1 A PENNY IN A PURSE
The farm was thirty miles west of Wichita on the silty loam of southern Kansas that never asked for more than prairie grass. The area had three nicknames: “the breadbasket of the world” for its government-subsidized grain production, “the air capital of the world” for its airplane-manufacturing industry, and “tornado alley” for its natural offerings. Warm, moist air from the Gulf to the south clashes with dry, cool air from the Rocky Mountains to the west. In the springtime, the thunderstorms are so big you can smell them before you see or hear them.
Arnie, a man I would later call my grandpa, bought the farm-house during the 1950s to raise a young family. He spent days sowing, tending, and harvesting wheat. He eventually owned about 160 acres, which is a quarter of a square mile, and farmed another quarter he didn’t own. That might sound big-time in places where crops like grapes are prized in small bunches. But for a wheat farmer in the twentieth century, when the price per bushel had been pushed down by the market even as yields had been pushed up by technology, it was just enough to earn a small living.
When a wheat crop was lost to storm damage or volunteer rye, sometimes milo went in. Arnie raised alfalfa, too, to bale for his
fifty head of cattle. He also kept pigs, chickens, the odd goat or horse. He had one hired hand, and his sons and daughters pitched in at harvest. For extra money during the winter, when the fields were frozen, he butchered for a meat locker down the highway toward Wichita and sold aluminum cans he collected in barrels near a trash pile west of his pole shed.
When the old house turned quiet after his divorce, Arnie drank a lot of whiskey. On weekends, he liked to put on his good cowboy boots and go dancing in Wichita honky-tonks like the Cotillion, a small concert hall with a midcentury sign on Highway 54.
There, one night in 1976, country music played while widows and divorcées danced in Wranglers and big collars under a mirror ball. Sitting at a table with a butcher named Charlie and a farmer they called Four Eyes, Arnie noticed a skinny woman with short blond hair at another table. She and her friend wore the paper rose corsages given to all the women at the door.
“She’s not gonna dance with you,” Four Eyes told Arnie. “You’re too damn fat and ugly.”
Four Eyes himself got up and asked the blond woman to dance. She said no. So Arnie walked over. His hair was a feathery brown comb-over, and he wore carefully groomed muttonchops on his square jaw. His round belly jutted over his belt buckle. The woman, Betty, had overheard his friends making fun of him. So when he asked, Betty said yes.
She would be my grandma, and I would have loved for you to know her. Betty’s whole life amounted to variations on that moment at the Cotillion: doing something kind for an underdog. That’s the kind of love I would have wanted to surround you with: indiscriminate and generous, from people like Betty who had every excuse to harden their hearts but never did. She was no saint, never
pretended to be. But she would have loved you not just because you were mine but because you existed in a world she knew wasn’t easy for anybody.
Betty and Arnie danced two or three songs. He smelled like Old Spice aftershave, and she liked his happy laugh. They agreed that every Johnny Cash song was the same damn tune with different words. Arnie thought she was a looker. Funny, too. He got her phone number. But when the band packed up and the dance floor cleared, she wouldn’t let him take her out for breakfast at Sambo’s down the highway. She’d stick with her friend and buy her own pancakes.
In the coming weeks, Arnie called her trailer a few times, but she didn’t answer. Then the operator said the number was disconnected. Arnie went back to farming the land.
Betty wasn’t the farming kind. She’d spent her adult life moving among urban areas in the middle of the country—Wichita, Chicago, Denver, Dallas—and neighboring towns. She and her daughter, Jeannie, who would be my mom, first hit the road when Betty was a teenager. Their whole family, which consisted mostly of single moms and their daughters, was hard to pin down. By the time Jeannie started high school, they had changed their address forty-eight times, best I can count. They didn’t count. They just went.
About a year after Betty and Arnie met, his pickup and her Corvette pulled up to the same highway intersection just west of Wichita. They waved at each other, rolled down their windows, and pulled into a nearby truck stop to get a hot drink. Arnie’s life was the same, but Betty had gotten married and divorced in the months since they’d last seen each other. She had a wildness—not so much a streak but a core—that other middle-aged farmers might have found off-putting, even scandalous. But he fell in love and treated her better than she’d ever been treated. For one thing, he
didn’t beat her up. He didn’t even complain about what she cooked for dinner or did with her life in general.
“Mox nix to me,” he told her.
She stuck around.
During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her full-time job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse in downtown Wichita to Arnie’s farm. She took over the house, cooking for Arnie and his field help, driving tubs of fried chicken, paper plates, and jugs of iced tea to fields where yellow dust followed red combines. She learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated through the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms and sleep is possible only because of how hard you worked.
Jeannie was fifteen and going to high school in Wichita, old enough by our family’s standards to take care of herself while Betty was at work or at Arnie’s farm. She’d finally gotten into a social groove after changing schools twice a year for most of her life. She didn’t want to move this time, especially not to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Now that she’d been in one place long enough to turn in her homework, she was getting good grades and enjoying school. She preferred hanging out at Wichita’s little outdoor mall to fishing in pasture ponds. Her hobbies were reading and fashion, which she studied in magazines before sewing her own clothes. Fabric stores and public libraries would be in short supply on the Kansas prairie. Jeannie groaned. But her mom had
decided they were going. They packed up yet again and moved west to Arnie’s farm.
After a few months, Arnie asked Betty to marry him. Betty thought she was done with all that, and anyway, Arnie was Catholic. She’d heard the Church didn’t take people who’d been divorced, let alone six times.
Father John, the priest of a nearby parish, assured her that none of those marriages counted since they weren’t in the Church. She figured she had to count the first two husbands, since they’d fathered her children, but otherwise she liked the idea of disavowing every one of the bastards.
She and Arnie ended up marrying outside the Church anyway, in September 1977, at a little chapel on a highway next to a trailer park.
The newlyweds had constant company at the farm. Their pickup engines could be heard down the road, followed by the sound of tires rolling slow on the gravel driveway, usually around dinnertime. Betty peeled untold pounds of potatoes, baked pies, fried meat, and stewed vegetables that grew outside the front door. She learned the isolation of rural life through a batch of cookies—she had everything she needed but the brown sugar. What was she supposed to do, drive ten miles west to Kingman just to get one damn ingredient?
“It wasn’t like when you lived in town, you’d bebop down to the QuikTrip,” she told me years later.
She learned to keep the basement overstocked with discount canned food, the deep-freeze packed with every cut of meat, the cupboards filled with double-coupon deals. She and Arnie were the sort of poor who, whether by spirit or circumstance, found a way to feed themselves and whoever else needed a meal.
Betty’s city friends drove west to see her new country life.
