When you realize how lucky you are that you get to live what your grandparents dreamed
I think often of the time my grandparents – my mom’s parents, who were dairy farmers and hence almost never got to take vacation, visited me when I was in college. They had retired – which meant they finally had the time to travel (although they still had hardly any money – dairy farming in northern Wisconsin has never been lucrative, I don’t think) – and had driven to San Antonio to see my mom and dad and brother and sister.
All of my grandparents had to leave school at 8th grade. Their families could not afford for them to continue their educations. But my mom’s father was a lifelong reader and kept a globe next to his armchair so he could find the places where the adventures in his books were happening.
My grandmother, who drew exquisite cross-sections of tissue samples and wrote a clear, intelligent, logical analysis of Columbus and the new world in her schoolbook – my mom still has all of those mementos – would have studied art in Paris if she had had the chance.
She didn’t go to Paris, but took weekly painting classes in the next small town over with a teacher she addressed until her death as “Mr O’Brian” and painted until she moved, at the age of 95, from her house to assisted living. Her paintings were displayed at the town bank and all of her children and grandchildren – including me – have at least two of her paintings on the wall.
My mom and her six siblings are all fiercely intelligent. Four of them graduated from college. My mom was her class valedictorian and attended the University of Wisconsin on a full scholarship, but dropped out to get married. Among her siblings are an ESL teacher, a commercial airline pilot, and an optometrist.
I was the first of the 26 grandchildren to attend college. When I graduated from high school, my grandmother asked what I wanted as a graduation present: a portrait of me that she would paint, which was what every single one of my cousins chose, or $400.
I chose the money.
This, from retired farmers who sent me a one dollar bill tucked carefully into a birthday card every year.
What was I thinking?
My mom drove my grandparents from San Antonio to Houston to see me at college.
Many of my friends were children of professionals – their dads were corporate vice presidents and college professors and lawyers and doctors and their grandparents had been the same.
Thinking about it now, I also remember that there were parents who were small-town pastors or mechanics, but it’s the rich kids that I remember.
My grandparents walked though campus in a daze. My college campus is gorgeous. And it was winter, which is miserable in Wisconsin but not so bad in Houston.
My grandparents, both of whom had been denied a life of the mind, were so proud that their granddaughter was in college.
I can still see my grandmother posing for a photo in the middle of the main quad. She’s wearing an old cloth winter coat, her sensible lace-up shoes with the thick black soles, maybe her Good Pantyhose – hose that she had not carefully mended when they tore, a dress that she would have made because she made almost all of her clothes, her cat-eye glasses, her white hair carefully permed and styled – she had a standing appointment at the beauty shop in town, and clutching her purse in front of her with both hands.
It’s about class travelers – straddlers – people who move from working class to middle class.
I never even knew that was a thing until I read it a few years ago.
Each group has its own language and customs. And they are really different.
There was an experiment. They gave a task to a group of kids from working-class families and to a group of professors’ kids.
The working-class kids quickly designated a leader, outlined an approach, and solved the problem.
The professors’ kids argued about how to approach solving the problem. They never did solve it.
My dad was an aircraft mechanic. Yes, he went to college – first in his family – but only after enlisting in the Coast Guard so he could get the GI Bill. He grew up working in the family business, a small auto dealership and garage.
Mr T’s father, also the first in his family to attend college, was a college professor.
Mr T and I clash all the time on how to solve problems. I want to solve the problem as quickly as possible while he wants to spend hours and hours and hours analyzing it to find the best approach.
Sometimes, you just need to put out the fire, fast.
(Or, in a case from years ago, remove the bat from the upstairs toilet.)
I didn’t realize until I read that book that there was a reason I felt like corporate America was a foreign country. That there was something different about me.
There was. There was something different about me. I was in a world with people whose parents already spoke the language – people whose parents took them on vacations to Europe but didn’t tell them which countries because they wanted it to be a surprise – people who Knew People and could help their kids get jobs – people who knew how to talk to the boss and the secret code words and all the things I did not know.
I remember my grandmother posing for the photo in the quad – she was beaming – and I also remember, with a shame so deep that it has taken me over a decade to write about this (yes, I really have been thinking about this story for that long), that I hoped none of my fancy friends would see us.
Last night, my mom texted that her cousin J, who is 89, has been put in hospice. I only saw J once or twice. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was afraid to be around people. After his parents – his mother was my grandmother’s sister – died, he would come over to my grandma’s house to eat. He wouldn’t come into the house – she would give him a package at the back door.
J thought he had been responsible for peoples’ deaths but of course he had not. My mom said he was never, ever violent that she knew of.
He was not allowed to graduate from high school. His parents – also farmers – made him stay home from school his senior year to do field work. My mom wrote, “J was very intelligent but never given the opportunity to pursue anything but farming and driving milk truck. He cried when he wasn’t allowed to complete high school.”
My heart hurts. My heart hurts for all those dreams denied.