My dad grew up as “little Jimmy” in a backwater town of Missouri. My grandma lived in two homes during her lifetime: the house she was born in, and the house she and “big Jimmy” bought when they married. She died last January having never flown in an airplane, ridden in an elevator, or ever seen an ocean.
Having grown up in the north myself, I found her pronunciation humorous. She said yes as if it were an eight-letter word, “yeayaaes”, threw in an extra letter “r” to wash (warsh and George Warshington), and until I was 12 I honestly believed the state of Missouri was spelled with an “a” at the end instead of an “i” (Missoura).
My grandparents were hicks and happy with who they were. My dad did not want to be a hick, nor was he happy with who his parents and family were.
The first chance my father had, he left home to go north with no intention of returning. He was the only person in his family to go to college and he continued to earn two graduate degrees. He desperately sought to climb out of working class status and be different in every way from his family. (For instance, my grandfather worked for Ford Motor Company his entire life, on the line. My dad refused to own a Ford to distance himself from his family.)
It was odd to him that I loved my grandparents. Between the ages of 6-10, I would spend several weeks each summer vacation in Missouri. We would take trips on the riding lawnmower, play with cousins, and eat nothing but fried food. My grandparents would drive 9-10 hours north to pick me up, and the next day we would drive 9-10 hours back to their house.
Sadly, as I got older, I became more like my father. I valued education, white-collar work, and proper English. And like my dad, I began to see my grandparents as quaint and unexceptional. I made the occasional phone call on my grandma’s birthday and the holidays, but more out of duty than desire.
I recently came to the realization that a people group I tend to think of as other (in a derogatory way) are small town, country, poor whites. People exactly like my grandparents.
Last week, I finished J.D. Vance’s fascinating book, Hillbilly Elegy. I picked it up because of my realization of looking down on working class whites.
In the book, Vance tells his story of growing up as a hillbilly between Middletown, Ohio, and Jackson, Kentucky. It is a heart-rending account of alcohol abuse, drug addiction, broken families, and the normality of these occurrences in Appalachia.
In one brief recounting of his home life, Vance shares, “Consider my life before I moved in with Mamaw. In the middle of third grade, we left Middletown and my grandparents to live in Preble County with Bob; at the end of fourth grade, we left Preble County to live in a Middletown duplex on the 200 block of McKinley Street; at the end of fifth grade, we left the 200 block of McKinley Street to move to the 300 block of McKinley Street, and by that time Chip was a regular in our home, though he never lived with us; at the end of sixth grade, we remained on the 300 block of McKinley Street, but Chip had been replaced by Steve (and there were many discussions about moving in with Steve); at the end of seventh grade, Matt had taken Steve’s place, Mom was preparing to move in with Matt, and Mom hoped I would join her in Dayton; at the end of eighth grade, she demanded I move to Dayton, and after a brief detour at my dad’s house, I acquiesced; at the end of ninth grade, I moved in with Ken – a complete stranger – and his three kids. On top of all that were the drugs, the domestic violence case, children’s services prying into our lives, and Papaw dying.”
Growing up, I moved eleven times before graduating high school. While changing schools and neighbors that frequently affects my investment in people and neighborhoods, my family was stable. The childhood Vance describes is wholly different than what I would describe.
Reading stories of those in lifestyles, situations, locations, identities, and nationalities different from my own helps me empathize with others. I find it difficult to ostracize someone when I’ve listened to his or her story. This reading is a practice I plan to expand in the next year and beyond.
Last week, around the same time I finished Hillbilly Elegy, I read a tweet that has affixed itself to my brain. “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” I do say I care about the poor, yet cannot name a single person, let alone someone I have any type of relationship with.
The intersection of the realization of my prejudice and the reading of both Hillbilly Elegy and the above tweet has caused a lot of internal grief. I read that tweet to my boys and admitted I fail to love the poor because I do not know any. We look after the widow next door and the single mom across the street, but they are in our same tax bracket. Who am I getting to know below my class level? No one.
I am looking to change this. I’ve researched local places where people can volunteer to mentor and serve homeless kids and adults, but more than this, I am seeking to develop relationships of equality with people, not relationships where I have the upper hand.
My father reconciled with his dad after my grandma died. They are 69 and 91 years old respectively. He drives several hours each month to spend a few days with my grandpa. It was too late to reconcile with his mom.
Being 12 hours away, with two school-age boys, I cannot see my grandpa as often as I like, but we’ve made a couple of trips to “Missoura” and grandpa is a communicative texter for a ninety-year old. I do not want to regret the relationships I could have had because I was too comfortable within my middle-class bubble.