Arnie’s friends showed up to see his wild city woman. They partied at Cheney Lake, a few miles away along straight dirt roads and a curving two-lane blacktop. They fished and swam in Arnie’s pond with its water snakes and leeches, the crusty earthen dam dimpled where cow hooves had sunk in mud after rain. They camped next to fires in pastures with hot dogs, Coors, and s’mores. They drove mopeds through fields and crashed three-wheelers into trees. They had butchering parties in the detached wooden garage that housed a meat grinder, a sink, hooks hanging from rafters, and a bloodstained cement floor. Everyone got drunk enough to eat mountain oysters, and everyone who helped went home with a cooler of meat wrapped in white paper. They laughed when a pile of aluminum cans brought five times its worth at the scrap lot after Arnie, pulling them in a net behind his tractor, inadvertently filled the cans with sand and tipped the weight scales.
During one liquor-store run to Kingman, after skidding across an icy country bridge and rolling down an embankment in a small Toyota, Betty made her younger sister Pud mad by lighting a cigarette inside the upside-down car while she thought about how to get out. Pud named the place Camp Fun Farm.
It wasn’t long before Pud’s older daughter, Candy, moved into the farmhouse to escape some sorry situation. Next came Pud herself and her younger daughter, Shelly, after the inevitable divorce. Thus began a nearly thirty-year stretch of Betty’s nomadic, cash-strapped family members taking refuge there by necessity.
When Betty wasn’t cooking for people at the farm, she was working at the courthouse in Wichita. Or she was pulling weeds in the vegetable garden east of the house, cleaning, planting flowers, or digging for tools on the back porch that housed the washer and dryer and shotguns.
Betty was only ten years older than Arnie’s firstborn, a surly, long-haired twenty-something who was often drunk. During the summer, he played on a slow-pitch softball team of area farm boys who liked to drink beer at Arnie’s farm after games. One of them was Nick Smarsh.
That’s how teenage Jeannie met Nick, the farmer and carpenter who would be my dad. He had grown up working the fields and hammering roofs in hot sun and cold wind. In the summer, his thick arms were tanned a deep red-brown, darker than the brown in his plaid snap-up shirts with the sleeves cut off. He drove a white 1966 Chevy Caprice, which he kept clean as a whistle inside and out, with air shocks lifting the back end. Sometimes he shot road signs through pickup windows.
He was always smiling, though, never critical or violent, unlike so many of the men she’d known. Nick turned out to be the one thing Jeannie didn’t mind about the country.
Even though Arnie wasn’t my blood relation, he played that big a role in my life—Jeannie and Nick never would have met if Arnie hadn’t asked Betty to two-step. He was such a bright light for us that, after he died, it occurred to me that I would call you after his middle name: August. I knew you were a girl, but I never thought to make it Augustine. Your name was August.
It was a special name in that Grandpa Arnie and I were both born that month. The same sign, my mom would want me to point out. Grandpa and I used to butt heads something awful when I was in high school. That happens between teenagers and their family regardless of their birthdays. But I’d find out years later that he did see something of himself in me—a point he never would have told me himself and a sure recipe for friction. I wonder now whether he might have been hard on me as I got older because he was sad knowing that I was about to leave the farm.
Arnie was not one to act sad or complain. He had the gifts I would have wanted most for you: humor and generosity. He didn’t register his own goodness, which was effortless and reliable. Grandma Betty used to get upset thinking he let people take advantage of him. What someone asked for, he gave if he could. And it wasn’t because he was some salt-of-the-earth farmer. Plenty of farmers are jerks, and many favors went unreturned from the ten square miles or so that was our farming community. But Arnie didn’t keep score. He just did his best every day, and the laugh that Betty liked that night on the Cotillion dance floor was a healing sound. He’d laugh so hard, his eyes squinted shut and filling with tears, that his whole big, bald head would turn red. It makes me laugh right now just to picture it.
I saw that laugh many times. When I was a little girl, I loved following him around the farm. There are quite a few pictures of me back then wearing frayed denim overalls and the look of a seasoned farmer on my face, staring straight into the camera with my shoulders squared and my feet planted apart in a way that used to make my prim mother laugh. “Sturdy Gertie,” she’d say and crack up.
I was small for my age but strong, and I rarely smiled at the camera—not because I was unhappy but because I didn’t know that little girls were supposed to perform like that, I guess. Nobody in my family told me to act dainty. Plus, it was before all the digital screens that show people pictures of themselves in an instant. You could grow up relatively innocent of your own image. I see now that I looked like the spirit of an old man in the shape of a little girl.
Maybe that’s another reason I liked Grandpa Arnie’s middle name for you. The adjective form of the word means “dignified,”
“respected”—ideas we more often associate with old men than with little girls. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they’re also words we’re more likely to associate with privileged classes of society.
Being born female and poor were the marks against my claim on respect, in the world’s eyes, and I must have sensed it. Your name represents a corrective, or at least a defiance, on both counts.
I didn’t even know “august” was a descriptive word and had no idea what it meant. People where I’m from don’t use adjectives like “august.” They don’t use many adjectives at all. They speak a firm sort of poetry, made of things and actions.
Once I learned what “august” means, it was quite a few more years before I knew how to pronounce it. Like so much of my vocabulary, I learned it alone with a book but didn’t hear it spoken aloud. In my head, I said it like the month.
It would be unwise for me to claim I know how much growing up in a poor family shaped my words. My mother’s strong vocabulary, itself learned alone from books, probably has more to do with my language than any college degree I got. We can’t really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are.
When I found your name, in my early adulthood, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term “white working class.” The experience it describes contains both racial privilege and economic disadvantage, which can exist simultaneously. This was an obvious, apolitical fact for those of us who lived that juxtaposition every day. But it seemed to make some people uneasy, as though our grievance put us in competition with poor people of other races. Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth. Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a
person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?
When I was growing up, the United States had convinced itself that class didn’t exist here. I’m not sure I even encountered the concept until I read some old British novel in high school. This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it. Class was not discussed, let alone understood. This meant that, for a child of my disposition—given to prodding every family secret, to sifting through old drawers for clues about the mysterious people I loved—every day had the quiet underpinning of frustration. The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.
I started to wake up to the gulf between my origins and the seats of American power when I left home at eighteen. Something about my family was peculiar and willfully ignored in the modern story of our country. My best attempt at explaining it was, “I grew up on a farm.” But it was much more than that. It was income, culture, access, language, work, education, food—the stuff of life itself.
The middle-class-white stories we read in the news and saw in movies might as well have taken place on Mars. We lived, worked, and shopped among people whose race and ethnicity were different from ours, but we didn’t know any “rich people.” We scarcely knew anyone who was truly “middle class.”
