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by Judith K. Witherow

You People.  Every time I hear those ignoble words used I know it isn't going
to be good.  They will always make me mentally and physically cringe.
When you hear those words from birth on, as part of your name, you know which
rung of the ladder you're standing on.
"You People should have indoor plumbing.  How can you stand that outhouse?" 
"You People need to have electricity and running water."  "Your house looks
so small.  How many of You People sleep in one bed?"  (I shared a bed with
two sisters, and in the winter our body heat was probably the only thing that
kept us from freezing to death).  "Why don't You People paint your house?" 
Gee, poverty makes you so damned dumb that none of these things ever occurs
to you.  Someone pointing them out is like a giant wake-up slap on the
We could have painted any bare wood shack we ever lived in seven different
colors, and it wouldn't have changed a thing.  Oh, people would have said,
"You People are so gaudy," but that is how much tangible difference it would
have made.  There would have been less money for food and other survival
necessities, but what the hell; it might have made us easier to look at. 
That's what it is all about isn't it?  Looks?
Not the kind of looks where someone is rolling their eyes while they are
"trying" to talk to you.  This habit is the twin of You People, and you just
want to haul out a piece of tape and hold their eyes still so they can
clearly see what you are saying.
 I'm 51 years old, and I still don't have this class thing figured out.  For
that matter, I don't know for sure whether classism or racism is worse.  Most
times I can't even figure out why I'm being treated the way I am.     
I honestly thought I could be objective writing this, but the deeper I dig
into old buried familial grief graves, the more angry and sad I become.  If
this weren't so God-awful important, I'd throw the dirt back on, but how are
we ever going to change anything unless all sides are totally truthful?
As a poor, mixed-blood Native American, raised in the northern Appalachians,
I will invite you into my life and reveal to you the sights, tastes, smells
and life-limiting experiences that you might not have been privy to. 
I want to say I know all the big words I'm using.  It's very important to me
that you know I'm not being pretentious or that these are anyone else's words
but mine. My partner Sue helps me proofread but that is the extent of the
input.  Sometimes people assume someone of my background could not be
literate.  I can't tell you how many times someone has asked me if I had
actually written a particular article. 
I hear the same thing from many family members, but for a different reason. 
The first time I showed my mother a poem I had written, she asked if I really
knew all those words or did I find them in a dictionary.  Frequently, someone
will say, "Did that really happen?"  It's like, "Judith, you'll be in deep,
deep trouble if you put a lie in print."  Right.  The non-fiction police will
bust my butt.
The printed word has always been cause for heated discussion in my family. 
They don't believe anyone would print something that isn't true.  This
includes The National Enquirer.  I've learned that the older generation can
survive easier without the ugly truths at this late date, so I concentrate on
working with the younger ones.  The truth doesn't always set you free.  It
bruises and bleeds like no other injury ever could, but pain can open the
gates to gain.
I graduated from high school and made my family very proud.  Looking back, I
can see I was purposely kept at lower class levels even though I had good
grades.  No one ever mentioned scholarships or college to me.  As a result, I
earned a living as a textile factory worker, waitress and housekeeper. 
I believe you get weeded out of the further education track at an early age. 
It's not the grades that count, it's your family's potential that is measured
by the class yardstick.  ("You People would just take up a space that could
be used by someone really serious.")  Some very fine minds get lost this way.
 Yes, you could go to college at a later date, but by then life has had so
many whacks at you that it rarely leaves you with the time or confidence to
try it. Survival often means feeding the belly before the brain.  The
deprivation of either causes lifelong pain.  There is only so much
humiliation you can cram into a child before you effectively crowd her out of
the system.    
My father quit school in the third grade to help raise his brothers and
sisters.  He was self-educated and gave me an abiding love of the written
word.  My mother made it to the eighth grade.  Her one clothing outfit for
school was the top of a dress for a blouse and the bottom of a man's overcoat
for a skirt.  She never stopped grieving for her lost chance.  She often
spoke of her proudest moment as winning a poetry recital before she had to
quit school.
