Chapter One, How I Got That Way, Part 3

Not all lefties are political

Unlike Jackie and me, my sister’s grades were average and she did not attend college until after her children were grown. She attributes her failure to shine scholastically to the fact that she is intensely left-handed. In fact, in our immediate family, only my mother and I were not left-handed—another factor that contributed to my feeling shut out. If we were going to be in groups, I wanted to be in a group with anyone but my mother. So left-handed was my father that the guitar I inherited from him still springs out of tune occasionally, from having been strung backwards for so long before I got it and had the bridge and nut re-cut for normal stringing. The left/right dichotomy also figured into my development in that it caused a few fights, revealing just how close to the surface, at any given time, was unexpressed anger.

Our kitchen was so tiny that all of us could only fit around the dinner table at the same time if lefties were not seated next to righties, causing dueling elbows. Seats were assigned and there was no changing them. This arrangement had to include planning, as well, so that the refrigerator door never had to be opened during dinner, requiring the lefties to all shuffle down the hall to make room for it. Should that happen, the tension that boiled around our every meal could explode on a dime into a scene that featured everyone but me screaming while I cowered under the table or dived out the back door and ran to the wash-house.

Either my sister or my brother could sit next to Daddy, or near the quick escape provided by the back door, but I never could. The importance of this decreased later on, since my brother left home at 16, when I was only six, and my sister contrived to be absent from dinner as much as possible when she got old enough. The leftie/rightie problem only surfaced then on Sundays and holidays after Audrey got married to a rightie and seating assignments had to be reshuffled when they visited.

Audrey, apparently unlike Jackie, received no special indulgence at school for being left-handed. Since some key family decisions affecting me were inspired by a desire to prevent me from following her negative example, I have wondered how much of her negative example stemmed from her frustrations around being left-handed. When she was a child, every effort was made to convince lefties that they were righties and their left-handedness was only obstinance, with which my sister was abundantly supplied to start with. She tells of having her pencil removed from her left hand and placed in her right and being punished if she put it back. It is easy to imagine how this might slow you down, even if you came to school already reading and writing. But, I attribute much of her trouble to the combination of her handedness with her gender, knowing full well that, in our world at that time, a left-handed boy genius, who would be seen as a potential asset during the war, was surely treated with more patience than a left-handed girl genius, who would not have been seen as such an asset during the war or after it or, ever.

She is, however, the most artistic of the three of us—if you don’t count music as art–and faced down her husband and her parents as an adult to take a correspondence art course. I remember the fights. She was also the most courageous, if you don’t mind confusing courage with dare-devilment. She terrified me with the chances she took, not to mention the danger she led me into when she was supposed to be watching out for me. From various of my childhood hiding places, I would view her with alarm, resolving that, when I was old enough, I would never tempt fate as she did and would thereby, hopefully, avoid some of the pain, psychological and physical, to which her adventures led her.

I resolved that I would be like my brother in that I would go to college but, unlike him, I would make a plan for my life in high school and then follow it doggedly. So much for plans. Here’s to John Lennon, born the same day as me, who famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”

The Great Depression

A major historical influence on our family, and therefore on me, was the Great Depression. I did not experience it directly and my siblings did only as young children, but what my parents went through scarred them for life.  How it influenced me is that it is the reason I was born in the north rather than the south, a circumstance that condemned me forever to being the Yankee in the family. It doesn’t sound like much to people not descended from Southerners going back hundreds of years, but there was never a family reunion I attended where I was not pointed out by my more obstreperous cousins as “the Yankee.” It was a handy label for anyone wishing to tease me, including my siblings.

My brother and sister in Cleveland before I was born.

My brother and sister in Cleveland before I was born.

My family was in Cleveland because of the Depression, during which my older siblings were born, and which had a major influence on all of us through the psychological scars it left on my parents. They had fled from Ft. Green, near Wauchula, where both my siblings were born, with their two small children, looking for a decent job for my father, who had been north before, working as a merchant seaman on the Great Lakes and, briefly, as a steelworker in Detroit.

They became part of a migration of southerners who left the South for the same reason, to find work, southern ex-patriots who are described in the book and TV play “The Dollmaker.”* My mother told me she was highly inspired to move us away from the railroad tracks we lived next to in Cleveland when I was born because of the little girl character in that book who was killed when she was lured onto the tracks by her invisible playmate and struck by a train. I had had an invisible playmate as well, whom everyone in the family, for some strange reason, remembers vividly. Although I have no memory of the place by the railroad tracks, other than the auditory train hallucinations I experienced 15 years later as a college sophomore, I do remember the playmate. As an adult, I have speculated that “Jeannie Marie” was a ghost. If so, she was attached to me, not the place by the railroad tracks, because she moved with us to Hood Avenue. In any case, we may have her to thank for inspiring my parents to “move on up” to the better neighborhood.

Because my parents had such memories of what life is like when you cannot find a job, there was only one goal in their minds for their children and that was that they find and keep good jobs and/or marry good jobs. They objected to my sister’s marriage to a Marine, then of low rank, because he was both a Yankee, the worst kind, from New York City, and because he was raised a Catholic. But, the biggest objection was that he would never amount to much, financially, if he stayed in the Marine Corps. They never forsaw that he would end up an officer.

They did not object to my brother going to college after he got out of the Navy, partially financed by the GI Bill, but my father was completely mystified as to why he majored in Literature. What kind of “real” job could he possibly get with that? Teaching was the only thing my father could imagine and well did my father know that teachers made much less than unionized millworkers. Much better that Jackie should get a degree in engineering.

My parents initially objected to my going to college, because in order to do that, I would have to leave what they considered the best job open to me until I could find a husband—as a clerk-typist for a land title company. The idea that my job prospects might increase with a college degree was completely beyond their ken and if they had been able to imagine it, they would have considered such a plan far too risky. My financial security was surely to stick with the mind-numbing job and climb up as far as I could until I could land a husband with a “good job.”

It was only when I, as so many women of that generation did, pointed out that my chances of finding a husband with good job prospects increased greatly if I were searching for him at college rather than “around here,” that they ended their ferocious campaign to obstruct my college education. Then, they did drive me to college in Georgia. They also paid my dorm fee at FSU the following year, even though I had been expelled from the Georgia college. After my expulsion from FSU, however, I was on my own, completely on my own. When I asked to borrow money to finance a job-seeking venture to Miami and said I was asking for the least amount I could, $50, my mother’s response was, “Oh, I know you’ll milk us for all you can get.” Spoiled college brat, me? Don’t think so.

When I did find a husband, a Jewish husband who would soon graduate from the Wharton School of Business and planned to go to law school, his good prospects came to outweigh their objection to his being both a Yankee and a Jew. From their point of view, although my religious mother grieved over my plan to convert, I would never go hungry. Whatever I may have abandoned that came to me from my family, one thing I retained was that depression-era fear that there might not be enough food. It stood me in good stead on the homestead when I dropped out. I was miles ahead of most of the urban refugees in that I had watched food being grown in my backyard my whole life. Although I can never claim to have grown much more food than a few servings of greens, one of my deepest goals was to become as self-sufficient as possible in terms of growing my own food for my family. The idea, the example, the fear–it was a direct inheritance from my parents’ experience of the depression. One might say with some truth that I was impacted by the depression, by the poor folks’ view of the depression, even though I was born several years after it ended.

*The book is by Henriette Simpson Arnow, 1954 and the TV movie won an Emmy for Jane Fonda. The similarity of the author’s name to my own maiden name, Arnold, makes me wonder if that is not what inspired my mother to read the book.

© Jentri Anders, 2016


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