We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand—distasteful to better-off whites, I think, for having failed economically in the context of their own race. And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country as a monolithic cultural wasteland. “Flyover country,” people called
it, like walking there might be dangerous. Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”
Somehow, without yet understanding any of that consciously, I picked for you a name about dignity and respect. I used to say it over and over in my head, the way some girls wrote boys’ names in notebooks. I never even pictured a father for you—knowing on some level, I guess, that you wouldn’t need one. I pictured only you. I knew how to say your name: Grandpa Arnie’s middle name and the month I was born. A wealthy month for wheat farmers. August.
* * *
Betty was sixteen when she got pregnant with Jeannie. If I had to pick a fact of our family history that most shaped my relationship to you, it would probably be that one: Every woman who helped raise me, on my mom’s side of the family, had been a teenage mother who brought a baby into a dangerous place.
The father of Betty’s baby was a twenty-year-old Wichita street thug named Ray, whom she’d known since they were kids together on the bad side of town. I met this biological grandfather of mine only once, and he looked just like everyone had said—like a gangster. He had black hair, slicked back, and wore a suit. He usually had a look on his face that Grandma described as “arrogant.”
Ray was the opposite of Grandpa Arnie. He routinely hit Betty, pinned her down, punched her. She would fight back until he knocked her unconscious or kicked her in the ribs and left her bruised and bleeding.
Betty knew Ray could murder her. So when Jeannie was just a few months old, she decided to get out of Wichita for both of their sakes. She would need money to do it. She couldn’t ask her mom, Dorothy, for help; they were fighting, and Dorothy didn’t have a
dime to spare anyway. She asked her grandparents across the street, Dorothy’s parents, to lend her $75, the cost of a divorce at the county courthouse. They told her, “You made your bed, now you lay in it.” Betty told herself that if someday, somehow, she ended up in a position to help somebody in a bind, she would do it, without judgment.
She came up with twenty-five bucks, went to the public car auction, and bought an old Plymouth. Or maybe it was a Dodge. Her sister Pud helped her spray-paint it black in their mother’s driveway so it wouldn’t look so rusty and awful. Whether she could afford a divorce or not, she was leaving town.
“I packed my car with what little shit I had, and my baby, and I took off,” Betty told me. “And I had no idea where in the hell I was going. Chicago’s where I stopped.”
Every kid in our family moved more times than they could remember without getting out a pen and notepad. If you’re wild enough to enjoy it, poverty can contain a sort of freedom—no careers or properties to maintain, no community meetings or social status to be responsible to. If there was a car that ran and a bit of gas money, we could just leave. Like my grandmother and my mother, you and I probably would have done a lot of that sort of rambling together.
Sometimes it’s a worthwhile gamble for the poor to drift. Having no money looks and feels different in different places. Are your neighbors helpful? Is the landlord raising the rent? Can you walk to work if the car goes out? For a child, are the kids and teachers at school welcoming? Do you have to walk past a drug house to get there? Among the poor, the potential risks of starting over are more severe for women, people of color, and other disadvantaged groups. But often, by moving, there is little to lose and at least a chance at finding something better.
People without money today might be less transient, for a lot of socioeconomic reasons. But when Betty left Wichita in 1963, she could just about count on finding a job and a cheap apartment wherever she went, so long as she had the will to work for it. And Betty had will in spades.
Chicago was the biggest place she had ever seen, but she was unimpressed. “The Windy City,” she told me, skeptical as one who was raised in Tornado Alley. “Shit. They never seen wind.”
The day she arrived, she found an apartment for $20 a week. The same place might have cost half as much in Wichita, but there was a lot of work to be found in Chicago. The next day, she bought a newspaper and answered an ad for a job at a factory that made clock radios and other electronics.
She got the job and thought it paid well. She was used to earning the federal minimum wage of $1.15. The factory paid three times as much. Her landlady, a Puerto Rican woman Betty befriended despite their language barrier, babysat Jeannie all day while Betty sat on a stool at work drilling three screws into blocks of wood, over and over, and at night while she worked at the deli down the road.
She didn’t care to find a new crowd to party with. Back home, she’d done speed with Ray because everyone else did, but she didn’t like it. Now Betty was seventeen and alone with a baby. Her entertainment was to push Jeannie in a stroller next to Lake Michigan. She couldn’t afford to see a movie, but she visited the Chicago Natural History Museum, which must have had free admission.
Each month, after she paid the rent and utilities, and the landlady for watching Jeannie, Betty had $27 left. She budgeted some of it for cigarettes and gas. The rest went to groceries from the little store around the corner. The store sold frozen pot pies, five for
a dollar. She’d buy twenty-five of them, beef and chicken flavor, and that would be her dinner all month. Every day, a candy bar for lunch at work and a frozen pot pie for dinner at home.
After winter passed, she left the factory for a filing job at a life insurance company closer to her apartment. She could walk to the office, then from the office to her job at the deli, then from the deli to home. She even had a stint at a chocolate factory, picking candy off the conveyor belt, just like in the I Love Lucy episode.
Once Betty came home from work and saw a skinny kid crawling out her apartment window onto the fire escape. She chased him up the metal ladder and across the roof, where she tripped and blackened the knees of her pedal pushers, which really pissed her off, especially since she had already dropped her cigarette. She followed him down a dirty hallway and beat on a door until a big woman with black hair opened it.
Betty told her what had happened. The woman dragged the boy to the door and yelled at him in Spanish. He dug in his pockets to hand Betty the costume jewelry he had taken. The woman was giving him a beating before she even closed the door. Betty felt bad for the kid. But she had her jewelry back.
Back in Kansas, according to Betty many years later, Ray had gone AWOL from the Army. He figured out where Betty lived, most likely from her mom. He showed up in Chicago saying he wanted to start over. Betty knew he would be trouble again. But she was scared of him, and she let him in.
Ray found a job, played pool for money, and sold drugs on the side, Betty told me. They moved into a bigger apartment. Soon Betty’s lawless crew from Wichita was streaming in and out. Betty sent a letter to her mom and little sister. Baby Jeannie’s scribbles fill the space at the end, and it looks like a kid wrote the letter
itself—loopy cursive slanting backward, bubbles dotting the i’s. It was all about money. How much did things cost? Who was working? What were the losses to report?
June 24, 1963
Dear Mom & Pud,
Hi, how ya doing?
Okay, I hope. We are all okay. Still working, but I only work four hours a day so I’m gona look for another job. Ray’s working anywhere from 12 to 17 hrs a day. But the checks will be good. He get’s paid day after tomorrow & I get paid Thursday.
Well there’s no new’s to write about. Oh the car blowed out. The Brakes went out completely, we lost the front brake cyninder first, then the back & now the master cylinder. But we dont drive it at all. We moved again now we have a three bedroom apartment. 35.00 a week, it’s a hell of a lot better.
No bug’s or mice.
