I'm the first one to admit back in the day Billy Joel's music rocked my world and I embraced it with all my teenage heart. He got my attention with lyrics like "you Catholic girls start much too late", songs like "We Didn't Light The Fire" and most of all "My Life". As a teen about to jump straight out of high school into the real world of college and work I struggled to have my life, to be the me I was within and yearned to be rather than the 'me' my parents saw and wanted me to be.
Now I'm all grown up and I often think about my life - where it is, how it got to this point and most of all how I bucked against the odds and expectations.
Our blue collar working class neighborhood equaled the world to us in my childhood. Those narrow streets lined with tired, worn houses provided shelter and a familiar refuge. We often shopped at the small markets within a few block radius, went to school, to church, and to our relatives, most of which lived within the same area. St. Joseph’s Hospital – known in the ‘hood and community as “Sisters” – was where I was born and where the old folks went to die.
Growing up there my life seemed destined to follow a particular path. I’d grow up, go to the same high school my mother attended, graduate, maybe attend the local college or get a white collar job as a secretary like my mother did, and get married to a boy from the neighborhood. He’d work at the brewery a few blocks away, the same one with the whistle everyone used to keep track of time. Or maybe he’d work at the packing house like my dad did or another factory or at Quaker Oats or if he were really a go-getter, he might become a postman like my uncle.
I’d work, maybe in a nice office somewhere or if not, I’d be a waitress or sew hatbands onto men’s hats at the same sweatshop where my grandma worked. Or I could wash the hospital’s dirty laundry including the priest’s smalls like my Granny. If we could, maybe I’d be able to quit work when the inevitable kids came and if not, they’d go to Granny’s just like I did from the age of two months until school began for me. The years would pass, the kids would grow and I’d get old, living the same lifestyle that nurtured me. I’d go from girl to Granny myself in a few decades but it would be the natural order of things, the way of it all.
Except I never quite fit the pattern. Somehow from birth I was never quite the perfect little girl with ringlet curls and sweet demeanor my mother expected and as I grew up, I dreamed of another life, somewhere else and something different. My Granny, who’d once been a telephone operator with dreams of her own, encouraged me to pursue writing and I promised I would. She and my great-aunt Mae both urged me to stay in school, to get all the education I could. Everything shifted when the packing house closed and my father reinvented his career from necessity. We moved away from the home neighborhood, to another part of the same state and a place as alien to me as the back side of the moon. There I stood out, with my different ways and failed to fit any more than I did at home.
In that quintessential small town the expectations weren’t much different than back in the neighborhood but once again, I broke tradition. When I went away to college, I studied journalism and had no plans to become a secretary. After I earned my degree I went to work in broadcast radio, not an office and started writing with serious intent. My life suffered a lot of bumps along the road, lost jobs, frequent change in plans, different significant others who came and went but I stuck to the dream of writing.
In time I married my current husband, had children and got serious. With twin infant daughters, living in a mobile home tethered in the Ozark forest on the top of a rocky ridge, using a computer my brother rescued from the dumpster at his employer, I began to write my “first” real novel. We moved from that first dinky trailer, a hand me down from my brother-in-law’s broken marriage to a new one with more space and as I wrote, I stared out into the woods, my dreams intact.
After a devastating ice storm five years ago, we moved again and bought a house in what passes for the suburbs in a small town, on the edge of civilization on what used to be a huge orchard and fruit farm. And I got even more serious and kept spinning out my stories, never giving up until I sold the first novel, the second, and so forth.
Now I work harder and for longer hours than I ever have in my life to keep what I’ve begun going forward. I may have left the old neighborhood behind but it lives within me, baggage that serves me well. Along with the teachings of my family members, especially my Granny, I have the stubborn, fighting spirit that brought me here to keep me moving into the future.
Girls from my old neighborhood, from my rough river rat hometown aren’t supposed to grow up and write novels. My mother still can’t accept that it has and is happening to me. It can’t, you see, not to her daughter, not from the old neighborhood. But my other kin, my cousins rally around me with support and folks from the old hometown love my success because it is also their own.
Without them all I couldn’t be where I am but if I were there, I probably wouldn’t be here.