For a couple of decades, I have been working on a memoir of my parents. Not steadily of course. Sometime a year or two would go by without my touching it. Now it’s done, and we are preparing it for publication.
As it took shape, I saw that I couldn’t explain my mother’s behavior without explaining her mother’s behavior, and her mother’s behavior didn’t make sense unless I told about her mother, my maternal great-grandmother (b. 1857). That woman was at the root of all my mother’s problems.
Her name was Hannah Oliphant. She and her sister were orphans. At the age of twelve they were put into service scrubbing pots and pans with sand in a place much like Downton Abbey. It was called Brayton Hall and was on England’s border with Scotland.
Then I learned that on my father’s side, I had to go back to his grandfather (b. 1832), another orphan who grew up being shifted from one neighbor to another. In his early teens, he ran off and went West.
As if all that weren’t enough, I discovered my parents’ stories made sense only in relation to the larger story of the emergence of the much maligned American middle class. So I changed the title from Hunting for the Plot to Private Lives and the Big Picture: Rednecks, Immigrants, and the Making of the American Middle Class. That class, as we think of it today, began coming into existence in the late 1800s as more and more people moved from farms and small towns into cities. In the 1920s, it assumed the distinctive features that its supercilious critics still find offensive.
Middle class fathers are stereotyped as being cultureless, boring, bigoted, inarticulate, sexually stifled, hypocritical, and incipiently fascist. Mothers, as repressed, oppressed, and none too bright—unless they are rebelling against the patriarchy, in which case they are brilliant. This stereotyping of people based on their “middle class values” is no less unfair than the generally recognized unfairness of stereotyping people on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion. As is always the case with stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth involved, but there is also a “yugh” degree of over-simplification and distortion.
It is far easier to resent one’s parents than to understand them. I speak from experience.