To look at me now…to know my SF/Oakland friends with their MAs, JDs, white collar jobs in class A office buildings in San Francisco….paying mortgages on cute little bungalows, sleeping on 600 thread count sheets, contributing to 401Ks and eating Shaking Beef at the Slanted Door…to look at me now as I fit into this crowd.…using polysyllabic words and the proper fork for my salad….you would not know that I come from a mother whose upbringing reflects many of the characteristics of what is often so casually referred to as “white trash” (and/or it’s cousin phrase, “trailer trash”).
In my life when I am confronted with either of these phrases my mind immediately goes to an image of my mother, Donna, and it is often a particular picture of her barefoot in a simple hand-me-down skirt and sweater standing in front of a small trailer (and I mean the kind that you pull with a truck), probably 8 or 9 years old....shoulder length black hair held back on one side with a barrette…shoulders slumped looking up at the camera with a pale white face and big brown sad eyes….it is not a happy picture. Even though I have a MA in Women Studies and have cultivated an almost compulsive desire to analyze the world around me (versus love it…that is a whole other discussion), my initial response is always visceral, “My mother was NOT trash!”
My mother was poor as was her mother, Irene. Irene was one of 13 children who struggled just to survive. I remember my mother’s stories about Irene’s childhood Christmases which brought a little comfort from the local priest who would each year deliver some extra coal for heat and a basket of fruit. That was Christmas for Irene in the cold dark winter of Kalamazoo Michigan, coal and an orange. Irene was not trash….even though she grew up to marry a terminal alcoholic and spent a lifetime working in a paper mill and always lived in a trailer....(moving up to a doublewide)…..Irene was not trash. And when she encouraged my mother (mostly by not protesting) to go to nurses training, she helped precipitate the story that currently stars educated me knowing how to use the right fork in 4-star restaurants.
Donna was unusual in that she did not marry until she was 24, a late age for her generation. She and her husband Jim started their lives together, waiting 2 years before conceiving me, their oldest of five children. Jim worked as a draftsman and supported the family allowing them, after a second girl was born, to buy a house in an LA suburb, exceeding the economic dreams of my mother. I remember being very young when my parents bought a brand new dining room set for the new “formal” dining room…my mother beaming when they delivered and assembled the table and the china cabinet. “I never in my dreams thought I would have something like this,” she elated to me. I listened, noting the comment enough to recall it some 35 years later. My mothers dreams expressed in furniture.
Since then I have been schooled into a more urbane aesthetic that is fitting of someone with my household income and “hip” urban social context…and so I recall the furniture, the particle board table top with the fake wood finish, the cheap glass in the cabinet, the garish upholstery…and I cringe, a tension in me between the ridiculousness and the tragedy of contemplating furniture so seriously…but then so did my mother. And I am uncomfortable as I ponder my all wood custom-made dining table, feeling lucky and embarrassed and ashamed and comforted and arrogant and humbled and whatever…my enjoyment of my table is not innocent…is not disembodied. It is connected to a long-ago comment, a sensibility cultivated throughout a childhood.
My friend's father on several occasions has made disparaging remarks about people whose economic and/or social status does not match his. I remember one evening in which he ran into Wal-Mart to quickly buy something mundane while we waited in the car. Upon returning he stated with condescension and a smug grin, “I was the best looking one in there.” Again, my response was visceral, you are talking about my mother…a woman who shopped at Kmart not his Abercrombie & Fitch…my mother had severe scoliosis, a big nose, and wore the clothes she bought at Kmart. She was, by dominant cultural standards, not as good looking as he…..something he was proud to announce, unknowingly addressing my mother and me. In that moment and others similar, I felt the visceral response, shame, anger, embarrassment…and later, with the help of my intellect, I felt the righteous indignation, my own superiority in laughing at the ignorant oppressor…that lame middle-aged white guy who is fucking clueless and arrogant. And then, I settle and remember that he was raised with little and his parents remained dependent on him and his ample means and that his wife has criticized him for this.
And finally, when my bigger truth remembers itself, I sigh in the knowledge that any effort to “other” our fellow humans is born of pain and fear. Even for him, it is pain and fear and so my response must ultimately come from the place of love and compassion. This knowledge is simple but not easy to put into practice. I struggle and work to come from this place, to unlearn what impedes this. Definitely a work in progress.
November 10, 2005