Tuesday, February 14, 2012

identifying where I came from

I remember when my dad brought home our first television in 1967. It was a portable black and white set with rabbit ears. It was a Saturday morning and the first thing we watched was cartoons. Due to my mother’s influence we also watched coverage of MLK’s and RFK’s murders, the moon landing, and the Watergate hearings and Nixon’s resignation. There weren’t many books in the house aside from the World Book encyclopedia my mother bought as a hedge against our ignorance and a couple dozen assorted paperbacks and hardcover classics they’d accumulated, and the soundtrack to my growing-up was a mixture of Johnny Cash and Mitch Miller.

My parents came from rural western New York and nearby Pennsylvania and were the first of their families to go to college, although my dad dropped out after his first semester. Both became professionals, my mother a teacher and my dad a banker. My dad’s father was a factory janitor and his mom raised the six kids; my mother’s parents were farmers, although her mother had been a teacher at thirteen because she was the eldest in her area. She eventually gave birth to over a dozen children but only four lived past infancy. My folks married in their late 20s and steadily moved their ways up their respective fields until their retirements in the early 1980s. Since they thought of themselves as thoroughly modern—they’d done the Twist with Chubby Checker at the Peppermint Lounge, after all—they divided up family responsibilities: my mom was in charge of food and raising my sister and me, while my dad took care of the cleaning and laundry. Since they’d depended on gardens during the Depression, real food to my folks came out of a box or a can—only the desperately poor eat anything directly out of the ground—although they retained their love for comfort food of bread and milk. I was raised in the country, and while I’ve lived in several big cities, and in some ways prefer them, the “make do” attitude of country people I grew up with informs my decisions.

I was born in 1960 in their trailer. I was meant to be born in March but didn’t show up until near the end of May. I was supposed to emerge at the local hospital but ended up making my appearance on the kitchen floor.

My sister followed three years later but at the hospital. We moved three times between my birth and hers, and then moved another three times before I left home. Afterwards, my folks went on to move another four times. All the moves came within a single rural county. Each house was progressively larger until my final place after which they moved into progressively smaller places, often renting. Then they moved back to their home area. A few years ago my cousin who has a store in Austin, Pennsylvania, not the middle of nowhere but a place where you can see it, offered my folks his mother’s home after she’d been placed in a nursing home. It’s a converted doublewide trailer. They’ve lived there since. My mom died two summers ago and my dad has decided to remain.

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