Rural Narratives 1: My Childhood Home
I grew up in northern New England in a town of 800 people spread out in four villages. Our school district served eight towns. It had a better graduation rate than most, but few went on to college. This was a town of families who’d been there for hundreds of years. I was born in the same hospital as my father. We can track his line back to 1799 in rural Maine. My mother’s line goes back to the Mayflower.
There were no jobs to speak of back then. The interstate wasn’t constructed until the late 1970s, so we were pretty isolated. It took over an hour on winding state highways to get to the state capitol. (Now it takes about 25 minutes.) Most residents tried to make a living doing what they could: selling and fixing chainsaws, or fishing and hunting equipment, or lawnmowers, plowing driveways, or working in local restaurants. These did not provide much of a living. In 1959, our state had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. My dad was a CPA whose clients did all those things. He often received payment in barter because cash was scarce. I remember my mom complaining, “I can’t take that new lawnmower to the grocery store!”
Occasionally, someone would get an idea for a new business, like manufacturing RVs. These usually went bankrupt fairly quickly, often taking with them the already-scarce wealth of residents who dared to believe something better was possible.
The only major industry was tourism. Every summer, every foliage season, and every ski season, the state would get deluged with rich folks from Boston, New York, and Montreal. Many were rude in both their interactions and their driving, so we had a love-hate relationship with the tourists. Most people looked at them as simply a source of income. Some in my generation discovered the benefits of stealing from them, because they had much more portable wealth than we did. My first job was as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, where for 90 cents an hour I washed plates from meals that cost $10-$25 each.
There were no minorities in our town. With no jobs and brutal winters, why would there be? There were plenty of better places to live. There was one local TV station, if by local you mean in the same state. Most of our media came from Boston, and we were deluged with stories about urban problems: gangs, violence, and white flight. As a child, I most remember that they cancelled school in Boston for a half inch of snow, but we had to wait for the bus in the dark in up to a foot. The news impacted adults much differently than it did me. When, in the 1970s, the government opened a research facility not far away, the first black family moved to town. This was an upper-middle-class family, wealthier than most of us. But I remember adults whispering concerns about accompanying gangs, violence, and white flight. They only knew about Blacks what they’d heard on the urban news. The narratives we hear are the narratives we know.
Not surprisingly, in this environment of poverty, everyone sought to feel better about themselves. Those of us who were different got bullied on the school bus and at school. I was one: my parents were marginally better off, and I was too smart (and socially inept) for my own good. The two sons of the black family were also targets, as was the son of a Japanese-American family that also moved there to work at the research center. Sameness was important.
Education was less so. Those whose parents had professions were likely to go to college; those whose parents didn’t were far less likely. Generations of “just getting by” leave their imprint, and you don’t need a college degree to sell chainsaws or work at the local ski area.
Alcoholism was rampant. There wasn’t much to do after work besides drink. When I later joined a Twelve Step program, it was filled with people I knew: some peers my age, my seventh grade teacher, my dad’s former business partner, and the owner of a local restaurant. (The latter’s sons, my peers, would also benefit from such a program. Alcoholism, too, seems to be a generational phenomenon.)
Not surprisingly, I and most of my peers left as soon as we were old enough. I don’t know where most of them went. I went to Los Angeles. When I return home now, it’s rare to meet anyone I grew up with. And things have changed. Many urban folks have moved there for its lower tax rates, and they commute to jobs in the city. The population of my hometown has become somewhat more ethnically diverse, which is to say you might see a person of color once in a while. It’s funny to observe how gangs and white flight never materialized…
The state now boasts one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation, and unemployment is low. But these statistics are deceiving. Because of the brutal winters, the cost of living is high, and even the many who live slightly above the federal poverty line struggle to make ends meet. Most of the new jobs created locally are minimum wage jobs. There remains a division between locals and skilled urban workers, just as there remains a division between locals and tourists.
When I was a child, our family was friends with a family whose head of household poached deer. This wasn’t something he was proud of. He had to, or his kids wouldn’t eat. I have no doubt such things still go on in the woods of New England.
Think about how an anti-gun, pro-environment, hunter-shaming message plays to someone who did, does, or might need to poach deer to feed their family.
Think about the divide that grows up between that native and their urban-liberal neighbor who built a McMansion on the hill, figuratively looking down on everyone around them (and who perhaps complains that these rural roads have neither street lights nor sidewalks).
Think about a diet of urban news conditioning a population of rural people, who now see what they thought were urban problems like drugs and crime invading their rural communities. Who do they blame? On the urban news, it’s often people who look different. While that may be simply because urban communities have people who look different, unless you’ve lived there you don’t really get that. (Trust me on this. My move to Los Angeles caused major culture shock.)
I’m not saying any of this is right. But perhaps it can be understandable. Until we realize that there are bridges of understanding that need to be crossed, we can’t even begin to cross them. And without understanding, without a common frame of reference, communication isn’t possible.