Well, not home. Not really.
It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday, and we drove almost seven hours to rural Ohio to celebrate with her.
It’s strange coming back to see her. And, if I’m totally honest, depressing.
Almost all of my mom’s family lives in this area, and when I was a kid, I desperately wished we lived there, too. All my aunts and uncles lived there. My cousins. My grandparents. They saw each other all the time, whereas I got to seem them a couple of times a year. I was sad and jealous.
I didn’t understand that my mother had joined the military to escape. She had a lot of very good reasons to leave, reasons that eventually included daughters of her own.
When I go back now, nothing seems like the world I wanted to join. Yes, my kids are drinking out of the same cups I used when I was a kid. My grandmother has the same rose-printed plates. Even the same wood paneling is in her house. But that’s where it ends.
When I was a kid, manufacturing was strong where she lives. Everyone had jobs, nice houses, and newer cars. We used to walk downtown for ice cream or to visit the Five and Ten.
Now, most of the store fronts are empty. Many of the beautiful old homes have been sub-divided into apartments. Others are in a sad state of repair. Piles of junk sit in yards further outside of the small town, especially old cars and boats. Paint is peeling. Front steps rotting. Out buildings collapsed.
Then there are the trailer parks. Unless you’ve seen rural poverty, you don’t know what I’m talking about. Think about a 1950s RV set-up on blocks. Old. Rusted. Windows boarded in places. Cinder blocks for steps. Now imagine twenty of them clustered together. A few miles away, another trailer “park”. Now imagine watching a little six-year-old boy with light blonde hair and a navy jacket struggling to open the rickety door as he balances on a part of the steps still intact.
Why are things so bad now?
It’s a story told all over the Midwest. Factories that once employed entire towns are gone, and there are no new manufacturing jobs to replace them. Whenever we visit, another of my cousins have been laid off and is trying to find a job. The next job they get always pay less than the one they had before.
The jobs still remaining that pay more than minimum wage all seem to be in the medical field or other services needed by the elderly and retired. Especially in-home nursing. Few out there can afford assisted living even if they are no longer completely self-sufficient.
But those jobs tend to require degrees, and the ones that don’t require degrees pay even less than the few remaining factory jobs.
Doctors in the area live in mansions situated on sprawling lands. Even nurses do well. But I learned from my cousin that being a pharmacy tech pays less than working for Whirlpool. I can understand the growing fear and resentment as they scrape together to get by while a newcomer to the area is building a heated outbuilding larger than their homes to store his three boats.
Even the skilled aren’t immune.
My uncle recently closed his business after it had been around for over fifty years. He used to sell and repair appliances like washers and dryers. He started as an apprentice when he was a teenager, and when the owner retired, he sold the business to my uncle.
My uncle did great at first. But then Lowes and Home Depot moved into the area, and he simply couldn’t compete with them on price. Eventually, he closed the Main Street shop and focused on repair.
But with how cheap appliances were becoming, more people just replaced broken ones rather than repairing them. So, he had to start letting the technicians that worked for him go. Then his secretary.
Finally, he closed his business and took a job as an electrical inspector for the county. It sucks. After more than thirty years of working for himself, he couldn’t make a living at it anymore. Thank goodness he’s a master electrician and was able to get other work.
Yeah, they’re my family and I’m biased, but these aren’t dumb people. Or lazy people. Most them work damn hard. They simply have no way forward. They’re trying to eek out a living without giving up family, friends, and community. They’re trying to find a way forward after manufacturing was gutted from the Rust Belt.
And there is no safety net for them. No retraining for them. No real hope for things to ever improve.
College is a dream. Something rich kids do. Something they wish they could give their kids. But when most families of four earn less than $40k a year, even state school is out of reach.
Some young men and women join the military. It’s a way out, a job, and it promises to teach them real skills. Two of my cousins tried to join, but one failed the physical and the other hurt his knee to the point it required surgery two weeks before boot camp.
Still, I’m amazed how many of them have friends that joined the military, and how many of them know someone that gave their life. You see pro-veteran signs, slogans, and even graffiti everywhere. Makes me wonder if this is why.
It’s people like this that voted for our current president. They’re the ones that propelled him to victory. People who felt lost and left behind. People who want the family and community my grandfather had. Or, what they think he had. They want the jobs back. They want hope.
If you haven’t driven through rural Ohio, it’s hard to understand. If you have, you may still not agree with their choices, but you can understand them. I hope our president doesn’t disappoint them.
How about you? Does your family live near you? Or are they far away? Did you grow up with a large family and love it, or maybe you had a small family and loved that? Ever been through rural Ohio?