When my father was in his seventies and dying of cancer, he asked me to cover
for him because he had told the nurse a lie.  I thought she must have asked
him about smoking or drinking.  He said, "She asked me how far I had went in
school.  I thought fifth grade sounded much better so I told her that.  You
back me up, kid."  I asked him why he didn't just say he had graduated?  He
looked like someone had pulled a gun on him.  "Jesus, girl, you can't say
anything like that."  I tried to explain to him it was a bullshit question,
but he was having none of it. 
You see, after many years of subjugation, you become your own overseer.  To
this day, I see my nieces and nephews trash each other before the rest of
society gets a chance.  I understand the dynamic perfectly.  If you make fun
of or hurt each other, then the second time around it doesn't hurt as much. 
You have already been prepared.  When you depersonalize pain and suffering,
you can ignore it.  Only when a human face is superimposed on poverty will
this barbaric practice end.
The first house I remember living in contained three small rooms.  (The next
tenants used it as a chicken coop.)  My father had to walk stooped over
because the ceilings were about five feet high.  He was six feet tall.  There
was no water or electricity, of course.  The creek out back served as washing
machine, refrigerator and bathtub.
We never lived in a place that had screen doors or screens in the windows. 
This allowed everything, including snakes, to come and go at will.  We
learned at an early age to pound on the floor before getting out of bed. 
This was so you didn't accidentally step on a rat and get bitten.  Why the
hell do rats always overrun the poor?  I can tell you it is not for the food.
 Maybe it's just easier access. 
When it snowed in the mountains, it would drift in through all the cracks
that weren't full of paper or rags.  We had very few blankets so coats, rugs
or clothes helped to keep us warm.  The roof had so many holes that we didn't
have enough pots or cans to catch all the rain that trickled through.  Too
bad we didn't have one of those glass ceilings I hear so much about.  I'll
bet those suckers could keep you dry, warm and in your place.
This basically describes all the houses we grew up in.  Each move was a
little better then the last.  When I was 5 we moved to a house that had
electricity.  At age 14 we moved to a house that had both water and
electricity.  We never acquired a place with screens or one that wasn't
overrun with rats.  Yes, we set traps.  Yes, we put out poison.  Many times
my brother and I would sit in the basement with a .22 rifle and pick them off
when they popped their heads out.
People many times equate poverty with laziness.  We always worked.  Dad
worked at a sawmill and as a lumberjack.  Later on he became a carpenter.  He
never missed work and he never received any benefits. 
My dad, Cherokee, good-looking and proud, came from a long line of
alcoholics.  My mother, Seminole/Irish, tiny and beautiful, also came from a
long line of people with addictions, but only my dad succumbed to it.  It
still follows the male lineage on both sides of the family.  Twice while
growing up, I heard people use my dad's name as a synonym for "drunk".  If
the alcohol colored and clouded the ugliness and made it bearable, I can
understand and forgive that.  Yes, I'm sure the cheap wine he drank took
material and mental tolls on all of us, but it was an illness he fought all
of his life.
One time Dad committed himself into an alcohol rehabilitation institution. 
Mom had to apply for welfare and sign a non-support order that she was told
would never be served.  It was protocol.  (It was the only time she ever
applied for benefits).  On the day of Dad's release after two months of
treatment, the police came and took him away in handcuffs because of the
non-support warrant.  On the way home from jail, he stopped and bought a
bottle of wine.  It caused a breach in my parent's relationship that never
healed.  None of us had ever been in any trouble with the law.  The law was
something you feared with all of your being.  It still is for us older ones.
Mom worked as a housekeeper for several families.  I was ashamed of her for
doing that.  When high school girls whose homes Mom cleaned would tell me in
a loud voice at school what a wonderful job Mom did, I wanted to die.  On the
other hand, to Mom's dying day she would brag about what a good job she had
done and how pleased her employers were. 
