Maybe it’s just me, but I’m sure it’s not, but there seems to be that one person you always run into. There was a family of six that I would always run into at the Laundromat. I went at 7 a.m. Sunday mornings, the time they opened. It nearly killed me at times, but it was the only time I could really set aside to get laundry done. The nice thing about Laundromats is that all the clothes are washed at the same time and you can dry it all at the same time. There are plenty of machines to go around.
But there was a family there each time I was there which sticks in my mind. It was a mother and father and four young boys, probably between the ages of 4 and 10.
These children were so well behaved that I can never forget it. They sat on the bench, they talked quietly. They never ran around, they never whined. They behaved. The way it should be.
I don’t think the parents and I ever spoke, but we “knew” each other enough to know which machines and dryers we each used and we respected the space we each used.
Sophia was one of those people, like this family, who I would run into quite a bit.
Sophia was a woman I would see in various classes I took as I worked on my master’s degree. She also was taking classes for hers as well. We knew each other as classmates but I really got to know her better when we were paired up for a class project as part of a group.
Sophia was an anomaly in my life. She was everything I had hoped existed somewhere in this God-forsaken world. She was musical. I loved music. She loved to read. I love to read. She loved to write. I wanted to write. She loved to try new things. I was open to anything—if it wasn’t for the constant monotony, I would have no life. Sophia was organized. She was professional. Everyone wanted to be just like her! I wanted to be like her. This is what I want to be when I grow up—Sophia!
This was so exciting—I had not lost my mind! There were actual human beings in this world who did all of these wonderful things like read books and listened to music. I was no longer a freak of nature. She could back me up! And on her it worked. There was hope for me yet.
Sophia was the eldest of six children, the only one to have attended college. She had a deal with her parents—if her siblings wanted to go to college, she would help pay their way. The parents had paid for her education and this was how she was going to repay them.
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” I said. “They’re not your children.”
“Oh, I think it’s very fair,” she said. “After all, I was the eldest. The least I could do is help them with the younger ones. Fortunately, none of them wanted to attend college. But if one day they do, I will honor my promise to my parents.”
See? She’s different!! Who would do something like that?
Her family was very close. They celebrated everything together. A birthday was a family dinner. When one of the children was going to prom, everyone went to the school to watch the grand march. If one of them was in a sport event or a school concert, most of them would attend. Definitely the grandparents, several of the aunts and several of the cousins would be in attendance. They supported each other and stuck together. That’s what family is about, isn’t it?
At least that’s what I’ve seen on television.
But the one thing that struck me as odd about Sophia’s family is that her family didn’t worship her as much as other people did. Everyone loved Sophia and truly admired her. People wanted to be her, not just me. But with her immediate family, she isn’t the star. And this became painfully obvious to me when she won a scholarship to take a sabbatical and study in Europe for a year.
Europe! As in across the ocean to the continent Europe!
I would offer up a major body part and possibly kill someone for the chance to go to Europe. But to spend an entire year there? I couldn’t breathe. I was breaking out in a cold sweat. And it wasn’t even happening to me!
After we had both earned our master’s degree, Sophia kept taking classes on various subjects. She earned enough credits to become endorsed to teach foreign language. The school where she was teaching needed someone to teach Spanish, so she taught a course of that. As she added more to her studies, and the student enrollment grew, she began teaching more courses in Spanish. Then she added French to her studies and to her teaching load. As I said, she’s an amazing woman.
Who has the stamina to take a three-hour course at night after a full day of work, not to mention caring for a family on top of that? I couldn’t handle a 75-minute class in the evening and I had no real responsibility other than putting up with my mother. Due to her age and just for convenience more than anything, I was still living at home. I did the yard work, she did most of the cooking. Neither one of us did much house cleaning. I come from a long line of slobs, I admit it. It was just easier to not have anyone come to the house for a visit.
But Sophia worked very hard as a teacher, continuing her education—everything she touched turned to gold. Everyone she worked with and associated with was always impressed by her. Her parents? Her siblings? They had absolutely no interest in what she did. It didn’t bother Sophia in the least. How could it not? It annoyed me and I barely knew her family.
She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just the way they are.”
“OK,” I replied, more than a little confused. “Which is what? How?”
