Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mom Shows the Way Out

Darlene lived at the end of our block. She dressed like Daisy Hazzard, but wasn't one-tenth as good-looking. She made up for her big nose, tiny breasts and straggly hair with skimpy shorts, going bra-less under a tank top and a willingness to "give it up" for any boy who didn't talk about it too much afterward. Her family being in the group everyone in town called "white trash", her mother didn't even blink an eye when Darlene dropped out of high school and started applying herself seriously to drinking and whoring.

The third time she was in jail over the weekend for some minor offense - I think this one was public drunkenness - a fight broke out. In the end, a young woman was dead, beaten and stomped to death for some trivial reason no one could recall. Darlene was sentenced to a year in prison and faded from view.

Priscilla and Cathy came from two other "white trash" families that lived up the street from Darlene. We all walked home from school together. It might be exaggerating it to say we were friends. We lived in the same direction and a group of girls was less likely than one walking home alone to have grown men in cars slow down and offer them a ride or a group of black kids from the other side of the tracks try to pick a fight. Yes, there really were railroad tracks running through town and yes, the whites really did live on one side and the blacks on the other. Unless you were really white trash, then you lived on the black side.

Cathy and I attended St. Anselm's School together right up through the eighth grade. She wasn't any more attractive than Darlene but could she ever sing. Cathy had the voice of an angel and with some encouragement and luck she could have run off to Hollywood and become a superstar. Of course, her family was having none of that.  She married right after high school. He was a boy two years older, who worked in the factory. They had four kids in half a dozen years and she stayed home, cleaned house, cooked meals and got fat. It was a very respectable marriage for Calhoun, Missouri. Unfortunately, after ten years, her husband was killed in an accident at the factory. Perhaps a big city lawyer could have gotten her a multi-million dollar settlement. Maybe not, though. It was rumored that the accident was at least partially his fault and, since he was dumber than a stump, I could believe it. There wasn't any big city lawyer anyway, so all Cathy got was a widow's pension and a letter approved by  the factory's legal department saying how sorry they all were.

There is an almost irresistible temptation when someone escapes a place like Calhoun and becomes successful to rewrite history and claim that person was special even as a child. Steven Hawking was brilliant. Serena Williams was a great tennis player. Ask anyone now and they'll tell you that I shone like a star next to Darlene, Cathy and Priscilla, that I was brighter, better-looking and more likable. That is why I escaped and they did not. I can't speak for the others but I can definitely state in my case that almost all those stories told about me are lies.

I was an unrewarding child. Possibly, I was cute as a baby, nearly everyone is. Definitely, as a child, I was not particularly attractive. I was short and stocky and neither I nor anyone else ever made an effort to "fix me up". My hair was often uncombed, my clothes ill-fitting. Maybe I could have made up for it by being an obedient child, eager to please, but I was the opposite of all that. Other adults, my mother and teachers included, were inferior, ignorant, uneducated, undeserving of respect, or so my father always said.

Despite everything, my mother tried to salvage her children, in her own way. She didn't dare confront my father directly. He'd beaten her down years before I came along. She took two steps to set us in the right direction. Despite my father's mocking, she went to the priest at St. Anselm's parish and asked if she could enroll her children there, rather than in Incarnate Word, where the few Catholic children in our neighborhood were supposed to attend. If anyone asked, she told them it was because she drove by St. Anselm's on her way to work so it was easier for her to drop all of us off at school. Since it was considered a shameful failure for a married woman to have to work in those days, that was usually enough to get the subject dropped.

At St. Anselm's we received the same education as the children of the grocery store owners, physicians, lawyers and other town elite. It was a college preparatory curriculum, given that children of a certain social class are expected to go to college. In Calhoun, most would end up attended the same third-rate university where my father had failed out of graduate school, but that was beside the point. By the end of eighth grade, the children at St. Anselm's were a year or two ahead of Incarnate Word kids in every subject. Of course, that was because kids barely on the white side the tracks were not very bright and had no work ethic. Everyone knew that, including all the teachers.

The second thing my mother did for each of her children was get a library card. The public library would not give a card to anyone who could not print his or her own name to sign for it. By kindergarten, when we were still in the university town, I had managed to block out M-E-L in just barely legible letters. In one of the few fibs she ever told in her life, my mother informed the librarian that it was my nickname, short for Melanie. The kindly librarian agreed it was close enough and I was issued my ticket to the world there and then. Every Saturday morning, before my father woke up, we slipped out to the library, dropped off the books from the week before and came back home with as many as we each could carry.

 The library was one of our first stops when we moved to Calhoun and the weekend routine never varied.
By fourth grade, I was through my armful of books in the middle of the week. The limit to check out was eight books at a time and with no TV, no friends and no money for movies, that was not enough entertainment to last me for a whole week, especially not in the summer.

The children of the poor are not protected like middle class children.  While more well-off families than mine would have never considered the thought of letting a nine-year-old child walk a mile each way all alone, through some of the rougher neighborhoods, when I asked my mother if I might walk to the library during the week she merely shrugged and said she couldn't see any harm in it.

 I quickly learned the least hazardous route - leave early in the morning when the tough guys were still sleeping off the night before,go the shortest distance possible to get to a "good" neighborhood and walk the rest of the way to the library at my leisure. I'd usually spend all day at the library. That way, I could read two or three books while I was there and still have eight to take home. Besides, it had air conditioning.

Mom did two things for her children; got us into a good school and introduced us to the library. For me, it was enough. It didn't keep me out of trouble, out of juvenile hall or out of the foster care system, but it did, in the end, provide an escape route from Calhoun.

When that route opened, I took it at a dead run and never looked back.

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