I just finished The Third Plate by Dan Barber, and though I’d like to be able to reflect on that, what’s on my mind right now (aside from the possibility that white supremacist Steve Bannon is the most influential voice in American politics at the moment) is the introduction and the first chapter or so that I audiobooked of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It sparked a conversation with my husband about where we grew up, what we inherited in our culture, why we left and what changed in us, and why our relatives who stayed behind feel the way they do and thus voted for who they voted for.
To be certain, the Appalachian Scots-Irish are not my people, and the violence and instability that Vance talks about so far do not ring true with my experience of the rural East. The heavily Pennsylvania Dutch town where I grew up, though, does absolutely have that sort of clannish-ness. And the same deep drug problems. But I never saw it as a positive thing. I never felt like I really belonged to the Pennsylvania Dutch, and I wasn’t taught to believe that I belonged to them, either. My parents may have actively rejected the culture, even. They didn’t inherit the consonant-heavy accent that all four of my grandparents had, and they didn’t socialize with anyone in town. I would hear vitriolic stories of old Pennsylvania Dutchmen with limited vocabularies or unintelligible accents, and I was told how the townspeople rejected changes, even those that would improve the overall quality of their lives, such as a turnpike exit or a festival celebrating local history. (Of course, I was also not shown how to support these changes myself, or how to enact them.) I was taught that my town was a cesspool that needed to be evacuated.
Or was I?
In an awkward, strained conversation I had with my father, who’d moved out near Lancaster soon after the divorce, my nearly-complete English major came up. He asked me, “Are you going to teach the ignorant Dutch kids?” There was irony in his question, overtly hinting at his belief that the area was completely and utterly hopeless in its lack of intellectual ability. I bared some verbal fangs when I said no, I was planning to get a master’s degree, maybe even a Ph.D., and do lofty academia, simultaneously rejecting the idea that I would ever come back to my hometown, and that I would only amount to a teacher after being told I was smarter than everyone else in town, including some of the teachers.
But his question presupposed, without irony, that I wasn’t going to move far away. Despite his condemnation of the Pennsylvania Dutch, he’d assumed I’d stay in the Lehigh Valley. And as I write this, I realize that I myself was dismayed several years before when I’d learned he moved a 90 minute drive away from my brother and I.
Similarly, when I talk to my grandmother on the phone, she asks when I’m coming home. My brother, who never aspired to have the type of desk job to which a college education channels the constructively-minded, takes in a handsome pay as a steamfitter. He constantly references backroads I’d long forgotten, colloquial names of landmarks that I’d never learned, and people I’ve never met whose families have lived in the area for generations. I tried for years to convince him to downsize his belongings and get an apartment, but he and his wife bought an historic farmhouse made in the same vein as our childhood home, dark-wooded and with plenty of space for their belongings and potential future children.
Our social circles were different, though, and they helped to reinforce these ideas in us. His friends throughout school mostly stayed local, working in trades, security, retail, and other fields that don’t require a college education, or just a degree from the community college. His singular way of speaking is undoubtedly reinforced by the time he spends around older tradesmen on the construction sites. Lots of them, after all, are Pennsylvania Dutch and share the same familiarity with the area.
My social circle, on the other hand, tended to have more outsiders, or at least people who wanted out. Here, a friend who went to a Catholic elementary school who never batted an eye at driving 45 minutes in search of entertainment. There, musically-talented kids with Italian and Syrian surnames. The boyfriend-turned-husband descended from working-class Philly area Irish Catholics – he embraced and even embellished his outsider status. Most of them went to private or prestigious colleges, moved to completely different regions of the country, or both. When I go back to my hometown, I can visit my family, or I can get together with the one friend who fell in love with Philadelphia but who intentionally moved back in order to bring local, sustainable agriculture to the area. Or I can drive to Philadelphia to see my college friends.
Anyway, back to J.D. Vance and the frustrations of rural working-class. My own mother seems thrilled that, at 30 years old, I have surpassed the expectations she had for herself when she was my age. But she never bought into my hometown’s culture, and I think many people did, and it was a rude awakening when their children grew up, moved away, and changed their culture and values. Of course we were going to change and elevate our expectations. We rent little apartments in cities instead of buying houses in the country far away from our jobs. After the rash of foreclosures, we see mortgages as burdens, not assets. We spend our money at new Korean restaurants instead of on soggy wings from the local hotel restaurant. We take spinning classes in chain gyms with shiny facilities instead of local warehouses that were converted to independent fitness studios designed for practicality instead of aesthetics. We buy our cleaning supplies from Amazon instead of driving to the Walmart two towns away. We bring microbrews and lavender mead to family picnics. We run on the new rails-to-trails cutting through town, training for races when we go back home. We question why a discussion about a coworker includes information on their race or religion or orientation when it doesn’t seem relevant to the story, and we use newer, different terms for race, religion, or orientation when it is relevant, and we don’t think those jokes are funny anymore. If our parents wanted us to succeed, didn’t they realize that this was the cost?
And for those that stayed, some are doing well with their degrees from the local state college and their jobs in the schools or at rehabilitation centers. They’ll probably stay in town where the cost of home ownership is low, and they’ll keep commuting to their jobs. But lots of kids from our high school are slowly dying from heroin addiction. If our parents aren’t losing us one way, they’re often losing us another way.
I don’t know why or how the opioid epidemic hit my hometown so badly, but I know it was there long before we started talking about it on a national level and calling it a crisis. In high school, it was no secret that the kids who perpetually hung around on Main Street or in front of the corner store were addicts, or were well on their way to addiction. For those of us that left, it was often a catalyst – we didn’t want to see it every time we drove through town or stopped for a gallon of milk. Like the crumbling sidewalk or the storefronts with dusty “for rent” signs in their windows, they were a blight. And maybe some of us, deep down, were afraid we might be staring into our own futures. So we ran as far away as we possibly could.
Our parents told us we were on a sinking ship, and they handed us a life preserver in the form of education and the promise of good jobs, and they told us to swim for safety. And now they alone remain, witness to the sidewalks and signs and addiction and loss and decay, or to the unfamiliar faces who are now serving drinks at the newly-renamed corner bars or opening yoga studios that will shut their doors in a few months when they can’t rally enough community support. If our parents are to be upset about the deterioration of small towns like my hometown, so be it, but they should also examine how they contributed to its downward acceleration when they failed in their words and actions to give us a reason to stay.