And everyone has there own privacy.
Lynda’s ole man’s sister is living with us now.
Were all working now so there wont be any money troubles. Well I guess I better close for now.
Jeannie is okay, she is crying so she can write a letter too. We got a baby sitter for her, she treat’s her real good. Well we miss you all. Will write more often now.
Betty, Jeannie & Ray
Have we got any important mail like Ray’s discharge?
Plans changed quickly with a volatile character like Ray around. The beatings got bad again. One night, when Ray left to go out partying, he padlocked the apartment from the outside, in case Betty had a mind to leave.
“If the place had caught fire, we’d have been screwed,” she told me. “The fire escape would’ve been difficult carrying a kid with ya, but if you were doin’ it for your life, I guess you’d try.”
The next day, when Ray had come and gone again with the car, and the padlock was off the door, Betty packed what she could in a suitcase and split. She and Jeannie rode a train back to Kansas.
“Jeannie had a pet monkey, a little stuffed toy. She hung on to that, ya know, like some babies carry blankets and stuff,” Betty told me, holding back tears. “This was her security, this stuffed monkey. And it got lost. I guess we left it on the train.”
It wasn’t the lost stuffed animal that made Betty cry, of course, but knowing how miserable her daughter’s childhood had been—even her security blanket, of sorts, got lost in the chaos—and interpreting this as her having been a bad mother. Jeannie’s childhood traumas had more to do with the generational poverty she was born to than with her mom’s love and capability. But, like most poor people I know whose lives appear riddled with failure, Betty saw it as her own fault.
* * *
Nick, my father, was born on Labor Day in 1955. That’s a poetic birthday for a carpenter, but I didn’t realize it until I was well into adulthood. Labor Day was, for us, a day the country took a break, but that carried no political significance. No one in my close family belonged to a union—most of the men being self-employed as
farmers or tradesmen and most of the women doing work that was poorly unionized.
Plus, being out in the country kept us separate from that sort of organizing. Farmers don’t work for hourly wages negotiated between unions and company bosses. Fields need tilled and cattle need fed whether it’s a federal holiday or not. Nick’s little German Catholic farming enclave had a community picnic outside the church every Labor Day to mark the end of summer, but they still did chores before and after.
Nick was the youngest of six children—three boys and three girls. He was given his dad’s full name, Nicholas Clarence, even though he was the third-born son, like his parents had run out of ideas. When he came along, his dad was forty-six and his mother, Teresa, was forty-one. He was probably a bit of a surprise. But his parents were both Catholic and farm people, groups that had different but intertwining reasons for producing a lot of children—the former thinking birth control sinful, the latter needing help raising wheat.
True to his birthday, Nick turned out to be a worker among workers. His productivity and money saving impressed even his stingy parents, who had come of age during the Great Depression. Before he was old enough to drive, he owned more head of cattle than his dad did. At age nineteen, he started a foundation-laying business. When he met Jeannie in his early twenties, he already had five employees and a few thousand dollars in the bank.
Jeannie had book smarts and was a talented artist, but, like Nick, her handiest sort of intelligence was with life, with money. She could always find her way out of a bind, hustling cash with odd jobs, making money stretch the furthest it could. She came from a long line of women whose lives amounted to getting out of a bind, often by working harder than their men. Nothing disgusted Jeannie more
than a man sitting on his butt all day expecting to be taken care of. She respected how Nick worked and said “please” and “thank you.”
Jeannie and Nick looked good together. She was small and fair-skinned with long, straight brown hair parted down the middle. He had blue eyes and a bushy, sand-colored beard. They smashed around farm parties and Wichita dance halls, where underage Jeannie carried her head so high no one dared ask for an ID. In a raffle at a party thrown by a Wichita lumber-supply company in 1978, they even won a trip to Paris. Besides the men who left to fight wars, no one in their families had ever been overseas.
As the 1970s drew to a close, discussion in the United States was all about scarcity of resources, both real and perceived. In 1979 came the second oil crisis of the decade, a petroleum shortage related to trade with the Middle East and America’s appetite for the world’s fossil fuels. Cars lined up for blocks to fill their tanks while gas stations raised their prices, as the global supply-and-demand economy dictated.
People in our corner of society were far removed from the national political discussion. Their eyes were on immediate concerns: Was the hot combine shaking beneath them running right for the wheat harvest? Was there gas in the car to get to work? Had the cattle been fed? Who would pick up children from babysitters?
That’s what my early life felt like, and it’s how yours would have felt, too—like some invisible hand was making decisions that affected us in ways we didn’t have the knowledge to describe or the access to fight.
In July 1979, amid a national panic over fossil-fuel shortages, President Carter visited Kansas City to promote his new energy program. The night before, he had given a televised speech about the oil panic from the Oval Office. Americans were weary and
cynical after a couple decades of civil unrest, he said: the assassinations of moral and political leaders, a shameful and bloody war in Vietnam, public revelations about a dirty White House. Carter said the country was experiencing not just an energy crisis but a moral one.
“It’s clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper,” he said in his Georgia accent, “deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession.”
The real trouble was with materialism, he said. He had grown up working his family’s peanut farm, the sort of experience that doesn’t mean you’re a good person but does impart lessons about money and resources.
“Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” Carter said, his pale eyes full of worry. “. . . But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.”
That’s where he was wrong. The country had not discovered those truths, not in the slightest. In fact, on the eve of the garish 1980s, our lesson was just beginning.
That’s not to say people couldn’t see economic trouble brewing. Carter’s speech cited a poll suggesting that, for the first time in the country’s history, most people thought the next five years would be worse than the last. Ten years of inflation had shrunk the value of a dollar and, with it, people’s hard-earned savings. Natural resources once presumed limitless were being recognized as precious and finite.
We were at a fork in the road, Carter told millions of people through their living room television sets, and had to choose a path: remain fearful and selfish, grasping for economic advantage over other countries and even our own neighbors, or embrace unity.
“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance,” Carter said, “but it is the truth, and it is a warning.”
It was a warning the country would not heed. Carter’s poll numbers went up, but the country didn’t change. That America couldn’t hear his message about worshiping the false idol of wealth is a public fact that would be felt privately for decades to come. No one would feel it more than the poor.
* * *
A few months after Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech, Jeannie and Nick got engaged. She had gotten her GED, and Nick had bought a spread of land near the lake for $350 an acre when it came up for auction. The wedding was set for January 1980.
But as the autumn leaves fell in 1979, Jeannie had second thoughts. She was seventeen, Nick twenty-four, but she often felt she was more mature than he was. She was thinking about calling off the wedding until, on Halloween night, they were messing around in Nick’s parents’ basement.
“Don’t come in me,” Jeannie told him.
Nick came in her anyway.
