Insider Rewards, Outsider Blues

In Mexico, Missouri where Dad had gone to high school and Grandpa was a Friday regular at the Jefferson Hotel, I was an insider. Daddy knew everyone and, as far as I could tell, everyone loved him. My grandparent’s tumble-down farm was 10 miles out of town, but Grandma still wore pearls and a whalebone corset to go to town. I helped her tighten the laces to keep her ample belly from jiggling,

Mexico MO, 1950

Now in a loose clothing world, I can only imagine the torture of wearing that garment with a garter belt and silk stockings in Missouri heat. Grandma was a Chicago lady who kept up appearances, no matter what.

When I walked to Daddy’s company after school, I was the princess of Mexico Building Supply. There were a dozen employees, more than half black men, and everyone beamed at me. I loved riding passenger on their trucks. Whig West who was in charge of getting  trucks loaded gave me a wave across the dusty yard before I disappeared into the air conditioned building.

The office was small with a wide counter, but I was drawn to the Coke machine that hummed and sometimes clanked near the back door. If my mother wasn’t around, someone dropped a nickle or two in the machine and handed me an icy 7 ounce bottle of Coke. I rolled the glass bottle against my sweaty cheeks. On lucky days, Taylor Wilson who drove a cement truck bought me a PayDay candy bar—caramel, peanuts, and lots of salt. Mom didn’t approve of candy bars or soda, but I had accomplices

leaving Missouri in 1957

By 1957, Daddy was too sick to run his business and took a sales job in Detroit. A major lure was health insurance without a physical. Daddy had advanced kidney disease, so health insurance saved my family from going broke. My uncle took over Mexico Building Supply and we moved north.

In Southfield, Michigan, I was 12, lonely, and behind in school because Missouri schools were lousy even though I got all As. Even worse, I sounded like a country hick. I was an instant outsider and someone to tease. My only friend was my dog Amigo.

Southfield School K-8

In the hall, a boy stuck his foot out to trip me and my blouse buttons popped open when I fell. It was humiliating enough to need a bra at 12, but to have the boys see it and laugh? My life was ruined.

In a few months, I caught up at school, fell in love with reading, and made friends. While Daddy grew weaker, I got stronger and learned to say fog instead of “fawg” and dog instead of “dawh.” I was an insider again.


Does every teenager feel like an outsider? I expect so, and it’s a hard time for a kid to move away from her hometown. It was especially hard because Daddy died two years after our move and we didn’t have close friends or local family for support. Did you have a similar experiences. Did you stay close to your family home while growing up?

For other stories about my Missouri Life, see Safe in the Great Mother’s Bed.  For a story about my years in Michigan, see The Girl Who Believed in Good Government.

  1. There’s so much nostalgia packed in here, I hardly know where to start. My dad didn’t have a tumbledown farm, but his office was ultra messy; I blogged about how his slovenly ways bothered me. Also, I include at least one similar reference in my memoir.

    I do remember mother’s corset hanging in the hallway. Women even attended parties in which corsets like these were sold. I can’t remember brand names, but I do know the metal-boned corsets of the day are now called shape-wear – ha!

    I can’t imagine the literary woman I know now ever being referred to as a country hick. But then it’s hard to imagine myself with a tight bun and prayer cap too, which surely made me feel like an outsider.

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane, including the shapely, ice-cold Coke bottles, Elaine!

    • It’s true, Marian. My Missouri years were sweet and safe. (My grandparents had a tidy tumbledown farm with a neat yard and vegetable garden, but no indoor plumbing or telephone (the internet of those days) and sloping floors and a wood cook stove (even in Missouri summers). Oh those corsets! I can’t even imagine. There was no way to give grandma a tiny cinched waist, but the aim was to hold the flesh steady. She kept smiling.

      I wasn’t considered a hick in Missouri, but my country accent made me a target in a new school without friends in Michigan–and I imagine most junior high girls feel like targets in public schools. Fortunately, that phase didn’t last long, but the death of my dad came just as I was getting my feet on the ground and my grades back where I expected them to be. My poor mom never recovered from her losses of my dad, her community, and family when she needed support the most. (I’d have to be dying of thirst with no water available to drink Coke now, but they were the best then.)

