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THE LETTER CAME a couple of weeks ago.

"I am upstairs in my bedroom, lying on my bed in tears. I feel so very depressed. I feel as if I have been a failure. I never can stay in a relationship with a man. It always goes sour. I tried so hard to raise my three (teen-aged) boys without any of their fathers' or any of my family's help. I can't do it anymore. I'm making myself very sick, not eating right or taking care of myself like I should.

"I was married two years. My husband left me (in April) to be with another woman. He said he don't want to make the marriage work. It's been very hard for me raising three boys, I didn't give up. I don't want to give up now but I feel myself going down."

The letter was signed, with a return address on Buffalo's East Side.

"I've been on my own since I was 18 years old. I love my boys very much, (but) as a mother I don't feel like I can do it anymore. All my bills are past due. My gas was shut off but I managed to get it back on. My phone was turned off one week ago. I work for UCPA (United Cerebral Palsy Association) but it's not taking care of everything. These boys eat a lot. I ask their fathers to help but like always they tell me they can't. I know God won't put no more on me than I can bear but I need a break."

I went to the address on the envelope. It's a small house, no driveway, rot eating holes in the porch steps. A large woman in shorts and a green-and-white striped pullover came to the door. I showed her the letter. She smiled, looked away in embarrassment and said she was really down when she wrote it. She came home from work that night to a dark house. The electric company had just cut off her power. She wrote the letter by candlelight.

We go inside. There is a TV and a grandfather clock in the living room, a nice dining room table.

The TV was lent by a friend. The dining room set was left to her by an elderly woman she'd taken care of. The clock -- like the washing machine and oak bedroom chest -- was a garage sale find.

The house is spotless.

"My family don't have anything to do with me because I chose not to be in their religion. I've been on my own since I was 18. My boys have never been in any trouble with the law. I just feel bad because I can't meet their needs like I'm supposed to. I feel very lonely and (in) despair. I'm tired and I need help."

We'll call her Gloria Smith. It's not her real name. Her younger boys are 17 and 13 and she's afraid they'd be embarrassed. She is 38. She makes $7.45 an hour -- about $225 a week take-home -- caring for severely disabled cerebral palsy patients at a home in the suburbs. She pays $400 a month rent. The '96 Contour she needs for work -- buses stop running at 9:30 weeknights -- is $256 a month. That's two-thirds of her take-home pay. Add gas, electric, phone, food and clothes, and it's less than zero. Even with some overnight OT shifts.

She bought the newer car -- her husband and his paycheck were still around then -- because her old clunker blew an engine. She can't get a rent subsidy because she can't prove her husband is out of the house. She makes too much to get food stamps or any help with utility bills. When she went downtown to see about help with the utilities, a clerk tossed her application in the garbage.

"I know it's nothing anyone can do, it's my problem. I just want someone to listen to me and to know being a single mother is not easy at all when you have no one to help out a little."

The father of her two oldest kids drops by once in a while. She said he doesn't pay child support, beating the law by working off-the-books jobs. Her oldest boy, 19, thinks the father who abandoned him walks on water, the mother who raised him is dirt. She just told him to leave home because he won't help with the bills.

Her 17-year-old plays sports and worked a summer job to pay for school clothes. He's living with a friend's family until she gets the electricity back. The 13-year-old is with another friend. Gloria gets the kids off to school and is with them on days off. She still lives in the house. When it gets dark, she light candles.

She speaks in a soft voice and seems like a sweet woman. She isn't making excuses or asking for help. She likes her job because she likes helping people. She doesn't want to go on welfare.

"Welfare isn't the answer to my problems," she said. "I can't tell you how many mothers I've seen say, 'OK, I give up. Let the system take over and I'll do my thing.' "

The trouble with stories like this is it sounds like one long excuse and not what it really is -- somebody working hard and still not making it.

She made mistakes, got pregnant too young. But there's more to her story. As a kid, she was beaten with extension cords by an aunt, molested by uncles and "friends" of the family.

"I was like 11 or 12, I couldn't do anything," she said. "I told my aunt and she said I led them on."

She dropped out of college when day care payments got cut off. She wants to give her kids the love she never got.

"I was alone then, I'm alone now," she said. "I feel like I've lived my life in a shell."

She's not giving up. She just wonders why she works until she can't see straight, but keeps going backward.

There are other single mothers out there like her. Holding on by a thread. A thread that's about to break.

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