It’s understandable that he thought that we had much more in common than we did. We both knew the host, both were mingling with wine glasses and elegant nibbles in hand.
I mentioned that I’d spent much of the day on the phone with family, that my mother had been taken to the hospital.
He was a very nice man. He nodded sympathetically, talked about how hard it had been for him and his siblings when his parents moved into their retirement community that offered graduated care as they grew more frail. He talked about how much research his parents and siblings had done before deciding on this place, and about how helpful the financial planner had been in working out the long-term scenarios for them all.
I smiled and wandered off to to find much more wine.
It didn’t seem the time or place to tell this nice man that my mother had no real choices, that the 19 year old with six weeks of training — my mother’s primary care giver in her assisted living facility –had missed the most obvious symptoms, and when things went much further south than they ever should have, my 93 old mother finally told them that she had to go to the hospital.
And I didn’t mention that that rural hospital has been trying to hire a primary care physician for three years or that the harried nurses on her understaffed floor didn’t have any time for the daily walks that were essential to her recovery.
With those elegant nibbles in hand, it seemed the wrong time to explain that part of the problem is that my mother eats so little, that all of her meals in that place come from huge cans or big boxes in the freezer, and that in places like my hometown, where no one answers an ad for a nutritionist, my mother’s meals are planned by someone whose claim to the job is that before she worked at the gas station, she’d served meals in the high school cafeteria.
My mother is inordinately proud that she raised daughters who attend lovely holiday parties. When she was much younger, she’d imagined that she’d perhaps find her own place in such homes, among such bright people.
In our daily lives, that man and I do now have much in common, but he cannot imagine the distance between his past and mine. Nor can he imagine the complicated dance that my sisters and I have performed this week as we’ve tried to reach back across that distance to make things right for my mother.
Beautifully written, Jane. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Have you raised children since you crossed classes? I have, and it has made me much more sympathetic to those who have grown up with privilege. Why wouldn’t they want to hear about our differences? Are you sure they are ignorant that these differences exist, just because of one comment they made? Just because someone has a financial planner now (I don’t, btw), does that automatically mean they did not ever experience genuine financial struggle in their past? When you talk to someone who has less than you, are you hypervigilant to never mention anything they may not have?
Growing up surrounded by wealthy people, I was always angry when they seemed not to know what my life was like. But really, did I know what theirs was like? Did I know what it was like for those more impoverished than I was?(There’s always someone.)
Hello SStewart. Thanks for commenting. It’s a fair point that no one should assume too much from a single comment, and I hope I haven’t done that. When I tell stories here, I don’t mean to infer too much or to suggest that single comments are always evidence of bigger issues.
But I do try to use stories to illustrate broader issues, and it does seem to happen a lot — especially in social settings – that middle class people who haven’t crossed class boundaries are pretty oblivious to how others experience life. You can find research on this among privileged high school and college students, among teachers who teach in upper middle class schools, among upper middle class parents as they negotiate their children’s schooling. So my story wasn’t meant to prove this case but to illustrate how that played out on one snowy night.
This story certainly doesn’t mean people should never talk about things that they possess that others don’t. The problem comes in just assuming that everyone else has those things, as happened that night.
It certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t open our mouths until we’re confident that we know everything essential about the person we’re talking with. The problem comes when you don’t even know that there is anything more to be learned about people from different backgrounds.
He chose the terms on which he’d try to convey empathy for what had happened that day. it wasn’t a comment; it was a conversation (one-sided by the end, but still …) I don’t question his sincerity for a minute. And he chose to do that by trying to show me that he’d been through something very similar, and he had no clue how dissimilar his experiences were.
So I wonder: when he makes decisions about those who report to him at work, or when he advocates for particular practices at his kids’ schools, or when he weighs the positions about equality and opportunity of different political candidates, does he know enough to ask the very questions that you so wisely ask here about whether he’s seeing beneath the surface?