truth and embroidery: a memoir in seven minutes

Backstory: Your first Toastmaster’s speech—the Icebreaker—introduces you, whether through vignettes about your childhood, tales of adventure, or the passion that fuels your world. ________________

I always felt like I grew up in a different century—only I don’t know which one, or if it even existed. We didn’t drive a horse and wagon to town; didn’t walk four miles to school, uphill both ways—but it was as if we did. Some of what I tell you is close to truth, though truth can lose its compass on memory lane. Some is sheer embroidery.

So … I say I grew up in Pumpkin Hook. That’s embroidery. Yes, I rode my pony along Hook Road; my folks voted in The Hook; but no, I don’t remember a thing about it. I went to school in neighboring Victor, NY, now a suburb of Rochester—yet when I was little, Victor graduated maybe a dozen kids a year.

Over the years I’ve come up with three labels that, strung together, remind me who I am. The first: Hillbilly Once Removed. The second: Direct Link to the Victorian Era. I’m holding on the third.

Hillbilly Once Removed has the ring of truth; my mom was the genuine article. Mountain born, mountain bred, and nothing prissy about her. Smart, inventive, loved language. Also desperate, driven, bitter. Her stories shaped world I grew up in.

Here’s a story; surely true: my grandma’s scrubbing the floor and looks over and sees this emaciated cougar by the baby’s cradle and throws a soapy rag and hits that cougar right in the eyes and it’s out of there. The lye soap in currency then was caustic stuff, harsh enough to scald a cougar’s eyes. And if I say—which I sometimes do, because I love stories—that she made that soap herself with beef tallow and wood ashes, that could be truth. Or embroidery.

Direct Link to the Victorian Era? Oh yeah. My dad was born in 1892 in DC, into a family of some wealth and station. He was smart, inventive, loved language. Also desperate, driven, bitter.

I believe this story is true—about the sister who didn’t want to take Latin, and their father went to the teacher and principle and superintendent of schools, and finally some rider got tacked to a bill in Congress saying Lillian Brock needn’t take Latin—then she decides to become a lawyer and their father has pony up for a Latin tutor and she becomes the first woman licensed to practice before the Supreme Court. Doesn’t mean she actually did. Still—she had that license.

But mostly my dad, a retired minister, held his silence, though clearly he was crushed by the hand life dealt him. Four sisters. The only boy. Unwanted (or so he claimed) because he was a boy. Not what you’d expect in 1892.

I think his father cut him off early on, long before he divorced his first wife—herself a child of privilege. Still, as I understand it he had a reputation as a popular preacher serving four congregations all through the 30s—which vanished when he married my mother and fell to her standard of living. I’ve said, and I think this is true, that my father didn’t lie; not intentionally, anyway. But he assuredly manufactured reality. Embroidery.

That third label? It derives from an older and far cruder one—serving as a wrap for Victorian Era and Hillbilly. It’s … Intellectual White Trash. Now some people these days claim white-trash status with pride, but maybe they don’t know what it truly meant. And they might not be eligible anyway. As I might not be.

At its point of origin, white trash was an ugly term, signaling profound contempt for profoundly hopeless poverty—a load more poverty than my family ever knew. But given our relative squalor and rank in the community, that label fits, sort of.

My sister was in stitches when I ran it by her. She ranks among the most generous and truthful of people, and she said (then) that it stands for everything we were. Me, I still wonder.

True, our parents went an order of magnitude beyond messy. Even as an unwanted boy-child, my dad knew this: men don’t do housework. And while my grandma with her lye soap surely felt the link between cleanliness and Godliness, the domestic arts held no interest for my mom. Besides, she worked like a dog to keep us fed.

That “intellectual” part is embroidery too. We weren’t, except … well, for me it’s the classical music that tips the scale; we were allowed to listen to none other. Also, my parents were clear—we were going to college. So we strove mightily for high grades. Those grades were about all we had. And if you factor in my father’s shelves of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and Bible Concordance and Norman Vincent Peale library—summing up the literature in our house—well, we were as close to intellectual as white trash are gonna get.

These three labels—well, it’s the rare listener who doesn’t crack a smile when I trot them out. I’ve learned this, though: given the right setting, I might hold my listener’s attention with stories—embroidered, mostly—spun from a Hillbilly weft and Direct Link warp. But “Intellectual White Trash”?

Make no mistake: it tickles my funny bone. Yet it captivates for only so long. Get in there deep enough and you hit a substratum of misery that just won’t quit. They say misery [stage directions: step away from podium] loves company. But not, [walk to chair] I think, from [pull chair away from table; sit] the speaker’s podium.


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