That was then, this is now...

© 2001 John P. Hewitt

Fifty years ago this day, on July 3, 1951, in the summer of my 10th year in the middle of a century now gone, I was probably thinking of how my family would spend the Fourth of July and whether we would go into Phillipsburg to see the fireworks. Perhaps Mrs. Lloyd, next door, had given me some firecrackers or a sparkler, as she did each year. Or I visited my Granny, two doors away, or implored my mother to let me go to the Reservoir to swim. Perhaps I played with my trains upstairs in the front bedroom of our house in the blocks, or joined my friends in exploring familiar places. The memories return, but only with effort, for I do not think of those remote days very often. Morrisdale was my home, but it is now a distant place and time, and I struggle to connect the person who lived there with the person I have become.

That was then, this is now. I am, of course, living in more or less the same body, or its successor. Cells I owned then begat other cells that begat still more cells that begat the cells I have today. The genetic pattern remains: The body constructed, repaired, and declining uses the same, though perhaps faded, blueprint. I still resemble my parents, and when I look in the mirror I see the brown-haired and blue-eyed boy lurking behind my adult face and white hair. No doubt my Morrisdale childhood laid down fears and hopes that shaped my adult life; analysis might reveal a psyche, wounds and all, that has remained constant amidst a life of changing ideas and loyalties and places. I can chart the paths that led from there to here and then to now: roads, decisions, chance occurrences, meetings, experiences, mentors, enemies, friends, births, deaths, discoveries, achievements, failures, the whole bundle of things that occur in a person¹s life. And I know in my sociologist bones that I have been transported on social currents that lay beyond my control and often out of my awareness. The paths I trod, new and fresh to me, were well worn by others.

I also know that in telling the story of a life, even recovering a few memories of times and places long past, we create the reality we pretend to uncover. When the opportunity arose to write about my experiences as a child in coal country, I thought hard to recapture memories and to assess the trajectory my young life had followed. The result was a narrative of escape from the close horizons, limited opportunities, and strong prejudices of Morrisdale, Pennsylvania, to the opportunities that even a dying industrial city could provide. To be sure, that narrative speaks truths. I did want to "better" myself, however inchoate the desire and unclear the map of how I would do so. I was alienated from the social class and culture that had formed me. I did want to leave.

Perhaps "escape" captures the essence of my life. Retirement means escape from the University of Massachusetts, which even in moments of commitment and hard work on its behalf I considered a parody of what a university could and should be. Amherst, academic and scholarly enclave, often seemed as provincial as the Morrisdale I had escaped. Before I came to Massachusetts, I escaped from two other academic institutions, and before that, I escaped from my former refuge, Buffalo, to the more appealing territories of graduate school at Princeton University. Perhaps I am a habitual leaver, one who always sees greener pastures, one who, two centuries ago, would have been quick to move when I could see the smoke from my neighbor's chimney. Or, perhaps, the metaphor of escape merely provides one convenient way of giving form to some of my experiences and in that sense creates rather than describes them. Perhaps I have projected "escape" backwards onto the experiences of my childhood. I do not know, nor do I think the answer is knowable.

I do know that Morrisdale and the coal industry that created it are peripheral and not central to my identity. To be sure, nowadays I readily tell people my father was a coal miner, perhaps thereby hoping to magnify my own accomplishments by emphasizing the distance I have traveled. Perhaps I do this as a token to myself that I recognize the validity of his life. Some of the Morrisdale boy remains in the man, though what part of me — social anxiety, optimism, ambition, skepticism — I cannot say. And there is a Buffalo boy in here too, filled with anxious eagerness to explore new territories. Doubtless I remain linked to both pasts through my parents, especially my father, who now and then tells me of experiences in the mines or, by talking of someone I didn't know or can't remember, remakes connections I once took for granted.

Still, I do not identity much with my social origins. I do not often think of myself as a coal miner's son. I am from Buffalo but not of it. I have never felt moved to return to central Pennsylvania and fight on behalf of those who had no opportunity to escape, or failed when they tried, or chose not to try. I recognize the injustice the coal companies did to people and the violence they did to the land, but mine is an abstract anger provoked by distant memories and academic knowledge, not nearly as intense or focused as the anger I feel at injustices I see around me now. I do not identify with the Protestant religion of my parents and their parents, for I became a Jew shortly before marrying, and my sense of belonging to a "people" is now rooted elsewhere. I love my mother and father, but their world and mine have been so vastly different for so many years that I cannot identify with their way of life. They provided models of character and virtue, to be sure, and I hold fast to some of them. But the day-to-day stuff of my life and theirs is different enough that we could be from separate planets.

Like many contemporary people, I define myself by what I do far more than by my social origins. I have yet to locate the essence of my being in any group or category or ideology, though some tell me more about myself than others. Having shed the accents of central Pennsylvania, I do not think I would be more authentic if I relearned them. Having rejected a narrow and provincial view of the world, I see no virtue in recovering it. Perhaps if I had remained more years in Morrisdale I would have become more acutely conscious of class and perhaps identify more with my compatriots and feel obliged to work on their behalf. Perhaps had I been born African American or Native American and tasted oppression and scorn from childhood onward I would hear and heed the call of group identity. But the fact is that my life began in Morrisdale and moved to Buffalo and unfolded as it did, and that is authenticity enough for me.

I understand the contemporary search for roots and for the sense of an authentic self that some people find in them. Indeed, I like knowing about my own ancestors, whose DNA stranded toward central Pennsylvania and gave me life. I feel glad for those who can find, in their memories of Appalachia or in ancestral cultures, strong and convincing clues about who they are and what they must do. I envy them somewhat, as I do also my friends and acquaintances who find in their work, academic or otherwise, a sure and complete sense of self.

Understanding and envy have their limits. It has been my fate to keep my roots balled in burlap and ready to transplant, my identity safe from whoever or whatever would command it completely. Now, in the summer of my 60th year, I am here, in our house in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, establishing my roots in desert soil, ready for what, and who, comes next. There is a fragile environment to be protected from industrial rapists, undocumented Mexican workers seeking their own form of escape to be defended against economic injustice and immoral immigration policies, a house to be perfected. There are tasks sufficient to continue to make a life and an identity.

It is hot today; by noon the temperature will top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and in late afternoon the Monsoon, just beginning, will give us a spectacular show of thunder and lightning and perhaps enough rain to set the washes running and refresh the thirsty saguaro cactuses that surround the house. I will read the New York Times, which has visited orbiting satellites on its way into my house through a wireless internet connection. Adobe bricks made of dirt shelter me. Electrons connect me to my children and other family members, friends, and academic colleagues through the internet, telephone, cell phone, and fax. Here, my wife of nearly forty years and I have built what I hope is the last place I will call home. The person I am now, and will be, lives here.

Tucson, Arizona

July 3, 2001