“It’s not just them, it’s everyone in this area.”
I wasn’t sure I fully understood where she was going with this. This area where we were living was known for its heavy industry, in particular, steel mills. Years ago you could quit school at 16, get a job in the mills, put your 30 years in and retire. The workers had good high-paying jobs and a cushy retirement. During the 1980s the steel industry went into a steep decline with cheap imports of steel from Japan. Keep in mind the Japanese steel mills were built after the devastation of World War II. The steel mills in the Calumet Region were built around the turn of the 20th century. They were old, inefficient, and took several men to run. The more modern, efficient mills in Japan didn’t need that many people to work. So men lost their jobs and the future of the steel industry as well as the Region became very bleak. The workplace now had a very different look. Computerization of the steel-making process meant a worker would need a college degree. No more high school dropouts were needed and the high-paying jobs they could rely on were going to college grads.
And if you’re going to the effort to go to college—why would you want to work in a filthy, dangerous steel mill when you could earn more money working in a nice, cushy office?
So while this scenario of high paying-low skill jobs was no longer the case and hadn’t been for nearly 30 years, the mentality still existed. While I dreamed about travelling to, or even living in, New York City and Europe, the rest of the local yokels couldn’t wait for the next three-day weekend to drive home to Kentucky or Alabama or Mississippi where the rest of their kinfolk lived. They were called “down homers”—they’d drive 14 hours down home, stay for 36 (most of which was spent sleeping), then drive the 14 hours back home.
I couldn’t relate. We were from Chicago and had no “kin” left up there, so I could never fully appreciate this quaint little ritual.
But, in a way, that was exactly what Sophia meant. She was very patient with me as she tried to explain her family and their behavior. “People who live around here do not value a higher education or opportunities to better themselves,” she explained. “But I do. I had students who would earn full, four-year scholarships to prestigious universities, and they never finish. They usually are back home within six weeks.”
“None of them graduate?” I exclaimed. “As a teacher, aren’t you supposed to push higher education?”
“Oh, yes, and that’s why it’s maddening. But it’s the leaving-the-herd mentality.”
She went on to explain, but it turns out I did understand the concept, I had just never given it a name. Many families in this area are very close knit, and most are first generation (if that) high school graduates. Once a person turns 18 or graduates, then it’s time to get a job, or get married, but either way you had to get out of the house and support yourself. That’s what their parents did, that’s what their grandparents did before them, and by God, this new generation, the ones who were Sophia’s students, were going to do it as well. Most of the children lived in the same town as their parents. Few members of the family rarely traveled farther south than the county seat, and even fewer to the next county. They were physically as well as mentally close.
“In fact,” Sophia explained, “I have cousins who live in the next county but my siblings have never visited their home or have even seen them in 20 years because of where they live.”
“What, do they think they’ll need passports?” I asked. She laughed.
“They must. But any place that involves an interstate for travel, they won’t go.”
“So where do they go on vacation?”
She shook her head. “They don’t. They stay home. The husbands will go to Tennessee to hunt or fish, but my sisters stay home. They’ll visit our folks, play with their grandkids. They have no interest in anything outside of this area.”
Sophia found herself outside the herd when she left for college. Even though she lived within two miles of her entire family since her graduation, she left the herd to go to school downstate. And even though that’s what her parents wanted, deep down they really didn’t. Going to college meant she was better than them. Not that she ever lorded over them or made them feel bad, but they knew in their hearts she was better than they. And to go to Europe? On purpose? No, they couldn’t take that. For everyone else it was a dream come true, for them, it was a waste of time and money.
Like there was so much here in the state of Denial. I mean, Indiana.
And I can’t entirely blame them or Sophia. My mother was the same way. Why go anywhere—you’re risking a plane crash. Or a car accident. You can be killed here at home so don’t waste your money. And what would happen to me if you died?
Well, if I’m dead then it’s not my problem, now is it?
And do we really have to wonder why I’m not married? I don’t leave the house. We never have guests. We never go anywhere and consequently I have no social skills. So how the hell would I ever meet a man unless he happed to walk up and knock on the door?
The never-ending refrain and cycle of rhetorical questioning. Stop the world—I really want to get off.