My mom and dad are small town, blue collar kind of people. Absolute salt of the earth. They both grew up in extreme poverty and with less-than-capable parents (I am being kind), but that was pretty much the way it was for anybody living in Shapleigh back in the 1940's. My dad lived on a farm with three older brothers, a younger sister, a father who never spoke, and a mother who was mentally ill and who made it clear from the get-go that my father was the child she would never love. He worked like a dog on that farm from the time he was five years old until he left at eighteen. His saving grace was a sense of humor that he somehow managed to hang onto in spite of an extremely difficult childhood.
My mom lived about three miles away from my dad’s farm in a two room tar-paper shack (literally), no running water, no electricity, a crammed tiny spaced she shared with three sisters and a brother. They were, without question, poorer than dirt. She worshipped her father (and still refers to him as “Daddy”, which I find incredibly sweet), but her mom was prone to disappearing acts, sometimes for weeks at a time, and my mother, being the oldest child, raised her younger siblings pretty much on her own. She didn’t really have a childhood at all...she was sort of an instant adult.
When you ask them how they met, they can't answer because neither of them can remember a time when they didn't know each other. My mother will say that my father was the adolescent brat who teased her endlessly in the way that boys will torture the girls they have crushes on. She endured his little boy antics all through grade school and had an extended break from him when he went off to Sanford High School. Apparently she missed him though, and when she entered the same high school two years later, they started dating. They dated and broke up and dated and broke up and dated and broke up. My mom jokingly says your father was a jerk in high school and most of the time I hated him and my dad will laugh and say you sure chased after me pretty hard for someone who hated me. At some point my father must have stopped being a jerk, and/or my mother finally caught him, because they stopped breaking up and fell madly in love.
My dad often says that the only reason he has a high school diploma is because his teachers just wanted to get him the hell out of that school (apparently, I inherited at least a little of my rabble-rousing free spiritedness from the paternal end of the genetic pool.) He enlisted in the navy immediately after graduating in 1957 and immediately before discovering that he was afflicted with a severe sea-sickness disorder...oops. Two years later my mother graduated and they were married the following September. They spent the next few years living on next-to-nothing navy wages, on the tips my mom made waiting tables at a breakfast diner, and on green stamps that her father would scrape together and send in the mail every month. When the four-year navy hitch was up, they moved back to Shapleigh and eventually I showed up, followed by my sister three years later.
The Huntress family was one of a small group who settled in and essentially founded Shapleigh, and my dad's great, great grandfather managed to squat about 170 acres of land. In the late 60’s, my grandmother decided to split up the land for her children. My three uncles and aunt were each given forty acres. My father was given five, a gesture reflective of my grandmother’s sense of "fairness" and my grandfather's silence and utter inability to stand up to his wife's abuse of their youngest son. (Her life-long hatred of my father was at the core of her mental illness, and another story in and of itself.) I am certain it hurt my father terribly, and I know it made my mother absolutely furious. But they took it on the chin and kept moving forward. In 1970, my parents took out a twenty-five year mortgage and my father rolled up his sleeves and built a small three bedroom ranch with his own hands. And it’s been home ever since.
They’ve been working their asses off their entire lives. My mom worked in an electronics factory for almost forty years, fifteen years of which she worked third shift, living on four or five hours of sleep a day, so that my sister and I would always have someone at the house when we got home from school every day. And probably because they knew they could never afford child care. My father worked every blue collar job imaginable and spent the last twenty-five years working as a parts manager for a Ford dealership that gave him one measly raise in a quarter century.
They’ve never had a savings account, never worked less than 40 hours a week, never traveled, and never, not even for a day, have they done anything remotely extravagant. They are the kind of people who have next-to-nothing and who will happily and with grace give it away if they think you need next-to-nothing more than they do. They are truly generous people. They’ve paid their taxes and contributed to the community they live in, and in spite of them both having what I think were pathetic role models for parents, they have been amazing parents themselves and managed to raise two fairly well adjusted daughters who can’t go home enough to visit them.
They still have struggles...I could write an entire novel about the challenges they’ve faced and rarely have those challenges been small ones. It seems like every day a new one comes knocking at their door. They're retired now but blue-collar jobs don't usually come with pensions, and so they live off social security checks that barely cover expenses. My mom told me yesterday that she’s looking for a part-time job because those little checks just ain’t gonna fill the oil tank this winter. So much for retirement. “Fixed” income is a strange term to me...fixed to do what? Fixed so that you have to choose between heating oil or groceries? ‘Cause that’s what it feels like it’s coming down to for them.
It’s criminal to me that after almost fifty years of working for the “system” they still can’t really retire. They should be able to spend the rest of their lives sitting on the back deck, listening to the birds and watching the grass grow. They’ve sure earned it. When I hear them talk about going back to work I get crazy...I go on these rants and I jump up on my soapbox and yell and scream about how the government has failed them, about how society has failed them. I bitch about Bush and I bitch about insurance companies and I bitch about oil moguls and on and on and on.
And they just kind of look at me, shake their heads. Make a joke about Darlene the Politician and ask me when I’m going to run for governor. And I just look back at them and shake MY head and say why aren’t you more pissed off?
But you know that’s really a silly question. They aren’t pissed off because they’re proud survivors. They come from the kind of hard place I can’t even begin to imagine. They found their way out of that place together, believed in each other, worked harder and with more determination than anyone I’ve ever known. There were hundreds of times in the 50 years they’ve been together when they almost lost it all. When they weren’t sure where the next meal was coming from or how they were going to heat the house or pay the mortgage or fix the broken down car in the driveway. And in recent years, they’ve both looked cancer straight in the eye and said not so fast you son-of-a-bitch and beat it back. They look at what they’ve got...a modest home that’s finally paid for, a house that's surrounded by trees in the yard that my mom’s “daddy” planted for her 2 years before he died. They have two grandkids that live next door and who are completely in love with them and who visit them every day. They have two daughters that adore them. They've got their health. And damn, they’ve SO got each other.
Whenever I'm in tough spot, my father will say Darl, fall down seven times, stand up eight. And when I need some perspective, I always think of that. And of them. Adversity is nothing to my parents. It’s a way of life and they aren't afraid of it, at all. I'm so incredibly proud of them for that. Against seemingly unbeatable odds, they’ve not just survived...they’ve managed, in spite of everything, to live out their values and to be happy. If I have any strength within me, any kind of resilience at all, I don’t have to look too far to figure out where it comes from.
I just go to that little five acre lot in Shapleigh.
I just go home.