While out to lunch with a dear friend recently, I pulled out my battered wallet and insisted I would pay. My friend took one look at the holey thing made of recycled book covers and said something I will not soon forget: “Oh, that wallet! My daughter likes to pretend she is poor, too.” There is a lot to unpack here, and not time for everything, but I wanted to focus on the words pretend and poor. Is that what I was doing, I wondered, carrying that tattered thing around with me in my pocket all those years, “pretending” I was still the poor girl who grew up in the 1980s near Green Bay, Wisconsin, a daughter of uneducated parents? As a tenured, full professor living in New Britain, Connecticut, married to a similarly privileged professional, I have begun to ask myself why I might pretend that I am poor.
My friend was wrong about one thing. Her statement about her daughter seemed to indicate she did not understand how well I loved that tattered wallet. Looking back now, it is a bit sentimental, really, but it was a gift reminding me every day that my husband and I are connected by our love of books. My friend was also very right about something else. I do still cling to my class background, especially the poverty I didn’t realize I grew up in until I moved away. I cling to my scrappy childhood—not through clothing nor eating habits nor a battered wallet, but through the size and age of my current home: a postwar twelve-hundred-square-foot Cape Cod with faded aluminum siding in New Britain, a former factory town that, like Green Bay, has suffered from loss of industry, white flight, and a hideous highway running through downtown. I live there because I love it. I love it because it reminds me of home.
In many ways, my story begins in 1981. When my parents, who managed to survive financially together, divorced and fell apart. I was eight years old and living in a small midwestern town where, excluding football players, the best jobs were in factories making toilet paper, paper towels, diapers, and sanitary pads. Most middle-class people did not have college degrees because they could afford to raise a family with only a high school diploma and a union job at the meatpacking plant or the paper mill. People around me used such phrases as “yeah der hey” (meaning “yes”) and “dem dere” (meaning “those”).
Even though neither my mother nor father went to college, we were eventually able to live comfortably in a white colonial in a brand-new subdivision, indicating that we had actually made it. But in 1981, in that brand-new home, things began to fray. I am not sure what happened first: the collapse of the economy or the collapse of my parents’ marriage. It all runs together. My mother’s cousin had just committed suicide, Montgomery Ward was handing out massive layoffs, including my dad, who was a general merchandise manager; and my mother, who had always been very pretty and maybe just a little unsettled, began to come undone. I knew it the minute I saw my mom walk in the house, long past dinner on a weeknight. My father had bought a new, champagne-colored Thunderbird—his dream car, one he could not afford—and had forgotten to pick her up from work. She walked ten miles in wedge heels, over a bridge, with her mascara running. When she walked through the door, the setting sun lit her up from behind as if to say, “everything is about to change.”
A few days later, she told my three-year-old sister and me that she was leaving my dad. It was the time, after all, when women were entering the workforce and becoming increasingly independent. Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman had recently played out the long drama of divorce in the 1979 hit film Kramer vs. Kramer, while my mom would blame my dad for not having any money and my dad would look sad and retreat. My sister celebrated: one house suddenly became two, and she was excited to look for the second. I was much less certain things would turn out okay.
When my parents divorced, my mother, sister, and I moved from the colonial in Green Bay to a small town just outside the city limits called De Pere. Since he was recently laid off and could not pay the mortage he and my mom once shouldered together, he organized a tag sale (rummage sale, as we say in Green Bay) and sold the record collection, the antique hutch, the grandfather clock, and the china. All before a sympathetic neighbor called my mom at work to say, “He is getting rid of everything.”
Meanwhile, my mother rented, for $285 a month, a very small flat on the dodgy end of town. Sewage occasionally flooded the basement. We received government cheese, ate Dinty Moore beef stew out of a can, and every once in a long while, as a treat, we binged on Little Debbie snack cakes. In order to maintain the facade of middle-class life, my mother enrolled me in a Catholic school she couldn’t afford. But she tithed, apparently, and the Notre Dame sisters felt sorry for us. I had special tickets for reduced lunch. I can still taste the boxed chocolate milk I received daily with my green, crumpled tickets. To this day, my name is published in government documents somewhere because my dad owed more in back child support (long since forgiven, by the state at least, when my sister turned eighteen) than any other divorced dad in the state of Wisconsin. In school, I remained an outsider: a Catholic school girl whose parents committed the ultimate sin.
