01 October 2012


Garage sale the other day. My husband buys a lime green T-shirt emblazoned with black letters. Looks like a rock band shirt, fits him like a muscle-T. “I like the name on it,” he says. He wears it the next day with tight jeans and cowboy boots. Up and down the aisles of the antique mall people can see us coming. Can tell I’m with a member of The Outsiders.

The Outsiders. I get that. I’ve felt like one all my life. Never quite fit in. No place I really belonged. Have long felt an affinity for others who share outsider status. Like the little girl with dark curly hair in my kindergarten class. Every day she scratched herself with her fingernails, left long white streaks down her arms. My classmates gave her a wide berth. I befriended her, shared chalk, crayons, toys. Even so, I shuddered when she walked me home from school one day. I didn’t want to be that good of friends.

I started kindergarten in Gary, Indiana, the day the city’s public schools were integrated in 1964. Policemen patrolled the halls, alert to the possibility of trouble. Looking at my class photograph years later, I learned my teacher Miss Tate was African American. Made me no never you mind. I’d already seen my share of change by age five, not the least of which was our family’s move from northern Minnesota. 

Which was meant to be temporary. We’d stay only until the iron mines were hiring again. Which should be any day now. If you believed the hype. Which you did if you’d been living on hope and not much else. I was my parents’ third child. Arrived soon after my dad helped cart out the last of the rich iron ore from the world’s largest open pit mine in Hibbing. Jobs ran out same time the high-grade ore did. Thousands laid off.

How to support a wife and growing family? My father did seasonal work at a chick hatchery, gathered pine cones and balsam boughs for holiday wreaths. Cut timber with his father. Completed a six-month training course in auto body repair shortly before his fourth child was born. Moved his family across the state, chasing jobs and rumored jobs. Kept waiting for the mines to reopen. Everybody said it would happen. Soon. Efforts afoot in the state legislature. Special tax breaks for companies to mine low-grade ore. Required a special amendment to the constitution. Such things take time. Meanwhile, kid number five arrived.

U.S. Steel offered work in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. “We’re going,” my dad said, and we went. I was only five, but I knew Indiana wasn’t our home. Home is where the heart lives, not where the body goes to sleep at night. Home is where your dead lay buried. I had yet to learn a new place can become home as you bury parts of yourself there. 

The next summer I turned six. Started first grade in Gary that fall. Changed schools in October when we moved to the country, little white house leaning into a grove of pine trees. Our new temporary quarters. Then December 24. A late night phone call: Mrs. Marlow, there’s been an accident at work. Your husband’s in the hospital. It’s his foot. He won’t be home for Christmas.

The mines did start hiring again, and the wave of reverse migration rolled right on past us. No job driving big truck for a man with only one foot. No, you’re stuck in Indiana. 

And so I grew up in exile. Every summer, every long-awaited summer, we’d go home. Go back to Grandpa and Grandma’s house, to the little white church in Cohasset, to our friends and extended family—aunts, uncles, countless cousins. Where we were insiders once again. Padding pine needled trails, listening to loon’s crazy laughter, swatting at mosquitoes. Catching bullheads, picking berries, chasing dreams. In the woods, the north woods, the place we’d once belonged, where we had been happy, where Dad—and all of us—had been whole.

This essay appeared in the October issue of The Community Letter.