Excerpt: 'Anyone Can Grow Up'

I rediscovered Jimmy, too, who was launched on a fulfilling career. He went to work at the navy depot (thanks to that inflated résumé), where my father found him a set-aside job unloading and breaking down color-coded boxes. He was sometimes taken advantage of and learned words my mother never said in her lifetime, but his boss, Rod Hagy, looked after him closely enough that the twenty years he worked there were better than we could have hoped for when he was weaving placemats. Jimmy won awards, not just the standard kind for never taking a day of sick leave, but also for coming up with ways to move boxes more efficiently. When I hear people (or myself) complain about too many handicapped spaces at Safeway, I want to tell them about Jimmy. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a godsend.

Just because my mother was happier than I'd ever seen her didn't mean she was going to let me be. Although she'd stopped asking, "Was he an altar boy?" she still insisted, "I want you at a Catholic college." The Ivy League, if my parents even knew what it was, was out of the question, but so was Penn State, my choice. It was too far away, too big, and too heathen. My mother loved pointing out that the Newman Club, where Catholics socialized and went to mass, was the tiniest building on campus. When it came time to send off applications, my mother simply neglected to mail the ones she disapproved of. I didn't find this out until I won an essay-writing contest that offered a scholarship to Penn State, which had no record that I'd applied. I hurriedly filled out the forms and went off to Penn State in a huff.

College yielded no hint that I would end up in journalism. Although I majored in English, I was too lazy to join the school paper, and although I didn't like football, I did like football parties. On weekends, I rarely cracked a textbook. I was as self-satisfied as George Bush at Yale, and about as productive, pleased with myself just for being at Penn State rather than at a convent school. Finally able to curl up with a book at any time of day or night without fear of being asked to move furniture, I got by. But Mom had a point about it being too big and too anonymous. I still get mail from my high school nuns; I doubt one professor from Penn State remembers me.

After graduation, the counterculture was roiling around me, but my boundaries were so closely drawn, I didn't have to go very far to rebel. Simply being against the war and joining the March on the Pentagon was enough to alarm my parents. Tear gas! Arrests! Would it go on my record, they wanted to know? I wasn't a trust fund kid. They didn't want me to turn my back on the Establishment before I was even in it.

Much good came out of this period — an end to the war, skepticism about government, greater tolerance for others. And that's not to mention organic food and dress-down Fridays. My ambivalence was particular to the lower middle class hoping to move into the upper middle class. My friends were questioning the values I'd grown up with, and I wanted to be part of them. But I wasn't ready to reject my parents, who celebrated those values. Indeed, the bourgeoisie looked a lot like the people I grew up with. Our neighbors answered the siren of the volunteer fire department, my father and his friends were in the military, and we had several policemen in the neighborhood. They were hardly pigs to me. My parents weren't hopelessly bourgeois, they were full of hope about becoming so.

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