“I said ‘don’t come in me’!” she said.
“I thought you said, ‘come in me,’?” he said.
As Jeannie went up the stairs from the basement, out the door and into the dark, to turn a cold car engine under the big sky of a flat landscape, she felt different.
“I knew I was pregnant,” she told me. Unlike most of our family, she usually disliked vulgarity. I was embarrassed, when she told me the story after drinking a great deal of boxed wine, to hear her say “come.” I wasn’t at all surprised by the point of her story, though—that a poor teenage girl in rural Kansas might experience
pregnancy as an inevitable life sentence. A family cycle so old and deep tends to go unexamined and unquestioned but is always felt.
Your presence in my life both helped and worried me. When I was in junior high, I already knew that the spirit I felt beside me would be either my downfall or my redemption—that you would be either an unwanted fate crying in my arms or a pattern that I had ended by my own will.
Jeannie never took that sort of mission for herself, I guess, and neither did Betty. It’s lucky for me that they didn’t. But two things can be true at the same time. I’m grateful for my early life, and I wouldn’t wish it on any child.
On a windy, cold day at the outset of 1980, Jeannie and Nick married at St. Rose, a small, white clapboard church built at the turn of the century. Still in her first trimester, Jeannie looked slim in her white lace dress, and no one was the wiser. After the ceremony, their friends and family from surrounding farms and busted corners of Wichita gathered at a big dance hall called The Keg in the small town of Colwich. It was thirty miles away but had a stage and space for a proper Catholic wedding dance. They ate brisket, drank cans of Coors beer, and danced to a country band. Nick shaved off his beard for the occasion, and Jeannie looked even younger than she was.
Betty was that way, too. When people looked at her, they couldn’t believe her actual age. I’d grow up to hear I had those same “good genes.” What people didn’t see was all the invisible “bad” we inherited, cycles handed down for what I have a feeling was centuries and maybe millennia. They were the negative cycles of poverty. One of them was to be a veritable child and have a baby inside you.
Jeannie wouldn’t be able to keep hers a secret for long. Soon after the wedding, she and Nick stopped by a party at Betty and
Arnie’s farmhouse. Jeannie was one month married and three months pregnant, starting to show a bump. Betty and Arnie were drinking with their friends, the raucous bunch that as a child I would spy on through clouds of cigarette smoke in the dining room: Thin women wearing frosted lipstick and tight jeans. Thick men wearing sideburns and big collars, speaking bits of German without realizing it. On the dining table, more than likely: beer, whiskey, potato chips, a card game called ten-point pitch.
Jeannie stood in the dining room leaning against the wall of built-in oak cabinets that housed china, brittle photo albums, batteries, hammers, poker chips. She tried to cover her belly with her coat.
Betty looked over at her daughter and noticed.
“Are you pregnant?” she shouted. “Oh my God, you’re pregnant!” Betty pushed away from the table and shrieked over her embarrassed daughter’s belly.
The party sprang into full gear. They were drunk, yelling at Betty, “You’re gonna be a grandma!” She was thirty-four years old.
When Betty sobered up, she was upset about the news. Did Jeannie want to get an abortion? It was even legal now.
She did not.
I thus was the proverbial teen pregnancy, my very existence the mark of poverty. I was in a poor girl’s lining like a penny in a purse—not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production.
* * *
Jeannie’s third trimester carrying me was the hottest summer since the Dust Bowl. The Wichita area reached a hundred degrees for forty-two out of fifty-five days. The heat wave killed seventeen hundred people across the Great Plains—one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. But farmers might be the ones most likely
to remember it. The drought shriveled crops and caused $20 billion in agricultural losses.
For Jeannie, the summer was one hell of a time to be pregnant. Air-conditioning was a luxury she didn’t have.
That August of 1980, my parents brought me home to a tiny red shack they had rented in the same little community where I’d been conceived—a rural cluster of houses separated by wheat fields and long driveways. Mom stayed with me while Dad went back to work farming and building.
Mom and I were alone then, with a rotary phone, a cat, and a black-and-white television. On the TV, local news anchors surely talked about the weather, which my family followed closely, and the upcoming presidential election, about which my family was less concerned. Many of them didn’t bother to vote, feeling themselves powerless in a system they suspected was rigged. Mom had recently turned eighteen, though, and intended to wield her new right.
For now, she wielded the cigarettes she had smoked right through her pregnancy, a laundry hamper full of cloth diapers, and a bottle of baby formula. It would have been cheaper to breast-feed, but that would have been the lowest shame of poverty. Mom didn’t feel the maternal pangs she’d been assured she would anyhow. She scraped together change for formula. Betty had done the same in the ’60s. I might have done the same if I’d had you when I was a teenager, before a mainstream cultural return to breast-feeding reached our place and class. I see so many things differently now. But we did as we had learned.
Grandma Betty was driving back and forth to work in Wichita every day but helped with baby care when she could, like the day I choked on formula and she shook me by the ankles while Mom napped.
“Your face turned red as a beet,” Grandma would say, laughing and half-apologetic, whenever she retold the story. “Shit, I didn’t know what to do.”
In a few months, when the election rolled around, Mom would align with one-third of Kansas voters and cast her first ballot for Carter’s reelection. But Ronald Reagan won, of course, and got to work cutting taxes.
Reagan said that big, private money would “trickle down” to us through the economy, as though we were standing outside with our mouths open praying for money to rain. Reagan was big on states’ rights and deregulation, which appealed to the government-wary streak of my people. Back then, conservatism made some fair claims about keeping government out of people’s lives, a noble enough idea in a country that won its independence from an oppressive monarchy.
But keeping government out of the private sector could lead to a different sort of oppression, it would turn out. Federal policies that had created a middle class in the twentieth century were giving way to corporate rule in which billionaires with political influence could be kings behind the scenes.
That same year, 1980, a country singer first recorded a song about the Great Depression with the lyrics, “Somebody told us Wall Street fell, but we were so poor that we couldn’t tell.” It wasn’t the 1930s anymore, but even in my childhood before cable television and the internet, we lacked understanding of our place in the economy. We were so unaware of our own station that, in the rare instance that the concept of class arose, we thought we were middle class. That term occasionally got thrown around in the news, and we recognized it to mean “not poor, but not rich.” Since we had enough to eat, that’s how we thought of ourselves.
Being conceived a few months after Carter’s foreboding speech and born a few months before Reagan’s inauguration meant that my life and the economic demise of American workers would unfold in tandem. But we couldn’t see it yet out in the Kansas fields.
That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure. Class didn’t exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.
* * *
Dad had to fold his foundation-laying business a couple years before I was born. You can’t pour concrete when the temperature is below freezing, and the record-setting winter of 1978 left Dad without work for his employees. He went back to doing carpentry with his dad, uncles, and two older brothers, known in the area as Smarsh Brothers Construction. He plowed his and other people’s fields and took side jobs as a handyman.
