Working class

My paternal grandfather worked the grounds at a country club. I imagine the patrons of said country club going about their day – playing golf, swimming, dining, drinking cocktails – all the while ignoring my grandfather as he toiled beneath the sun, skin browned from outdoor labor, hands calloused from hard work. My parents and I would drive down the winding, tree-lined streets of this town, lavish homes behind lavish gates, only a sliver of sky visible above the vast greenery. I wondered who lived in those homes. What did they do? How did they acquire so much wealth? Did they ever speak to or acknowledge my grandfather?

There were two things that my paternal grandmother wanted more than anything. The first was to go to school and the second was to marry her first love. Neither wish came true. Her parents were poor farmers and they needed all of their children to work. My grandmother cried when they pulled her out of elementary school to tend to the farm. She would tell me this story over and over again, encourage me to get an education. I tell this story to my kindergartener now – “Your great-grandmother wasn’t allowed to go to school. Millions of children around the world are unable to go to school. You are so fortunate to have the opportunity.” Does he get it? I doubt it, but it’s an important story for me to pass down. My paternal grandmother fell in love but she wasn’t able to marry him because her older sister had to get married first. He went to fight in World War II and never came home. Her parents arranged for her to marry my paternal grandfather. My grandmother would tell me: “They put me on a boat and I arrived in Argentina and was married to your grandfather.” They were a terrible fit. They had an unhappy marriage and even an unhappier separation. She refused to divorce him, even as he lay dying from lung cancer. Catholics don’t get divorced. My entire childhood I heard two lessons on repeat – never marry someone you don’t love, education is a gift. When I think of my paternal grandmother, I think of regret.

My paternal grandmother worked until well into her 70s. She worked in a convenience store – minimum wage. Storing money away for what? A rainy day? She hoarded items in her small basement apartment. You never knew what you might need. I think of well-to-do women in their 70s who go to brunch and do water aerobics and get their nails done. These luxuries might as well have been a foreign currency for my grandmother.

My maternal grandfather died shortly after I was born. Colon cancer. “From the war”, my mother would say. But was it from the war? Or was it genetic? Who knows where the cancer came from. My maternal grandfather was captured during the war and, after months in captivity, all he wanted was a peaceful life. A quiet life. The only way I knew him was through the photograph that my mom kept tucked away in a kitchen cupboard. How hard it must have been for my mother to lose her father when she was in her 20s.

My maternal grandmother was a firecracker. She was ambitious, stern and short on compliments. She would tell my mom, the youngest of three daughters, that she was too thin, too ugly, that she should spend less time “in the streets” (my mother was going to college) and more time at home. That she needed to get married and have kids. She softened in old age. When I feed my infants, I see my grandmother’s toothless mouth, mashing at her food. “Don’t worry about me,” she would tell my mom, in her last years of life. “Take care of your family. I’m okay.”

“One person’s just do it is another person’s Mount Everest.” I forgot where I read that, but I think of it often. If you grew up wealthy, it’s easy to envision wealth. It’s easy to take a chance on a start-up venture, spend months ruminating on what your next career move should be, job-hop and hope for the best. If you grew up poor, all of that seems like a wild gamble.

My husband and I have done “well”. We were fortunate to have two parents each who loved us, provided stable households, and invested what they could into our education. We both attended Ivy League colleges. My husband started working after college and I completed medical school. But we don’t have the same comfort level as our wealthy friends. Success, to us, is not a guarantee. We know much of it has been luck. We also know that money can be lost as quickly as it was obtained. We don’t have a familial safety net. There is no trust fund at the other end of the rainbow, there is no inheritance awaiting us. The next step is our journey is to support our parents as they grow older. This is our reality.

All of this to say that we have never joined a country club. I wouldn’t even know how to act. I hate having people work in our home or wait on us. It makes me feel awkward. I want them to know that I come from a long lineage of hard workers – that there is no job that is “beneath me”. Recently, an influencer got into hot water for (among other things) describing her cleaning woman as “[the person who] scrubs my toilets”. How demeaning. The sad thing is that I have heard other women use the same description when talking about their “help”. Why? Why do they feel the need to assert their perceived superiority? There is nothing wrong with scrubbing a toilet. I scrub my own toilets when needed, and I would scrub other people’s toilets if it meant I could provide a livelihood for myself.

As a mother, I hope that my children, despite the relative privilege they have been afforded, are able to stay grounded and retain perspective.

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