I left them quite intentionally, my blue-collar family, but now I can look back with great appreciation. They scraped together the money that my private-college scholarship didn’t cover, probably not understanding that it meant I would leave their world for one they would never enter—the reward and punishment of a good education.
Decades later, I’ve learned to fake it, to pass. Inside I’m still the daughter of the postal worker and the seamstress. I’m an editor and a published author, but I did not come of age as a member of the professional class. It matters in the exact opposite way I used to think it did. I’ve found the right path for me, I think, and now I can love where I came from. I had to grow strange and unfamiliar to my family so that I could grow familiar to myself.
I never lied about my background, but I never volunteered the information, either. I mimicked the clothes and speech of the kids in college and my co-workers in publishing. It was assumed you came from a similar place and I let them think I did, keeping quiet while I absorbed the rules they had never consciously internalized. Freshman year, when the girls in my dorm said that being in college felt like camp, I was puzzled. How did dorm life resemble sleeping in a tent? No one I knew had ever gone away to camp; I didn’t know what it was.
When I chose to study abroad the next year, my scholarship didn’t kick in. I went to a local bank with my mother to borrow the difference. The loan officer pulled over a second visitor chair so we could both sit down. At the end of our meeting, my mother’s housekeeping instinct reared up. She stood, hesitated briefly, then dragged the chair back to its original spot, tossing her head back to allow for the possibility that in this context it might be beneath her. That one act, wordless and unnecessary, told me everything I needed to know about where I’d come from and where I was headed.
Was it hard for my mother to watch me leave? Did I thank her and Dad for giving me a ticket out of the post office and the sewing room? (A classmate whose father was a doctor had to pay his own way through college.) Did it scare them? Confuse them? I never thought to ask. I only thought about how I could make myself fit in with a slice of the middle class that wasn’t my birthright. If it meant hiding some small shame about my origins, that was the price of admission I was willing to pay.
Summers in college, my father got me a job at his post office. He assumed I’d become a Postal Inspector—they were the only college-educated people he knew. Many of the people I worked with there were rippling with life. They were loud, hysterically funny, and completely lovable. When I dropped an entire tray of mail onto the floor, Kay rushed over to help me as I blushed with embarrassment. “You’re not the first person to ever drop a tray of mail,” she said kindly as she helped me gather the scattered letters, “and you won’t be the last.” White-collar office workers would have known not to reveal this maternal side. And much blue-collar work seems far more honorable and useful to me than the efforts of many people sitting in front of computers all day.
Where are the Kays in the professional world? Where are the people doing impressions, acting out jokes, never letting you sit quietly, unknown, but probing and pushing until they know who you are?
I claim them, my blue-collar family: the loud gatherings, the ease with which they present themselves, the things they “wouldn’t be caught dead doing.” Here’s to the street-smart parents of book-smart children. It may be decades before we can see what they’ve taught us.