Growing up lower-middle-class in an affluent bedroom community was, in a way, just as shocking as growing up mostly-foreign in America. Perhaps the two came together to render me Other. Looking back on it now, I’m more fascinated than sad; then again, it’s easier for my adult self to embrace the Otherness and speak up for myself as equally human, equally worthy.
We lived, for the first few months in New York, with a family friend. I was seven and I thought this was fabulous. I didn’t have many toys (they were in storage from the move), I shared Uncle Dave’s pets, and I slept on a futon in the loft. The house was new and shiny, big enough to feel special, all white, cream, and grey. I watched parts of it get finished, actually. I felt so left out not getting to help with the drywall! The smell of hope is the smell of a house being built: fresh paint and sawdust.
That January, we moved. I know it was January because we were already in the new house by the time I had the pukes in February, and I know I had the pukes in February because I missed my friend’s birthday party. Strange what our minds string together. Plus, cold. Slush. Outright snow. Pink walls in my bedroom, no pavement on the driveway, dingy, dingy, dingy! The last owners actually painted one room tobacco-brown. My door has never worked right, and somehow there was never enough money to fix it.
(I still live there, by the way. I’ve grown fonder of the brown room, if only because the door shuts and locks.)
The change in circumstances would’ve been easier to bear had my school bus route not taken me through the ritziest neighborhood in the village. I envied those kids so much I wrote about it in the journal I had to keep for class. No kidding, somewhere in a red spiral-bound notebook, you will find my second-grade angst about big, pretty houses. I envied them so much I hated them, and because I looked different, they hated me.
Let me briefly digress into a portrait of myself, aged eight. Especially when they noticed I couldn’t see the board. I had these huge glasses, the style of which I kept right up until I left for college. The lenses were never less than 1 1/2″ in diameter. My hair was bobbed because my mom had a hard time brushing it (with this little baby-hair brush, no wonder…). Then as now, it was wurly and coarse. I was entering that awkward between-place: is it blonde? Is it brown? Who knows? I was always small for my age, and my mom stuck me in brightly-colored corduroys she’d bought on the cheap and whatever sweatshirts she could dig up. Basically, I looked four, or a smallish five. Everyone else had jeans and t-shirts and I got stuck in those corduroys. To this day I will not wear cords, even in neutrals.
There was, at least, a Catholic church in town for my Christmas-and-Easter mom. She kept saying, every year, that this was the year I’d make my communion, until I turned twelve and my cousin got confirmed. A year after that, I went Wiccan and she gave up. But the woman I pretty much boarded with (because both of my parents worked–another class marker) didn’t respect any of her charges’ religious beliefs. They were the Protestants, but I was protesting. What was this Presbyterian stuff? Man, what if I’d been Jewish? Almost everything about that place confused me. They handed out Bibles, but only half-Bibles, this “Good News” edition that started with Matthew instead of Genesis. Why did I need four different versions of the Jesus story, and where were all the begats? Their songbooks had weird songs and no notes printed in. Worst of all, I couldn’t dab my fingers in the font and cross myself on my way in and out of the (very rarely-seen) sanctuary.
Moneyed and foreign means you can stay home with your kid and a) help her assimilate or b) tell her “Screw assimilation; you’re awesome as you are.” My parents had option c) only, which was “Maybe she’ll blend at some point” with an inadvertent side-order of “We totally don’t have to spell out what ‘seven years elsewhere’ might mean, right?”
My mom went on a road trip to Turkey in the seventies. My dad traveled the world, as both a millionaire’s husband and a GI. Nowhere else had they encountered this insular, our-way-or-the-highway attitude. No, not even in the military. The small-town WASP phenomenon is very American. If I had been any other kid, more eager to blend, more familiar with the company of other children, less fond of literature beyond my years–no, there’s really no guarantee I’d ever have been anything but “Other”. Because that’s only acting in the end. I am made of more than this place. I no more want you to give up how you’re made than I want to lose that part of myself.