I will cut to the chase. I have come to the conclusion that I am attempting to live above my station. And I am just realizing that that is where too many of my troubles stem from.
I just finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy”. At its most basic level, it is a memoir by a guy who made it out of Appalachia and up the social class ladder, going to college and becoming a lawyer. He describes his upbringing and the intricacies of the culture of the very poor, deeply uneducated white south. It was highly recommended to anyone wanting to understand the current crisis in our country today and the support for someone like Trump. The book was decent.
In many ways I got a glimpse into a locality and population I have no connection with. In many ways it was interesting as well as deeply troubling. In some ways it was eye-opening. And in more ways than I wish to admit, there were things I could relate to. For this reason, I was unsettled and what I had come to understand as the foundation of my inner world was rocked.
I’ll start by saying that my understanding of my social standing in the world was based almost entirely on what my family-of-origin told me. And what I now understand was a myth. Or a lie. I was led to believe that we were upper middle class. We had money. Not a ton, but enough to not have to worry. Enough to have whatever material things we desired. Enough to be able to partake of meals at restaurants, go bowling, to movies, mini-golf and the like. We lived in a small then-undeveloped town that boasted the potential to one day be affluent, with better schools than neighboring towns. Or so said the glossy brochures. We didn’t vacation because we had the pool in the back yard and who needed to go further than one’s own yard anyway when you live in Shangri La?! My maternal grandparents owned a small jewelry store that supported the family. We were comfortable.
I always knew my father’s family was *low class*. I knew this because my mother told me so and we were not allowed to socialize overmuch with them. And because on the rare occasions when we did, they used words like “yous” and counted “one, two, tree”. And they weren’t joking. They lived “in the city” in run-down, dilapidated, too-small apartments in the North End of Boston, a predominantly Italian neighborhood. They didn’t own cars or *stuff*. They were harsh-spoken, brash and loud. And there were so many of them! My father had 9 siblings. And each of them had several children in turn.
After my parents divorced, my father gravitated more toward his own family of origin. But it wasn’t until after my father died that I really got to know his family. They welcomed me guilelessly with open hearts and arms into their fold. It was a culture shock for them as well as me. But, like his death and funeral, his family and I seemed to navigate well together with much grace, humor and growing love despite our differences (including religious observances: I being a religious Jew and them being religious Catholics) . Their love and loyalty were fierce. It was like being welcomed into a ferociously loving band of thieves with an us against the harsh world mentality and bond. My father’s family was filled with a completely unreasonable, yet unashamed, and at the same time infectious hopefulness and optimism where my mother’s family seemed always filled with dread, anticipating disaster at every turn. My dad’s family was demonstrative in ways my mother’s family was not; unafraid to hug, kiss, cry or show deep emotion. They most definitely loved out loud. And parameters were clear and consistent. Punishment was without malice, sometimes harsh, but forgiveness was axiomatic, absolute and swift.
I remember one Christmas Eve celebration with them. The room was smokey and loud and cacophonic. Children were playing. Teens screaming to television karaoke. Adults drinking, singing, cooking, laughing. And then one of the toddlers, overstimulated and overtired, began to whine. Like a crash of thunder at least 5 of the adults sitting around the main table slammed meaty hands open-palms down and yelled, “HEY! Shut the fuck up!” The room quieted for brief seconds while the toddler’s head swiveled in the direction of the displeased adults. He looked to the oldest uncle who shook his head and firmly said, “Stop. Your. Whining.” Which the child (astonishingly to me) did, as he wobbled his way to a nearby adult lap and settled down quietly in its voluminous warmth. Happy commotion resumed throughout the house. My girlfriend at the time was horrified that they would speak to a small child like that. Honestly, I found it almost refreshing. Not the harshness or the swearing necessarily. But the blunt honesty of it. I had always found it exasperating, not to mention exhausting, trying to ascertain my mother’s moods or the reasons behind them. She would give me the gimlet eye and it was left to me to figure out what I had done wrong. My father’s family was simple. Cut and dried. You knew what you’d done wrong and how to fix it. And then find comfort in a loving embrace. No grudges held.