  2. I moved when I was 11 when my family went bankrupt. Left the family home (my grandparents’ home, then ours), which we lost Thanksgiving Day. I went also from a straight A student, to way behind my piers, since my new school was so much more advanced. It was a terrible time for me. Eventually, I made friends, 2 of whom are still my best buds today. but what a hard time that was! No Cokes for us!

    • So you’ve been through similar experiences, Karen, although we didn’t have bankruptcy to complicate matters. Instead, we had my dad’s worsening illness and death. Thanksgiving Day must always carry that memory. And we also share the experience of doing well in school and then going to a school where we’re way behind. It is a terrible time for a kid and I’m glad you made those lasting friends. I made a few friends, but we moved again in 2 years to a suburb of Detroit which had better public transportation and support for a family–but Dad died 3 months after we moved and I knew no one. It was surreal. Now I see how hard it was for my mom and also feel how hard it is to protect our kids. (David went through a soda period in high school–long ago now. Instead of warfare, I put a recycling container in the garage where he could throw his cans and avoid my reaction.) Sending you love.

  3. After I posted my reply, I remembered the name of the corsets featured at parties my mother attended in the 1950s: Spencer corsets with hooks front and back to hold nylon stockings in place. By the way, I don’t drink Cokes either-ha!

  4. How long have I known you? and yet never have I had such a clear picture of your childhood. I loved reading about it in your ever concise manner.
    My father was a diplomat so we moved every couple of years. I was always so uncomfortable the first day in a new school. Always the question,”where are you from?”, to which my young mind raced through all the different places wondering if I should say the last place, all the places or where I was born in Singapore. It was that long pause before I answered that I remember feeling like I was a small plant with its roots dangling in the air shriveling up from being exposed.
    When I finally married one of the first things I did was plant a fruit tree, a symbol of stability and a future in one place.
    Turns out I have just recently planted more fruit trees in a new home, in a new place. I have come to appreciate all the images from my childhood abroad and the feeling of rootlessness has passed. I am rooted in myself finally. And yet still each tree I plant comes with that feeling that maybe I will be here long enough to eat the fruits of my labor, I am stable in each new place even if I am there only for a short time.

    • Thanks Lauren. We’ve known each other since you moved to Ithaca. Was that in the late 1970s? You’ll know the date.

      I know your dad was a diplomat, but never heard the hard side of that experience for the girl who had to constantly shift schools. I love your image of the small plant with bare cold roots. It expresses the experience perfectly. Back to my experience, just a few months before my dad died and my brother left for college, we moved again and ripped out the few roots I had grown. I always wanted to live just one place and dig down deep–and then Vic got the Colgate job a year after we bought our old farmhouse and land and we were on the road again. We handled it by living two places, but my roots stayed here and so did Vic’s. We planted hundreds of trees and I’m thinking it might be time to plant just one a year for a while. I gave up on fruit trees because of disease problems, but a few blight resistant American Chestnuts are thriving and a redbud Anthony put in a few years ago. A few days ago I planted lettuce, snow peas, and arugula even though it’s still cold this year. Those plants don’t mind. I’m deeply rooted, but at the same time I know it’s temporary and impermanent like everything. And, yes, I see that you have a way of being rooted wherever you are. Sending love until I get a chance to visit New Mexico.

  5. To be the Queen of the Mexico Building Supply store as a kid… What a strong memory from your early childhood. It resonated with me. Fun to read about young Elaine.

    • Thanks Jill. I was only a Princess, but there were regal rewards. It was a different time when no one locked their house door and an elementary school girl could wander all over town with her girlfriends and no one worried about what might happen to her. That world is gone, but I’m glad I experienced it.

  6. What a cute and sensitive memory! I think at that age, all children are vulnerable. I was absolutely introverted and insider, which can always be a reason to be mobbed or bullied. Thank you, dear friend, for this short but meaningful review.

    • A childhood memory showed up. Much about my approach to loss during my husband’s death was formed by the experience of my father’s death and my mother’s inability or unwillingness to speak of it. My sons and I talk about their dad and share stories and tears.