When I was still an infant, Mom, Dad, and I left the little red house for a trailer that Betty and Arnie had parked next to their farmhouse. Arnie hooked the trailer behind his tractor and pulled it to our land, a flat stretch of grass and dirt between the tall dam of a state reservoir and the flat wheat fields Dad had worked his whole life.
I had my first birthday party in the trailer. Dad kept working and saving money, and I became a white-haired toddler. Mom cooked supper in the tiny kitchen that had black-and-white wallpaper
printed with turn-of-the-century advertisements for corsets and shaving cream.
More often than not, Mom had a job outside our home, too. It almost always involved selling something. She decided to get a state real estate license to sell houses in Wichita. To be closer to work for both her and Dad, I guess—there being more structures to construct and sell in cities, of course—we moved east to Wichita, first to an apartment for less than a year, then to a rented house in a modest but quiet, treed neighborhood. On weekends, Dad worked on our house in the country.
Things were looking up. We got a cocker spaniel. I had Flintstones vitamins and a pink canopy bed. On Friday nights, Mom and Dad told me goodbye at the door and walked into the night dressed up—Mom with big, curled hair and bright blush on her cheeks, Dad wearing his snakeskin boots and smelling like Irish Spring soap and aftershave. They went out to dance halls, where Dad drank Canadian whiskey and Mom drank diet pop. During the days, while the two of them went to work, I briefly attended a preschool. I was three years old and had already lived in four places, enough to know that a canopy bed and vitamins was high on the hog.
When Dad had paid off the bit of land he bought for our house, he used it as collateral for a bank loan to buy building materials. It was early 1983, and the construction industry could feel a recession coming on. His father warned him against borrowing money when the economy didn’t look stable. But Dad told him he had faith in the United States. He believed that things would get better.
The small-town banker wanted to know how he’d pay back the loan if work didn’t pick up.
“I’ll chop and sell wood if I have to,” Dad told him.
He signed for the loan, and we headed back to the country.
By then, the trailer on our land had been moved back to Betty and Arnie’s farm for some other relatives. So we moved into their farmhouse. My parents and I shared a bed upstairs that autumn.
Twelve miles down the road, before the air got too cold for cement-pouring, Dad laid the foundation for our new house. As the earth around us hardened into winter, Dad did the electric wiring himself. He hired a man from Mount Hope, a nearby small town, to do the plumbing and the air conditioner. The bricklayer would have to wait. The cold had come fast and hard, and mortar would freeze before he could smear it.
Arnie lent his posthole digger for Dad to put up a new pole barn. They dug the holes, loaded huge poles into the back of a wheat truck, and dropped each one into a hole, tamping dirt and pouring concrete from pole to pole. They nailed two-by-fours horizontally between the poles and hoisted the trusses with a tractor scoop. Male friends, their legs tightly wrapped around the tops of the poles, grabbed for the swinging trusses. When the frame was done, they slid sheets of tin up, up, and over.
The pole barn seemed to me a great, mysterious place, where men were dirty and spoke a language of measurements—bushels of wheat, kernels per head, miles per gallon, acres of milo, points on a buck, yards to the eight-point buck. I loved when they brought me along on chores or to cattle auctions.
I’ve heard stories that Grandpa Arnie was a violent, blustery dad to his own kids a couple decades prior. If so, he had changed by the time I came along, as often happens on the way from parenting to grandparenting. He would zoom me around on his three-wheeler to help feed the cows, keep me on his lap while he drove the tractor, tell me what tool to hand him in the work shed. He thought I was hilarious. He took to calling me “Sarah Lou,” for
some reason, even though my middle name was Jean, after my mom. Before long he and Grandma Betty just called me “Lou.”
It makes me laugh now, seeing that many of the women I knew had what amounted to one-syllable trucker handles for nicknames. Betty was Sis. Her sister Dorothy was called Pud—short for “Puddin’?”—so she wouldn’t be confused with their mother. Because of Grandpa Arnie, I was Lou.
Like most of the men I grew up around, Arnie’s surfaces were rough: enormous brown, chapped hands with bruised fingernails like my dad’s; heavy, pointy-toed leather boots; wiry sideburns; a scratchy brimmed cap of mesh plastic and the logo for the meat locker where he butchered. I knew him as a tender person, though. He showed me how to pull a xylophone by a string and, years later, a hayrack by a truck with a manual transmission. He cried when he accidentally tipped over the three-wheeler we were riding and I broke my arm.
In the evenings, Arnie returned from the shed with oil handprints on his jeans. Betty returned from her job at the Wichita courthouse wearing Kmart business suits. Dad returned from construction sites with sawdust in his beard. Mom returned from the Wichita airport, where she’d taken a job at an airline check-in counter, wearing a uniform skirt and a name pin with little wings on it.
All four bedrooms at the farm were upstairs. They had wood floors and the original, single-pane 1910 windows that smelled like dust and had ice on the inside of them. Dad and I would sit in bed eating cereal out of the box until the crumbs in the sheets made Mom mad. We all snuggled against the cold. I’d never been happier than I was sleeping on a full-size mattress between my parents, with my grandparents just beyond the wood-paneled wall.
In the spring of 1984, Dad and his friends finished our house.
They put up sheetrock, laid shingles, poured cement in front of the attached garage. A hired man dug a pond with a dozer. Dad built a wooden dock before the big hole was filled with water. A family friend who raised catfish a couple miles down the road stocked the pond. Mom and Dad moved our few things from Betty and Arnie’s farm, along the two-lane blacktop that curved around Cheney Lake.
Mom decorated the house with things that to our eyes looked nice and to anyone else’s eyes were at least well arranged: a shiny black vinyl sofa next to antique chairs from an auction, satiny rose-colored wallpaper in the formal entry that faced the pond. In the family room, burgundy paint and a print of men wearing riding habits and hunting foxes with their hounds, as though Mom meant to redefine what sort of “country” people we were.
She had a knack for making it appear that we had more money than we did. There was about her an audacious dignity. She said people hung art too high on walls. It really bothered her, as though she’d never had a real problem. She was bothered, too, by dirtiness—a necessary awareness, as there would be no visit by a cleaning lady. Her attention to cleanliness might have been defensive, as well, to avoid giving credence to ideas that people like us might be dirty. This inherited concern ran deep in us as females. It’s clean would be Grandma Betty’s first report after approving a new burger joint or roadside motel.
As for deeper problems, I knew Jeannie’s with the unparalleled expertise of any mother’s child. One of them, it seemed clear, was that I existed. Though I wouldn’t know for years that I’d been an accident, I felt the knowledge at an atomic level. I’d materialized over one word that either wasn’t heard or wasn’t heeded, that night she told Nick not to come inside her: don’t.
