One of Us

What happens when a country girl who’s lived and worked for years in the city returns to the country? Recently just such a girl (really she’s a woman) gave a report: “‘You’re one of us, you’re family,’ my uncle and aunt told me. ‘Whatever you need, let us know.'” She’s talking about a small town an hour southeast of Minneapolis/Saint Paul, a community of small rolling farms and winding roads. Of Czech and German heritage, with an occasional Irish thrown in for good measure. Largely Catholic.

The city woman had found a job at a nearby college and, with no desire for a long, round-trip commute, she relocated to this town where her mother was born and grew up, the town where she was still recognized as family. “You’re Irene and Jacob’s daughter. You’re one of us.” It didn’t matter that her uncle and aunt barely knew her or that her orientation had been to music and literature, politics and causes not normally espoused by these country relatives. “Whatever you need, let us know,” they said and meant it.

“When I think of how their affiliations work,” she said, “I see them as linear–family family family, rising up into the sky for many generations. Mine are more horizontal, across similar interests and passions to find soul mates. They privilege family. I’ve privileged shared points of view, political, literary, cultural.” But, of course, her relatives also assume shared interests and political views–it’s just that by putting family first, letting family be their touchstone, they assume that blood trounces anything learned or envisioned.

The divide occurred with her mother. As a little girl, she would leave the farm house and walk to a rise in a nearby field. From the top she would see the huge woods to the south, the silos of neighboring farms, and the haze of the Twin Cities to the north. Her parents, waiting for her to return, would ask, “What do you do up there?” A touch of fear was in their voices. She replied, “I look around.” Is it any surprise that as soon as she graduated from high school, she left for the Twin Cities and never returned except for short visits?

My mother grew up in a different direction, straight west from the Twin Cities, just over the border in North Dakota–a far greater distance than the hour my friend travels to reach her family. My mother, too, glimpsed wider horizons–her mother took her for shopping trips and cultural experiences into Minneapolis where they lunched at the “Fern Room,” in what was, I believe, Young Quinlan. After this very shy young thing graduated from high school–so terrified of thunderstorms that she couldn’t deliver her high school commencement address– she too went to the University of Minnesota, and though every few years, she put us, her two daughter, on the train with her for the long haul from Charleston, South Carolina, to North Dakota, there was never any thought that she would return to live in her hometown.

She had her sights set on “the East” and on Europe, on the romance of more ancient cultures, on opera, the fine arts, on literature and and travel. Her family had a more shallow setting in the Dakota small town than the young woman I’ve mentioned above. My grandfather had come to North Dakota from Wisconsin. There weren’t aunts and uncles to welcome my mother after he was gone. Now, sixty years after his death, no one of her family still lives there. This will not be true of my friend, I suspect. Her rural relatives will remain because their tribe has deeper roots.
Aside from the interest of this personal history, I’m also thinking about its political implications, during these strained political times. I’m imagining that my friend’s uncle and aunt have little awareness of urban needs. Nor do they think much about the large influx of immigrants of color into the Twin Cities over the last century, starting with African Americans from the Southern U.S., then Hispanics from Mexico, and more recently Asian and African immigrants.

Surely they understand poverty–rural poverty can be as deep and debilitating as urban. But with their narrow definition of belonging, they might not feel the need to befriend, educate and aid people with vastly different histories from their own, people who are part of the human family, but hardly blood kin. I think it’s time for our governor to make a circuit of the state, to talk to communities removed from our major urban areas, and to discover what they need, and what they resist, first hand. Whether the current Republicans in control of our legislature represent these rural people, I don’t know, but if the governor can speak for them, and tailor his objectives to make them palatable to a wider range of residents, he may be better able to strike a compromise, stepping away from those politics that don’t touch on deep definitions of family and find purpose and plans based on those that do.

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