  7. So lovely to read this Elaine. We moved around so much during my growing up years. I wonder how this affected me. I always felt an outsider and still do to some extent. We’re away right now so I’m on my phone – my response will be brief.

    • Thanks for commenting, Susan. You’re a traveling woman! I loved traveling with Vic, but it’s much harder now without him or decent hearing. These memories and connections from my early years popped up, so I wrote about them. And now back to the Monarch manuscript, the focus of most of my writing energy. I hope I’ll have a first draft within a few weeks.

  8. Thank you, for remembering and sharing your past, and the trials of adolescence; this is sparking memories of my own, long-buried past. Suddenly realized, at my advanced age, the answer to something i’v pondered over the years: why are some people traumatized by childhood events, and not others, ie. why do some people thrive in spite of
    hardship: tragedy, abuse, neglect, while others succumb to PTSD, addiction, Etc. from relatively minor events?) I think it depends on the degree of (real or imagined) support/care one receives, (from humans or animals, dogs in particular:) Your writing is so direct, personal, evocative and relatable. Deeply grateful!

    • I agree with you, Patti. I lived with lots of sickness and dying as a kid, but I trusted the adults around me wouldn’t purposefully hurt me. I can’t imagine growing up in a threatening, angry home, but many kids face that every day. If we’re given support and care, we can withstand a lot. I think of the traumatized and frightened children of war (Ukraine at the moment) and hope they’re being held and comforted by someone who cares. I read that Ukrainian refuges aren’t allowed to bring their dogs into the US because of high risk of rabies in animals from Ukraine. How terrible after what these people have been through! Some groups are working to reverse this rule, but it’s one more blow to a family or child who has already lost everything. What would I do? Thank you for your kind words about my writing and for your friendship.

  9. Elaine, I love the way you painted the sweetness and safety of your years in Mexico, Missouri, though it was hard to read about the contrast when you moved to Michigan with your father so ill. It is remarkable that your resilience allowed you to get your feet on the ground so quickly and become an insider again before your father died, though of course that didn’t change the fact that you weren’t in your hometown with the support of all the close friends and family you had grown up with.

    My family moved from New York City to Miami, Florida when I was 10 years old, and it was quite a culture shock to discover all the ways I didn’t fit it–from my wild mass of curly hair (that somehow hadn’t mattered before) to wearing old-fashioned, hand-me-down dresses that made me look like I came out of a different century. The girls at my new school knew to wear shorts under their skirts to school every day for the amazing gymnastics curriculum taught by a wonderful teacher, Mr. Drew. However, Mr. Drew was so kind to take me under his wing right away, and though I was the only one in my class who could not do a somersault at the beginning of the year, I was walking on my hands and doing one-handed handsprings by June. I’ve tried to figure out what became of him to let him know what a difference he made in my life.

    I hope this finds you well, and congratulations on your progress on the Monarch manuscript!

    • Anne, the Michigan years were tough, but better schools changed my life in a positive way. Having my father die then was painful and it was handled the way families often handled death in those days: don’t talk about it and definitely don’t cry. Knowing myself as an adult and knowing how much I wept in the years after Vic died, it’s hard to imagine how I followed my mother’s “don’t show your feelings” rules. Being a good student was a way out of the grief of those days–and a way my mother supported. There wasn’t emotional support from family or community, but I had a few good friends in high school and we were tender with each other’s troubles.

      I like knowing about your culture shock. I had something a little similar when I moved from Michigan to go to Cornell and met all the wild girls from NYC with sandals, levi skirts, and pierced ears. I was amazed and thrilled. My straight hair was finally “in.” I let my hair grow long, tossed the make-up, and pierced my ears. Thank you, Mr. Drew for taking you under his wing and helping you adapt to your new world. One-handed handsprings? Amazing! One caring teacher can transform everything. Where is Mr. Drew when we need him? I hope your spring is beautiful and full of bird song and flowers. The Monarchs won’t arrive for another 3-4 weeks, but I printed out a lousy first draft and set it aside for a week so I can look at it with fresh eyes. A first draft can be a long, long way from a final draft, but it felt like a milestone.

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