Maybe that’s why, as a kid, I heard nothing but don’t—don’t
speak, don’t breathe, don’t laugh, don’t cry. The price of my existence—the food, the air, the water, the space—was made known, and my actions either did or didn’t justify it. My life’s merit was met with the same suspicion as my mother’s and that of countless people before us.
I was determined that you would never know that feeling. It reached for you from far back in time, well before I existed, before my parents or grandparents existed. We were centuries-old peasant stock.
Mom’s lineage was a mix of Scandinavian, German, and Scots-Irish, best I can figure out. I knew that side of my family as single mothers who moved like the wind and called themselves gypsies.
Dad’s Catholic bunch—me representing its fifth generation farming the windswept plains of Kansas—descended from foragers and farmers in what is now the German-Austrian border region, it appears. We ended up raising wheat and cattle, but our name, Smarsh, was for a much humbler food: mushrooms. In our ancestral homeland, I once read, poor people said mushrooms were holy fingers poking through the earth to nourish them.
That sort of alchemy, assigning a meaning—turning what some might view as the lowly act of foraging into a direct communion with God, for instance—is often the only sort of power a poor person has.
One thing Mom and I had in common was that we understood and respected the power of words and names. Her own mom said she had wanted to call her Jennifer, but Ray insisted they name the baby after Betty. That’s how Betty later remembered it, anyway. So my mom was named Betty Jean and spent a lifetime explaining why she went by Jeannie.
My parents didn’t know much about our lineage or even the meaning of our last name, but maybe Mom sensed it. She gave me
a first name she knew meant “princess,” as though someone who foraged to survive could still be regal or even rich in her own way. But it was my last name and its origins that decided the stuff of my life. Like poor immigrants not so far back in our bloodline, we were raised to not expect much and to ask for even less. It was a good thing, too. The house that Dad built wouldn’t be ours for long.
* * *
I answered the question of whether I deserved to exist by working hard: folding laundry before I could read, reaching on my tiptoes to wipe off the bathroom counter while George Strait sang on the record player about rodeos and pretty women. I was raised to not be idle. Our hard work was how we had a roof and enough to eat.
What I did hunger for sharply, what my life lacked most sorely, was in my mother’s heart—which had been scarred by the traumas of monetary poverty but carried a feeling of perpetual lack and discontent that knows no class.
The poverty I felt most, then, was a scarcity of the heart, a near-constant state of longing for the mother right in front of me yet out of reach. She withheld the immense love she had inside her like children of the Great Depression hoarded coins. Being her child, I had no choice but to be emotionally impoverished with her. I offered to rub her back every day so that I could touch her skin.
One develops a cunning to survive, whatever the shortage. My family excelled at creative improvisation: eating at Furr’s Cafeteria on the rare food outing since it was all-you-can-eat and required no servers’ tip; scanning garage sales for undervalued items that could be resold at higher prices; rigging our own broken things rather than calling an expensive repairman; racing to the grocery
store to buy loads of potatoes at 5¢ per pound when the Wednesday newspaper ad had a typo that the company legally had to honor.
Similarly, I haunted hallways around the corner from where my mom sat reading Stephen King novels or watching soap operas as I tried to get up the courage to ask her if she loved me. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t know the answer as that I wanted to make her say it. Nothing was more painful to me than true things being denied.
When I asked, her answer had the right words but the same cruel tone as her silence. I wanted her affection, but more than anything, I wanted her to be happy. From what I’ve observed, a poor child’s agony is just as often for her parents as it is for herself. You could say that is still a selfish impulse, because in order for a child to survive, her parents must survive, too. But I felt my family’s burden as my own well past childhood.
* * *
You would have been born to creative, industrious people. That’s what poverty requires.
Mom and Dad both were good at coming up with ways to make a fast dollar. During the summer of 1984, Dad got one of his more ambitious ideas when Sedgwick County banned the sale of high-powered fireworks—M-80s, bottle rockets, items known to blow people’s hands off. Dad knew that Wichita people would have to go somewhere else to have some real fun on the Fourth of July.
We lived past the county line, in Kingman County, where no elected official would dream of banning any class of fireworks. The people of our county were farmers who drove enormous combines with giant, sharp blades that cut the wheat; carpenters who built their own giant sheds by swinging hammers while perched high on wooden rafters; and women who held down calves to inject
vaccinations before they drove four-wheel-drive pickups to office jobs on the brick streets of small towns. They could handle their firecrackers.
In June, Mom drove to a wholesale warehouse on a blacktop road through the prairie. She wrote a check for hundreds of heavy boxes of various fireworks manufactured in China. Strings of Black Cats, TNT-brand variety packs, M-80s, M-60s, bottle rockets, children’s sparklers and smoke bombs, little hens that shot glowing eggs out of their behinds, and cardboard columns that released quiet, pretty fountains of colorful sparks and had names like Springtime Sunrise.
Dad and Grandpa Arnie hammered together a vending stand with lumber out of a scrap pile Dad kept in our shed. They loaded the wooden stand onto a hayrack and pulled it down the county blacktop to the gravel parking lot of Kampling’s Live Bait Shop, which stood at the entrance to Cheney Lake, a draw for people over the holiday weekend.
The fireworks stand was a narrow rectangle with a roof, a counter for customers to approach, and a visible rack of shelves on the back wall. Mom and Grandma Betty lined the shelves with merchandise, taking breaks to smoke Marlboros and stare at the horizon with weary looks. I was almost four years old and held red-white-and-blue bunting to the counter as they stapled it in place, the thick, smelly plastic blowing in the wind and sticking to our sweaty, dusty legs.
Dad hauled his power generator from our shed to the fireworks stand. It would run electricity to lightbulbs strung overhead, and to the blinking arrow sign he had rented and situated in the prairie grass next to the blacktop road. When the sun set, the sign’s little bulbs flickered to life, and June bugs buzzed against them.
The morning we opened for business, the people of Wichita
appeared from the east, pulling speedboats behind pickups and carrying wallets full of cash. They bought heaps of fireworks and headed off through the lake entrance for a long weekend. Grandma Betty, her short blond hair darkened by sweat at the neck, counted the growing pile of bills in our cash box.
Dad and Grandpa Arnie spent the days in the fields, cutting wheat with combines or, after harvest, plowing the stubble under. In the evening, they arrived to help at the fireworks stand. Sunburned, eyes tired, whiskers full of dust and bits of straw, they moved heavy boxes and drank beer and laughed.
