Wednesday, February 8, 2012

From Whence I Come

A friend unintentionally offended me recently. In response to my statement that “I’m still just a country boy from Tennessee,” she smirked and said, “If you ever really were that, you lost it a long time ago when you became rich and accustomed to the finer things in life.”
Let’s get something straight. I ain’t rich. Not even by Obama’s ridiculous standard. My day job is running a small consulting business that barely squeaks by in this economy. My partner is an IT manager who has to travel more than he stays home. Our home is in an affluent neighborhood only because we bought the worst house on the block and restored it mostly with our own sweat, blood, and two knee operations.
We cannot afford “people” to do things for us. Unlike most of our neighbors, I mow an acre of grass, blow the snow, and plant and tend my own flowers. We dine out maybe once a month. We take one vacation a year. The last one was a trip to Naples. Florida, that is. And our biggest nod to excess is the cleaning lady who comes once every two weeks.
Those are our finer things in life.
Don’t misunderstand me. We are extremely fortunate and blessed to live a life that some might envy. But we don’t for one moment minimalize that or take it for granted.
But I was still offended. I haughtily told my friend that this country boy earned every damned thing he’s ever accomplished while remaining true to his roots.
My older sister died of leukemia when I was four. It would take my parents over ten years to pay off the enormous debt from her medical bills. But they paid every penny with interest, never even contemplating a convenient bankruptcy.
Somehow, they also managed to find the money to build a little white-frame two-bedroom house on land my grandfather gave them. For the first year, we used an outdoor toilet and took baths in a big washtub because they couldn’t yet afford to have a cesspool dug and hooked up for the single bathroom. They spent the money for that on digging a well so we could have running water.
My father was a foreman in a furniture factory. When my two younger brothers were old enough to enter school, my mother took an assembly line job in the same place. It took their combined incomes to feed us, buy our clothes on layaway at J.C. Penney and Sears, and occasionally splurge on twenty-five cent hamburgers at the one McDonald’s in our town.
When it became time for me to go to college, I got a midnight-shift job working as a desk clerk in a motel that catered to truck drivers. I took classes and naps during the day and studied all night. And boy, did I get an education in both places.
It was cheaper to get a tiny off-campus apartment than live in a dorm. I paid $107.50 per month in rent. After all the other bills, I had $30 left over for two weeks worth of groceries. The only thing that kept me from starving was the care packages I’d get every weekend from home.
At my busiest time, I worked three jobs and still worried constantly that I wouldn’t have enough for the next semester’s tuition. An angel by the name of Dr. Richard Joel headed the advertising department at my college. He somehow knew when I didn’t have enough money and came up with miraculous “scholarships” in the form of three or four hundred dollars at a time. Sometimes I knew the source of this money, sometimes I didn’t. I was told not to ask questions, just to take it and keep making him proud. He’s dead now but I still love that man.
Maybe the biggest mistake I made at the time was taking a speech class designed to teach southerners how to speak without an accent. I figured it would make me look less like a hillbilly if I landed a big ad agency job in New York or Chicago. Well, I ended up in Cleveland running the marketing department for a shopping mall developer. And interestingly, as I grow older, the accent is gradually returning—especially after a glass or two of wine.
So do I tell you all this to play the martyr? Or to defend living in a nice house? Or to somehow beg for your respect and admiration?
None of the above.
My friend hurt my feelings, that’s all. Because I have never forgotten who I am or where I came from. I had good, honest, hard-working parents who consistently told me that I could do or be anything I want if I worked for it and believed in myself.
They were right.
Which makes me proud to say that I am still just a country boy from Tennessee who also happens to write sentimental and steamy gay romance stories with happy endings.
Hey, I’m proud of that too.
And from time to time with this new blog, maybe I’ll occasionally say something interesting.