She also did waitress and factory work and thought it was a great honor that
she had never been fired from any job.  Me, I just wanted to shake her when
she would start these raps and say, "Of course they didn't fire you.  You
were the perfect shit-worker to fulfill any boss's dream.  You never
complained, and you left a piece of your heart and health everywhere you
worked."  Of course I never said it out loud to her. 
She would look at me in total amazement whenever I tried to say that perhaps
things weren't as cut and dried as they appeared.  She was the dearest,
kindest woman I have ever known.  I will never stop missing her truly honest
compassion.  May she rest in peace.  I doubt I ever will.
Work.  That's all we ever knew from childhood up.  You name it, and we sold
it or did it.  We picked and sold strawberries, blackberries, elderberries
and blueberries.  We sold Rosebud salve by the gross.  Remember those tacky
cardboard mottoes that said "HOME SWEET HOME"?  Sold them.  Countless packs
of seeds were also sold door to door.  Lawn mowing, gardening, babysitting,
etc., etc., etc.
One of the hardest jobs was picking princess pine.  It's used to make funeral
and Christmas wreaths, etc. It's found growing wild in the wintertime.  It
looks like wispy little pine trees.  You were paid six cents a pound for it. 
Believe me, it takes more backbreaking work then you can ever imagine to fill
a burlap sack with it.  Digging through the snow in search of it without the
benefit of gloves or boots is something you wouldn't wish on anyone.  We
would miss school to help with this.  Whoever was the youngest at the time
would be placed in a hurriedly fashioned lean-to for shelter.  Another young
one would stay nearby and keep the fire going while the rest of us picked.
Our favorite spot, one where you weren't walking forever to find the pine,
was on a state game reserve.  One time after picking all day, we dragged our
sacks up to the dirt road where Dad was to meet us.  Instead of Dad, we were
met by a game warden.  He made us dump out all of our "piney".  He said he
had been watching us work all day and he wanted to teach us a lesson. 
Granddad and the rest of us were scared but Mom told us it would be all right.
Later that night we went back and picked it all up by the light of the moon. 
Mom said that it was too much work picking something growing wild --
something that should be yours for free -- only to have it wasted by someone
who didn't know the first thing about nature.
Because of background and lifestyle, our family is riddled with disease and
disability.  The water we drank wherever we lived came out of mountains that
had been strip-mined for coal.  This same water flowed down to the river and
killed all of the fish and every other living organism. 
The little town of 400 where we were raised is now full of cancer, multiple
sclerosis, lupus and many other diseases.  I had cancer and had a section of
my right foot removed.  I have multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus, as do
other members of my family.  It is uncommon to have so many cases in such a
small region.  It's not contagious, so what is the common denominator? 
We moved from the mountains in 1964, but apparently not in time.  All of us
have arthritis.  Most have several of the following: high blood pressure,
diabetes, emphysema, vitiligo, learning disabilities, heart and lung disease,
sarcoidosis, eczema, kidney or liver disease, alcoholism, etc.
I wish there had been free lunch programs back then.  I know health problems
due to malnutrition could have been avoided.  When I hear anyone go into a
diatribe about all You People wanting handouts, I go a bit crazy.  The main
memory of my childhood is always being hungry.  Oh sure, we gardened, hunted
and fished, but it was never enough to feed eight or more people at one time.
Does society still not get it?  An unhealthy child will be an even more
unhealthy adult.  A sick, uneducated adult will not be able to work and
contribute like a healthy, educated one can.  This dynamic will cost from the
cradle to the coffin if it is not interrupted.  Unlimited resources that are
now being spent to make war all over the globe could be redirected to save
the same number of people.
My hope is that stories about class, like this one, will not just be read and
then forgotten.  If more people aren't willing to work to help us change our
destiny, the loss will soon be insurmountable.  I would like to see the problems 
caused by classism worked on until all share equally in the benefits.


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