My people

Friday, August 03, 2007

I have never suggested than I have come from anything than very humble beginnings.

I was born in West Virginia. You can all insert the banjo music right now and be done with it. Yes- Wheeling, West Virginia is my birth place.

My father was one of five kids, and my mom was one of four. They were neighbors of a sort, my grandparents, as they lived on farms which were near each other. Maybe a ten or fifteen minute walk. They both still live in those houses in the Ohio Valley.

My mom's family was middle class. My Grandfather, after the world war, became a meat cutter at a local grocery store. My Gramma gave up her brief career as a congressional secretary to raise her family.

My father's family were farmers. Of German heritage, they remained farmers until the kids grew up and moved away. Some of my fondest hot summer memories are of ponies and plum trees, cicadas and garter snakes under cucumber leaves. It was no big deal for the grandchildren to disappear into the woods for the whole day only to reappear to get sleeping stuff and disappear back into the woods surrounding the fallow fields. There was hunting and eating of what was brought back. There is a rather "infamous" story of my mother's attempt to barbecue squirrels my father shot during a rather lean time. Let's just say that even the dogs refused to eat them.

My parents married the October before I made my debut in April 1970. They were eighteen, which was more common in 1969 than it might be today. My father had enlisted in the Marines during the height of the Vietnam war and departed after the wedding and my mother stayed in nursing school despite my father's vehement disapproval. She had to double up on her coursework, squeezing three years into two, as the school made an exception for her stay. Only unmarried, not pregnant ladies were to be educated - and she was now both Married and quite pregnant. The nuns, I am sure, were appalled.

Of the children in my fathers family, there were 18 grandchildren produced. This may be a low number, as I suspect there are a few more floating around the valley and parts unknown who may bear a striking resemblance to my father and uncles. The Rouse's are not known for their lack of fertility. In fact, nearly all of my cousins had their first baby during their teen years. Most dropped out of high school. Some got their GED's. Some did not.

My grandmother Rouse once told me that my brother and I went through high school so "quickly". She was not being ironic. She was of old time valley stock, and still used the word "colored" to describe my now husband. To her, it was a wonder than Donnie and I seemed to go forward without falling into the pitfalls of teen pregnancy and early marriage. My subsequent college career must have seemed other-worldly to them, for both Donnie and I went to and finished undergraduate degrees. To my knowledge, this is something that the other members of my family did not do.

Anyone who has been in the Ohio Valley knows that this is one of the faces of poverty. Deep, generational poverty wrapped in coal mining and the decline of the steel industry. These are people who worked hard for their living - brutally hard, that is if they could find work. My mothers brothers, who came of age in the mid 70's, ended up being caught in a cycle of closing steel mills and foundries. I am not sure than either of them ended up ever finding meaningful long term work.

Work in the foundries was hard. I recall going to pickup my father after a late night shift with my mother. He worked there between enlistments in the Marine Corps and my most pressing memory of the foundry was the front of the building.

It was open to the night air. I always imagined that Hell looked like the inside of the building, as you could see the red hot metal being poured into the molds. The cauldron would tip and the molten metal would pour out. My father would tell stories of men being burned by the metal, or otherwise injured and I worried for him until I would see him emerge ~ Sooty, sweaty and smelling like hot liquid steel.

Work in the coal mines was not much better, and my aunt took a job as one of the only female coal miners in her company. It was not a profession that took kindly to the intrusion of women into what was considered a mans job, but it was by far the best paying job around.

When I began working with families in poverty in New Hampshire, I realized that these people were MY people. The people that I helped straighten out issues in their assistance cases, making sure their child care providers got paid - or that they had the correct information regarding their re-application dates, or what they needed to provide to determine eligibility - They were my family.

I did not feel better than they, nor did I feel that they needed to be punished for being poor. I understood them. I understood the histories, the dramas, the cycle of being caught in something bigger than yourself, for that is the story of my own family. I treated the clients with respect and equity, never allowing them to be abusive or threatening and reminding them that screaming or swearing at me would not get the problems solved. My co-workers would tell me how calm I was on the phone, even on the face of some very difficult phone calls.

Perhaps this is why I have always been attracted to the underdog causes. I mean Early Childhood Education? The year I was accepted to Columbia for my Master's degree I earned a whopping 13,000 for the whole YEAR. That was with a B.S. in education, working 40 plus hours per week.

Perhaps this is why I have often considered myself a translator between two very different worlds that exist in American society, and why I have never been afraid people who are living in poverty.

For I am no different, deep down. I am from the same type of background and family. My life, however, took a different path and I was given a skill set which allows me to navigate the waters of academia and bureaucracies.

So even with a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree and a PhD in progress, I am no different.

Those people are my people.

12 Baleful Regards:

Girlplustwo said...

lovely post. i know those sorts of people too. they are quite fantastic.

Anonymous said...

My people. Our people. Thanks for saying it out loud.

Anonymous said...

Your people sound a lot like my people, especially the German farmer roots part.

Great story. It's nice to hear where you come from.

Julie Marsh said...

Having driven through Wheeling many times - as well as many other less cosmopolitan (and I'm not being sarcastic, I swear) parts of WV - your post produced vivid mental pictures for me.

That sort of translation is an essential service; far too few people are equipped or willing to provide it.

Lisa said...

German farmers... WOrking hard and struggling to make ends meet. You just described my ancestors too. My parents were the first generation to attend high school. My cousins (not all) and I were the first to graduate college. I'm proud of the fact that each generation has worked hard to make a better life for their children. They've overcome hardships I don't think I could ever get past.

Thank you for that post.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Dawn, this was such a great tribute.

Bubblewench said...

awesome post. You're good people.

Anonymous said...

My husband works in a foundary today...I know the images you talk about.

But, I am graduating college in December so he no longer has to work there...It's a hard and dirty job...

Anonymous said...

Then I am your people too Dawn- Logan, West Virginia, I am a true coal miners Granddaughter. ((( )))

E. said...

Great story, and beautifully written. My dad's people are foundry people, too, and my working class German grandparents were among the best people I've ever known. (And the wisest, despite their very limited formal education.)

Thanks for sharing this.

Bobita said...

We might be related. My people are Loos and Rouse, on my Mom's side. Decidedly German, oppressively poor. We hail from middle-Michigan, but have ties into Wisconsin.

I worked with very poor people for many, many years. A few times I had people question my "cred" as an empathetic, compassionate person who cared deeply for my clients. I would tell them one or two stories about the government cheese lines and the midnight grocery shopping so as to escape the shame and scorn associated with using the $150 monthly food stamp ration. Then, any doubts banished, they would let me help them navigate the System. The fucking-awful-and-innately-oppressive-but-pretending-to-be-helpful System.

Excellent post, Cousin!

Anonymous said...

"Those people are my people."

Yeah me too.

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