A Life of Adversity, Diversity, & Great Blessings (My Class Story)
As written for UU Class Conversations
Throughout my life, class lines have always seemed blurred to me. My life adventure to date has been varied, though I know now that I benefit from "white privilege".
In northern rural New York State where I was born in the 1950s, I imagined that we were all equal, though different. I could see that some children had more and better clothes and toys than others, though it seemed to me, with my mathematical thinking, that families with more children had less and families who had fewer children had more, which made sense. I loved my average-sized family consisting of five children. I also knew my father was frugal because he grew up during the Great Depression and had logical principles for not buying Barbie dolls (fad silliness) and bicycles (safety).
My father was the first college graduate in his family and I didn't think his being a white collar worker made us better or different as there were examples of different types of families on TV (not very realistic but I didn't know that). My mother didn't work because she stayed home to care for her kids like her mother did. She seemed like a "normal mom" until the summer before my tenth birthday when she went into a "mental hospital" and never came home.
I was the second child of five with my youngest sister only age one when our mother left. My father was able to afford housekeepers who also did child care when he could find them. That seemed to be an indication of our comparable wealth, though we were soon shunned for being motherless children. Some housekeepers told us not to play with certain children whom they deemed to be beneath us, which our parents never did.
Our first housekeeper's father turned out to be "the token black" in town. I considered him like my second father for a while as we often went there when our father was working overtime, which was practically every night and Saturday. Like my father, he had his own easy chair and spent considerable time reading the newspaper. One member of that family was close to my age and he told me one day, riding home on the bus, that he was being treated with racial hatred even though his coloring was light much like mine. I learned that racism wasn't just about color, but it was decades before I understood it. I could see that race seemed to put people in another class.
As a teenager, we moved to metro NY, where we were primarily unsupervised. My father had left Unitarian Universalism due to its liberal leanings, so I sought out UU friends to transport me to church. My UU friends' parents would say "Sunday is family day" so they wouldn't take me. The Methodist church across the street expected me, at the age of 13, to pledge since I had no parent attending, but I couldn't afford that and they weren't really doing anything for me.The town we lived in was segregated into many different neighborhoods based on race, ethnicity, and religion, but we all went to the same high school. During this time I was arrested for being with dubious friends in an abandoned building and, due to having no adult family member available to pick me up, I was sent to a youth prison in Newark, NJ. There were girls there as young as 12, one who murdered a fellow gang member. Everyone was friendly and treated each other like equals – we all had messed up circumstances that landed us there.
Later we moved to a town that was totally racially segregated but the residents were ignorant about why, assuming it was by choice. We didn't learn about the Robert Moses' "red lining" until we studied anti-racism in our current UU church. During high school when the school counselor asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated, I said that I wanted to be a wife and mother, because the only other occupation that appealed to me was teacher and my father would not pay for my education. I also only knew of public schools which were sorely lacking and limited teachers' creativity. The counselor didn't bother telling me about grants and scholarships, which I probably would have believed I couldn't get any way.
After my family moved away from where my chosen mate lived (a man who had ambition and would make a good father), I rented a small bedroom. Later I lived in a small city in a small apartment building where a prostitute had previously lived and it was inhabited by a man who was usually drunk and by a large muscular laborer who used prostitutes, but they both treated me very respectfully.
I finally married my highschool sweetheart who was from a blue collar family. He became the first college graduate in his family.
We walked and used public transportation for the most part until age 24 when I got my first car, a Pinto hatchback, for $100.
After college, we moved to the DC area where we were told by friends living there that we should move to the neighborhoods with better schools and less crime, but they were also the areas that were more white. Upon researching it, we didn't find much difference in the schools and crime rate, so we chose to live in an integrated neighborhood since doing otherwise felt racist.
Most of the years we raised our children, I was self-employed in the home to make ends meet. It turned out I was capable and became skilled. I even taught classes in the community colleges before I had a single college credit. When I had the opportunity to work part-time and go to college, after a year I decided that life was too short and spending time with my family was more important to me. I also found I could make a difference doing volunteer community service work and as the years passed and my husband's career excelled, I was able to do more and more of that.
We also had a brief experience of "being rich" when my husband tried an internet start up and put the business's venture capital funding into the local bank. The president of the bank started to come to our house to do business with my husband. He also wanted to forgive our teenager's overdrawing her first checking account, but we insisted they make her pay the fine like anyone else would. Nasdaq crashed and so did that venture.
Another job for my husband was forthcoming and my volunteer work turned into a part-time business. We had bought the "house of our dreams" and made a hobby out of fixing it up. It made a great home for family reunions as we became grandparents. I also got my first new car when I was 52.
We were making our home more environmentally friendly and bought solar panels just before the company my husband worked for hit it hard and he laid himself off as opposed to letting 3 of his employees go. For the last two and a half years my husband has been unemployed. I haven't been able to make enough to pay the bills. We've been on Medicaid and Food Stamps while taking draws from our retirement fund to pay our mortgage. It's very hard for people over 50 to find work, but we know people in the same situation who have no retirement to draw from. I count my blessings as we have many, so I continue to do community service work both in my UU church and my local community.
We've decided that our only option now is to start a business, so we're sinking the rest of our retirement into a franchise and hoping it will work out. Becoming employers will be new to us, but it sounds like it could be very rewarding. We have our work cut out for us.
Life has been an adventure and continues to be so. Living in a racially and economically diverse community has contributed greatly to our feelings of living a meaningful life. It also seems that our experiences with adversity could help us in our future.
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