My older cousin Shelly and I played with bugs in the hot dirt and wrote fizzy sparklers across the dark sky until Shelly, who could be meaner than any boy and was tougher than most of them, shoved a firecracker up a frog’s butt and lit the wick, which made me cry. Shelly’s skinny teenage sister, Candy, stood near the ditch and waved in cars from the road, twirling a baton and wearing a stars-and-stripes bikini and garters. She had a paper Uncle Sam top hat over her short, sandy hair. Neighbor farmers waved when they passed. Everyone was covered in a thin film of dust.
When the stand closed around midnight, Dad spent the night sitting in his parked pickup, a loaded shotgun on the seat beside him, in case someone had a mind to rob us. There was security in guns for good reason where we lived. What we owned wasn’t locked in a bank but sitting in a wooden stand with plastic bunting flapping in the prairie wind.
“You can’t be too careful,” he’d say, holding his gun with respect for the weapon but no pride about carrying it.
When it was all over, the morning after the Fourth, Mom and Dad counted and rubber-banded the bills. Once they paid off the wholesale supplier, the county permit, and the family help, they
had a fortune of a few thousand dollars. It would come in handy, as Mom’s belly was large with a baby that would be born in the fall.
* * *
Mom and Dad had their first fireworks stand the year Reagan was reelected—selling American pride in a field next to a two-lane blacktop while think tanks sold “trickle-down” economics. It’s funny that both of their children were born weeks before an election that Reagan won. We would be able to map our lives against the destruction of the working class: the demise of the family farm, the dismantling of public health care, the defunding of public schools, wages so stagnant that full-time workers could no longer pay the bills. Historic wealth inequality was old news to us by the time it hit newspapers in the new millennium. That’s the difference among the person selling the fireworks and the one watching them sparkle in the sky from a public park on a work holiday and the one watching them from a nice apartment in a city high-rise. You live in different Americas and thus have different understandings.
Dad didn’t own any stocks or follow any market other than agricultural commodities. But he knew something about the economy wasn’t right. Things were getting more expensive compared to how much money was coming in. That’s a ratio felt acutely when you have to calculate budgets to the dime.
Dad saved coins in a giant glass bottle that had previously contained Canadian blended whiskey. One night he reckoned it was time to count them. He poured them onto a foldout card table in the living room near the brick fireplace. I watched the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters trickle down into a pile. Touching the coins with great care, Dad separated them into stacks. He was not a materialistic man. I never knew him to buy anything for himself but work tools. But he
lived in a materialistic world, a system of goods and services that required monetary compensation. He added figures on a notepad and a calculator. He left the family room for a while and returned to count the coins a second time. I walked past.
“Sarah, come here,” Dad said.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you have something you want to tell me?”
“Are you sure?”
Dad sighed and looked at his coins.
“I know what you did,” he said.
“You took a nickel.”
“No, I didn’t,” I said.
“Sarah, don’t lie to me.”
“I didn’t take it.”
“Just be honest, and I won’t get mad at you.”
Dad sighed again and put his head in his hands, agonizing over what the moment meant to him: A nickel was unaccounted for, and every missing cent was his fault. I stood there looking at him and the stacks of coins on the wobbly foldout table feeling like I could cry. I hated being misunderstood, and I hated when my parents were unhappy. This moment was all of that at once, and the air smelled like dirty metal.
I realized the weight of those coins, then. The big, silver ones were worth the most, but the smaller ones mattered just as much when you needed every penny. It’s a lesson I sometimes forgot.
Grandma Betty scolded me once for throwing a few dirty, sticky pennies in the trash.
Her mom and grandma had worked on the Boeing assembly line during World War II. Once, a pay period shook out so that the company cut a check to her grandma for exactly one cent. After she died, the paycheck ended up among Betty’s keep-sakes.
“Here’s a paycheck for one friggin’ penny,” Betty would say, holding it with reverence. “Can you imagine? But a penny is a penny. Every bit counts.”
Currency values used to be based on a gold standard, Dad would explain when I was a little older, but now they were based on nothing tangible. It was just a game, really, the whole money system. Grandpa Arnie watched wheat prices go up and down in the local newspaper or on the price board that hung outside the grain co-op. At the courthouse in Wichita, Grandma Betty made less money than men who did the same job with less skill. We didn’t own stocks, but the psychological underpinning of the market wasn’t lost on us.
“Paying retail is for fools,” Mom used to say. We could walk into a store and with one glance at a tag discern a showroom full of ridiculous markups. Mom would pick up a dish off a shelf, turn it over to read the number on the bottom. She’d raise her eyebrows and set it back down.
“I don’t think so,” she’d whisper.
Betty would raise her eyebrows, too.
“What a rip,” she’d say once we were outside the store, walking back toward our car but not holding any bags.
Money was what made the world go around, I learned fast. I knew how to compare prices on tags before I knew how to read words.
Yet money was a lie—pieces of paper and metal suggesting prices for goods, services, labor, and human beings themselves in a way that often had more to do with profit than with true value. We were on the losing end of that lie no matter how many acres of wheat we farmed.
In that way, my family and our class might have been the least fazed by America’s obsession with wealth. As workers living at the taproot of the agricultural economy, we not only could grow and build our own necessities—we also understood the hard work a loaf of bread represented and thus put less faith in the money that bought it than in the bread itself.
Wealth and income inequality were nothing rare in global history. What was peculiar about the class system in the United States, though, is that for centuries we denied it existed. At every rung of the economic ladder, Americans believed that hard work and a little know-how were all a person needed to get ahead.
Unlike so many people of my generation, I did get a good life for my hard work and know-how. In addition to what I might have earned, there were strokes of grace along the way that I can’t take any credit for. Somehow I ended up with a better situation than my parents had.
But the American Dream has a price tag on it. The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.
No matter who you are or what you started with, though, your fortunes are not assured. For decades, far more people fell down the ladder than climbed up it. The American economy is less like a dream supported by democracy than it is like an inconsistent god.
Most of us, regardless of economic station, sacrifice a great deal to it.
That can be a satisfying agreement. Grandpa Arnie loved working the land not for the price of wheat per bushel but because smelling damp earth at sunrise felt like a holy experience. Dad loved building something beautiful out of good lumber not for the paycheck but for seeing his own creativity turned into a sturdy, useful structure. The pleasure that Mom got when she sold a little house in Wichita wasn’t just for the small commission but for the tears in the family’s eyes when she handed them the keys.
Work can be a true communion with resources, materials, other people. I have no issue with work.
Its relationship to the economy—whose work is assigned what value—is where the trouble comes in.
My family’s labor was undervalued to such an extent that, while we never starved or went without shelter in a chronic way, we all knew what it felt like to need something essential—food, shoes, a safe place to live, a rent payment, a trip to the doctor—and go without it for lack of money. That’s the sort of mess I wanted out of. That’s the sort of mess I never wanted you to experience.