Maybe it was a ratty old cinder block house with asphalt siding, the brick legs holding it up all cracked and tilted, its surrounding yard nothing but mud and the jagged plastic pieces of broken things.
Maybe it was a single-wide trailer so ancient that the rusted metal steps creaked and rasped when you went up them with enthusiasm, its exterior finished in some kind of industrial material banned as hazardous a dozen years ago, the colors faded to dirt-beige and mustard.
Maybe it was a faded wooden cracker cottage with a rusty roof, silvery splintered wood, boards sagging or absent, the thin old glass in its windows cracked, shattered, and covered with newspaper to keep out the cold.
All I can say for sure was that the home my mother took me to was deep in the country down a sugar sand road and inhabited by the desperately poor. This memory is over 30 years old now, and the truth has faded and become more vivid, all at the same time.
I was 12 years old, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and I’d spent the summer in Miami with my Southern Baptist grandparents. They were self-made conservatives, born poor into large farm families in South Carolina before they met, married, and worked themselves into the middleclass.
My grandfather fought in World War II and returned from Great Britain to work at Eastern Airlines for war hero Eddie Rickenbacker. When the air traffic controllers went on strike in the early 1980s, he spoke out loud and proud against them, gruff and sure and damning.
My grandmother put herself through nursing school and eventually college. She had a work ethic so compulsive she was still employed as a nursing supervisor in an emergency room when she was 75 years old. To this day I channel her when I’m feeling exhausted but need to get something done.
They worked hard and had only two children, saved every penny they didn’t spend, and made some good investments in Florida real estate. They were more than comfortable, although you would never know it until you needed their help.
My grandparents had started in dirt and hand-me-down clothes and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, as my grandfather told me over and over and over again. On the verge of being a teenager, I was looking for a way to differentiate myself from my parents; I was ready to spread that message too.
And so I came home and preached it to my mother – poor people were lazy. They refused to take advantage of free education. They didn’t want to work hard. They were satisfied to cash their welfare checks and sit on their porches. They had more children than they could take care of – out of wedlock. They didn’t need more government handouts, they needed to change their attitudes. They needed to buckle down and make something of every opportunity. They needed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
My mother was a public health nurse in one of the poorest counties in rural Florida. She drove into areas where people were entirely without reliable transportation, private or public. She delivered medicine to diabetics and folks suffering from tuberculosis, checked on newborns and older infants, gave out B12 shots and took blood pressures, informed people when they had a sexual partner infected with syphilis, worked with uninsured women who had abnormal pap smears that might mean cervical cancer, and passed out contraceptive foam and condoms wherever she went.
When she heard me singing the gritty refrain of American individualism, she took me with her on a home visit. Since then I’ve walked to job interviews past burned out buildings and blocky cement projects in the South Bronx, traveled by motorcycle through the native reservations of the American West, and registered voters in the rural South. I’ve witnessed example after example of that kind of poverty. But then, at 12 years old, ignorant and arrogant and full of privilege, I’d seen nothing of the kind.
When my mother returned she sat next to me in the car. Neither of us spoke as she put away the medicines she had not distributed and made notes. The sunlight shone in articulated rays through the live oak trees and played in the dusty road in front of us. A young girl my age jumped off the porch with a bucket and made her way to the hand pump out behind the house.
“That’s their water,” my mother said, “there’s none in the house.”
I asked if they had electricity.
“Not this month,” she said. “The last time I visited they did.”
She asked me how I’d manage to clean my new gas permeable contact lenses using a hand pump out in the yard. Or how much later I’d be to school than I already was if I had to go outside in the cold to use the bathroom and heat water on a stove to wash with.
“All I’m trying to show you,” she said, “is how living out here is infinitely harder than you and I have it. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Over the next 30 years my mother became a nurse practitioner and eventually a nurse midwife. She worked at the public health department until she retired, taking care of mothers, babies, children, pregnant women, and women who did not want to become pregnant. She delivered babies in the hospital in the next county over, in Tallahassee, where lawmakers who had never even met the women she worked with made rules about what she could and could not do to help them, about what they could and could not do with their own bodies.
In the 1980s when the Reagan administration made it illegal to tell women where they might go to get a safe, legal abortion, she passed out a phone number anyway.
She reported a doctor who wasn’t bothering to practice sterile technique on all those poor people who he said bred like rabbits. He was endangering her patients, and even in the years before there were laws protecting whistle blowers, even though she earned the primary income in our small family and we would have been devastated without her salary, she would not be silent. She would not be complicit.
To this day women still come up to her in public and tell her they would not have made it to college without her nursing. She still makes birthday cakes for some of the children she delivered. This is who my mother is and not a small part of who I have become.
And now, in these early days of 2017 when the political world feels darker than ever in my lifetime, she tells me her greatest fear isn’t that she’ll lose her own Social Security or Medicare, although that is always on her mind.
“They’re going to wipe out everything I ever worked for,” she says.
And what am I supposed to say to that?
If you’ve recently used the bootstraps cliché, I would appreciate your wisdom.
Or maybe you’re in need of my mother’s.