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.

The worst date I ever had

The worst date I ever had was in my early 20s. It was even worse than that one first date where, within 10 minutes, this particular gem told me that he didn’t drink alcohol because he was a recovered alcoholic and, by the way, he was married.

I had been dating someone for approximately one year. It was essentially a long-distance relationship since he ended school one year earlier than I did. Perhaps this is why it lasted a year – we had a brief honeymoon period in college and the following summer, then spent most of the year shuttling back and forth, but not necessarily doing the day to day drudgery of dating life. So it never got old…until it did.

I was finally moving to the same city – hurrah! I was so excited, and assumed he must be as well. I distinctly recall making a reservation at a well-known steakhouse recommended to me by one of my best friends, who’s father was in the meat industry. This is probably a good place to mention that I am a vegetarian. So, in essence, I was setting up a date at a place I would never step into by my own volition, because I knew how much this guy liked meat, and I wanted one of our first dates in the city – our city – to be special.

The dinner was very awkward. He was more reticent than usual, and I had a feeling something was going on, but wasn’t quite sure what. At the end of the dinner, he managed to spit it out: this wasn’t working, he didn’t feel the same way he had, I deserved better, blah blah blah.

I was shocked. Time felt like it had stopped. I couldn’t believe my ears.

In retrospect, our relationship had very little substance and mostly involved drinking and hanging out with his friends, but I was in my early 20s which resulted in my being completely shocked that two completely incompatible people weren’t going to result in forever. After the shock, came sadness and anger. I remember standing outside of the restaurant trying to fight back tears – I couldn’t believe what was happening. I recall him stumbling over his words, not really sure what to say and I’m sure just dying to escape from this awkward situation.

It’s funny, the details are so fuzzy now, but at the time it felt like the world was ending.

I remember crying all of the way to the subway. Fortunately, one of my best friends was hanging out in the city and I called her to meet me at the train so that we could ride home together. She later told me that I was crying so hard she could barely hear a word I said, but knew it had to be bad.

And that was our breakup. I never quite had the closure I wanted but time slowly erased the need for closure. His best friend told me that was just the way he was, she was sorry. His sister told me she liked me better without him. And one day, many months later, we met for a drink. I don’t recall the details of that meeting so well, but we had a nice conversation and it overall ended on a good note, although I never received any straightforward answer as to why he had broken up with me.

Years later, I found out that he was an alcoholic. In reality, he was an alcoholic when we dated but we were in college and drinking irresponsibly didn’t exactly raise any red flags during that time. He faced some significant medical problems as a result of his alcoholism and years later died quite young. I still don’t know the exact cause of death (I never felt like it was my place to pry) but I do hope that his family and friends have the closure they deserve, as they are all wonderful people, as was he. He did me a favor when he broke up with me, by ending a relationship between two utterly incompatible people before I felt ready to do so. At the time, I didn’t see this, but now it is clear as day.

The point of this story is this: hindsight is 20/20. The worst date, the worst day, the worst event of your life may, in certain cases, be blurred into just another story on a page by the slow passage of time.