Tales of a Second Grade Nothing
In September while heading east on the Lincoln Highway in the Chambersburg area, I stopped to snap photos of two gas pumps that were part of the Pump Parade. The first was at Shatzer Fruit Market in Chambersburg. It features a Chambersburg peach motif.
A little way down the road was the “Nellie Fox” pump in St. Thomas, PA outside of the Oak Forest Restaurant. I just caught this pump out of the corner of my eye, slammed on the brakes and made a U-ey to take its picture.
The parking lot where I turned around at the Oak Forest had a row of buildings lining the edge of the property. They were small, bungalow-type houses. As soon as I saw them a flood of emotion came over me. This little cluster of buildings was similar to the place where I spent the earliest part of my childhood amongst the creeps, the drunks, the dregs and those of us with families who were just a little down on their luck at the time. And this, right or wrong, consistently fills me with a burning shame.
Why? Why should I care about something that was beyond my control as a child? I mean, I have come a long way from where I started. And yet, those meager beginnings still mark me with a stain that no one but me can see.
Growing up, our little bungalow community was bussed to an elementary school that intermingled us with kids who were comfortably situated in the middle class. We shabby kids rubbed elbows with the children of doctors and lawyers. But in school, kids were kids. We were all the same… until we weren’t.
In second grade, I got to invite a few friends over to celebrate my birthday. It was the first time someone from school who didn’t live in my neighborhood came to my house. My school friend walked into our two-room bungalow and said, “this is it?!” and incredulously noted that her living room was bigger than my whole house, which was true. I am 44 years old now and the sentiment still smarts. I didn’t know there was anything “wrong” with my life until someone else told me so.
I’ve been sitting on talking about my feelings after seeing those stupid little houses for months. And I’ve wavered on the idea that maybe there would be some kind of catharsis, or that I might absolve myself of the guilt of feeling bad about growing up poor. So far? Not so much. Now, I feel like I should be ashamed of being ashamed because as crappy as it might have been, there are people who are or were worse off.
It would be nice if I could adopt the wistful-sounding attitude of my mother. She talks of drying out teabags on the radiator and reusing them and being “as poor as church mice,” as an affliction that was triumphantly overcome. And I confess, in truth it was. But clearly, for me, there is a scar.
Get off the cross, we need the wood.