When I was in sixth grade, my mom had what we thought was surely a housing breakthrough, the long-awaited sign that we were moving up for real this time: a two-story house on Lawton Place, the good end of town, with white clapboard and black shutters. It was up for sale for twenty-eight thousand dollars and not worth the land it was set upon. It was a half of a house. This is not a metaphor. In retrospect, it felt to me like Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, a house divided in two and cracked down the middle, with the second half relocated a few blocks away. The house was so tilted that when my rich Catholic school friends came over, they pretended to roll down the slope of the house as if we were all in an amusement park.
A family doctor once owned our side of the house. He died and left behind anatomy books in the basement and a rock collection. I never really understood, after moving in, if the rocks represented a solid foundation or a heavy albatross weighing down all of us.
Despite the tilt of the house and its crumbling foundation, my mom often sighed contentedly in those days and said: “Oprah should invite us on her show so our little family of three can share our success story with others.” I see it differently. After all, my mom had to sleep with a banker to get a mortgage. I still remember his name: Glen. “Thank God for Glen,” my mom once said, long after the Lawton house was bulldozed to make space for someone else’s garden. The house number was 807: the same number of the suite in Atlanta’s city hall where my husband and I secured our marriage license in 2001.
After that house on Lawton Place, I moved to La Crosse to attend a four-year teaching comprehensive college like the one where I now teach. After that, I enrolled in an MA program in English at Milwaukee’s premier Jesuit institution, Marquette University, where I still felt radically misplaced. I was humbled by the Jesuit mission of teaching and service yet daunted by the financial wealth of the Marquette undergraduates and overcome with worry my professors would learn that I didn’t belong there as a working-class kid from a small town and the first in my immediate family to attend college.
Never was this tension between the privileged undergraduates and my own limited universe more palpable than in the classroom while reading aloud. I was uncomfortable speaking in public. The idea of reading poetry aloud in a classroom full of upper-crust kids made my throat dry and my tongue tied. “Are your parents deaf?,” a psychoanalyst at Emory, where I earned my doctorate, would ask me over dinner many years later. I didn’t have an answer for the analyst at the time.
Fifteen years later, I finally have a response: my parents were not deaf, just poor and uneducated. It is as though I am afraid of speaking too loudly, of speaking up, of using my million-dollar vocabulary unwittingly to shame my family in their unknowing. As a child of a working-class family, I have learned to practice caution when writing home, so as not to stray too far from my roots. Our families encourage us to leave the small towns we were raised in order to see the world. But to return to that small town too smart, too rich, too educated, too knowing is, in itself, an insult and familial betrayal. I must always remember my place. That is our paradox.
After all, I do remember my place. I was born in a flat in a three-story house on Polish Hill in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. All children of immigrant families from Polish Hill carry in their bones the original structure of these homes: the elderly Polish owners lived on the ground floor and looked after their younger Polish renters, stacked one on top of another, each struggling in their own way and dreaming of one day getting out.
I, in theory, got out. I now live in New Britain, a Polish town I love. Our house, the one where we have raised our son, is aluminum sided, white with red shutters, twelve hundred square feet, two bedrooms, and a bath and a half. It is not the kind of luxury home my ancestors dreamed about when crossing the Atlantic in search of a better life. When contractors looking for work come by and say the look of the house is outdated, I roll my eyes, say okay, and close the door. My husband and son talk about moving to a bigger, newer home to reflect our upward mobility. They are excited about the possibilities. Yet, when I run my fingers over my tattered wallet, I start to worry. Parents get divorced when they live in a nice house. I find comfort, not in the promise of a new home, but in pretending I am poor. It means I am a loyal daughter. It means that, although I have made it, I haven’t strayed too far.