through.

Serve with optional cheese.


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