I loved spending time with my father’s family for the simplicity of connection and interaction. They were everything my mother’s family was not. Aside from extremely poor, they were uninhibited, unabashed, unanxious, unashamed, unself-conscious. Every single one of them was grossly overweight. Every single one of them smoked cigarettes. They ate what they wanted, wore whatever fit them and didn’t trouble to explain themselves to anyone outside the family. An oft-repeated refrain in response to the interference of outsiders was a simple, “fuck them!” They shared what they had freely and without strings. And there was little, if any, judgment.
But they were not educated. They were not even smart. Everyone had some serious medical condition (a direct result of poor food choices, obesity or general lack of self care). They cut corners to make ends meet and sometimes that meant breaking the law (selling food stamps to buy cigarettes for example). The younger generation (because they weren’t spending time in school) had plenty of time to be involved in misbehavior, including petty crime and drugs. As much time was spent with one another at medical appointments as they were at court appointments. But together they were. My cousin M packed a large styrofoam cooler filled with sanguiches (sometimes called spuckies) nearly every morning (those victuals went just as well at court as they did fishing or at the hospital… hey, everyone’s got to eat). I think, of my countless cousins, only my cousin Bobby actually held a job. He is a carpenter. The rest worked hard at avoiding work (probably harder than they’d have had to work at an actual job). Several took what they laughingly referred to as “the pre-planned fall”. Which meant that within a short time of attaining employment they unaccidentally slipped and fell and went out on worker’s compensation. Discussions around how to do this and whose fall was most dramatic were endless and peppered with absolute hilarity as my cousins and aunts and uncles would either replay their own fall or mimic someone else’s. Even though I disagreed with the preplanned fall in theory, I couldn’t help but laugh at their exuberance regarding it.
I was the first person on either side of my family to attend college. I got exactly no help either looking for or applying to colleges as neither of my parents had experience, opinions or, it seemed, even interest. My parents and my uncle on my mother’s side worked in the family store, which required no actual preparation, certification or degree. My grandmother on my mother’s side desperately wanted me to go to college, though she never said why it was so important to her. And she didn’t care where I went. She just wanted me to go. I chose BU because they had so many sports’ opportunities (including women’s rugby). I may as well have chosen them for the selection in their vending machines. I had to beg (quite literally) to get in (I maintained, at best, a C average in high school). But I showed a lot of chutzpah and initiative and begged audience with a dean and was able to convince him to take a chance on me.
I was ill-prepared for university life, as much as I now realize I have been ill-prepared in many arenas throughout my life as an adult. I have used the same tactics I used to get into college – that is equal parts boldness, humility, humor and supplication – to get through adulting. But I have never felt like there was anywhere that I actually belonged, where I felt comfortable enough to breathe a sigh of relief at being myself, where I was able to not feel like a complete and total fraud.
I didn’t feel exactly fraudulent in my family of origin, but neither did I belong. I was not like them. Being transgender pretty much assured my sense of wrongness and not fitting in. I felt most comfortable with my dad’s family, more myself, but I had the innate yearning to be and do more in the world than the other members of anyone on either side of my family. Not to mention the external pressure from my maternal grandmother (for whom I would have walked through hell coated in oil) offering me the opportunity (she paid for my bachelor’s degree). I didn’t belong at university because I had no notion of what education was all about. It wasn’t a value esteemed in my family and I had very little aptitude or understanding of it.
Keeping up with my studies took all (and then some) of my concentration. I was so busy trying to keep my grades in the passing range that I had no time to even consider any of the opportunities the university offered (beyond one semester of rugby). Being a fraud and not fitting in didn’t make the list of my top 100 demands for attention. I got through with sheer grit, but without a shred of connection to anyone and a deep sense that I’d scraped my way through without internalizing anything I’d learned.
I’d like to think I’ve grown since my college days. For certain I have spent my life trying to do better, to be better. And while I have never felt quite content, as if I belong, I have never given up hope (in the true fashion of my father’s clan) of finding my place. This bit of knowledge about myself is a game-changer only in that I now understand another reason why I have ever always felt like I have been shoveling shit against the proverbial tide of belonging. It is a piece of my puzzle.
I’ve gone on (and on and on) too long in this post. There is clearly more to explore, but I will end here for now. With an aspiration for anyone trying to figure out where you might belong, and for myself.
May all illusions of separation be removed. May I find harmony between my soul and my life. May there be kindness in my gaze when I look within. May I surrender to the knowing that home is right here, right now, in this single moment. And may kinship, peace and tranquility gather me, mind me and embrace me in belonging.