Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

“There’s an idea that laborers end up in their role because it’s all they’re suited for. What put us there, though, was birth, family history — not lack of talent for something else.”

Sarah Smarsh | Scribner | September 2018 | 11 minutes (3,022 words)

We’re delighted to bring you an excerpt from chapter two of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh.

Body of a Poor Girl

Our bodies were born into hard labor. To people who Grandma Betty would say “never had to lift a finger,” that might sound like something to be pitied. But there was a beautiful efficiency to it — form in constant physical function with little energy left over. In some ways, I feel enriched rather than diminished for having lived it.

I know the strength of this body that helped hoist an air compressor into a truck, leveraged a sheet of drywall alone, carried buckets of feed against prairie wind. I know the quickness of my limbs that scaled a tall fence when a bull charged and that leapt when a ladder fell. But while I worked in those ways, like my mother and father I wrote poetry in my mind.

There’s an idea that laborers end up in their role because it’s all they’re suited for. What put us there, though, was birth, family history — not lack of talent for something else. “Blue-collar workers” have jobs requiring just as much brainpower as “white-collar professionals.” To run a family farm is to be a business owner in a complicated industry. But, unlike many jobs requiring smarts and creativity, working a farm summons the body’s intelligence, too.

To run a family farm is to be a business owner in a complicated industry. But, unlike many jobs requiring smarts and creativity, working a farm summons the body’s intelligence, too.

Sometimes it was miserable. Sometimes it was satisfying. The farmhouse living room where we spent evenings had a big woodstove in it, and no fire will ever feel more glorious than the ones we sat next to after working outside in January sleet that clung to the metal fences as a coat of ice. I’m a little sorry you never got to feel that. But I am not sorry that you never experienced the dangers of being devalued outside those farmhouse walls.

The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it. A society that considers your body dispensable will inflict a violence upon you. Working in a field is one thing; being misled by a corporation about the safety of a carcinogenic pesticide is another. Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall off it is another. Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another.

For black and brown bodies, a particular danger exists regardless of how much money is in a bank account. We were white bodies in peril specifically because we were laborers.

The person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it.

For those of us who were female, the body was also defined by its role as a potential mother. That’s true in every class but becomes more problematic in the context of financial struggle. Poverty makes motherhood harder, and motherhood makes poverty harder. Single mothers and their children are, by far, the poorest type of family in the United States.

The frustration at the dangerous crossroads of gender and poverty was sharpened for my mom in a couple of ways, I think. She had a mind that wanted books, ideas, and sketch pads — things she sat with privately but didn’t get to share with the world. And, because people considered her beautiful, she got a constant stream of attention about her body, at work and elsewhere. Being physically objectified that many times over — as a labor machine, a producer of children, and a decorative object — all while being aware of your own unexpressed talent can make the body feel like a prison.

My mom was beloved among her friends as a kind, funny, wise, and generous person, I’d learn as an adult. But there was a deep pain in her that only those closest to her saw. I think sometimes that she didn’t really hate having children as a young woman; she hated her life, and the children who came into it would feel that.

My mom was beloved among her friends as a kind, funny, wise, and generous person, I’d learn as an adult. But there was a deep pain in her that only those closest to her saw.

There is a good chance you would have felt it, too. The anger she put on me, I would have put onto you. I can count on one hand the number of times someone has seen me in a moment of true rage; they would tell you my voice became quiet and my eyes stopped blinking. But I have felt the wild, ungrounded frustration of the women before me many more times than I have shown it. Not so much now. But very much when I was a teenager and into my twenties, during what would have been your most formative years. Back then it took every bit of strength in me to stop that energy running through my body like lightning, to refuse to be its conductor.

Anger was not Jeannie’s true self, I’d learn as she aged. But, as tends to happen with people who are beaten down by daily circumstances, my young mother’s core nature was glimpsed only in moments of life and death: the hospitalization of a loved one, her own water breaking. It was not a tender nature, but it wasn’t mean, either. It was a severe serenity, doing whatever a moment required without complaint.


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The day my brother arrived, she sat on the edge of my twin bed to wake me in the dark early-morning hours. She’d picked out my ruffled mauve bedding and kept it well laundered, but before that moment she had never sat on it, that I can recall. She had a habit of keeping her distance and flying off the handle at the smallest frustration. For this event that might actually warrant panic, though, she was calm as a priestess in the October moonlight.

“It’s time,” she said.

At the hospital more than thirty miles away in Wichita, Mom hemorrhaged during the labor. Her blood pressure dropped so low that the doctors said, “Stay with us.”

Once she had recovered, someone put me in a blue smock and took me to meet Matthew, who was blotchy and black haired. The visitors’ room had blue balloons and food on long tables; I’d never seen such a big spread of treats and drinks on a day that wasn’t Thanksgiving or Christmas. Dad gave me a cup of sparkling grape juice, which I knew was expensive since it was in a big glass bottle involving bubbles and foil.

Mom wore a pink-and-black-striped cotton gown. She had curled and teased her long brown hair and put makeup on her twenty-two-year-old face, but her eyes were tired. They would stay tired for a long time.

My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter and didn’t live in a proper neighborhood where there might have been fellow mothers to help a woman recovering from childbirth. Both my grandmothers, Betty and Teresa, had promised to come by when they could. Dad was determined to get back to work. The Family and Medical Leave Act that might have protected Mom’s job for a few weeks wouldn’t be passed for another eight years; toward the end of her pregnancy, she’d been forced to quit whatever low-paying gig she had at the time.

So Mom would be on her own with a child not yet in school, an infant, a checkbook for a bank account with thirty bucks in it, and long miles between us and any town, any store.

So Mom would be on her own with a child not yet in school, an infant, a checkbook for a bank account with thirty bucks in it, and long miles between us and any town, any store.

With Matt’s arrival just weeks before Ronald Reagan’s reelection, Mom would soon cast her second vote in a national election. This time, though, her politics were different. While her teenage instincts had gone with losing incumbent Carter the year I was born, by 1984 she had been won over by Reagan’s charm or at least by the national consensus that he was a good president. Many others in our community would vote for him, too — if they voted at all.

“They’re all crooks,” I often heard about politicians. Mom never said that. She was not given to apathy and did her best to stay on top of the news. Based on what she could glean, Reagan was a good man.

The Republican party would hurt women like my mother in direct and indirect ways that decade: removing the Equal Rights Amendment from the party’s platform, dismantling aid programs that helped poor women feed their children, eroding reproductive health rights. Unbeknownst to my mom, the Republican party was turning deeply socially conservative, different from the moderate, fiscally conservative party that people respected in my area. Mom didn’t think women on welfare were lazy or that feminists were militant monsters. She voted for Reagan because a cultural tide told her it was the right thing to do, and she had little time or resources to question the wave of sentiment the country was riding.

The country was swinging right, and working people were changing party allegiance. My mom was one of them, part of a national trend that I have found says more about clever political messaging than about what people truly know or think about the issues. Meanwhile, poor rural mothers like her were receding from view in both political parties, if they’d ever been in view at all.

When she got home from the hospital, to our new house in the country, Mom was still bleeding through the stitches between her legs. She was exhausted in a way she’d never been and scared to have a four-year-old and a newborn under her care. Dad had to go back to work.

“Please don’t go,” Mom said to him. She was generally too proud to ask anyone for anything, including her own husband for support. But she pleaded. “I can’t do this alone.”

There were houses to build, though. My uncle was outside honking the horn, and Dad left — believing, to some extent, that it was his job to provide and her job to take care of the kids. There was no paid leave for him either in such a moment.

Once Dad was gone, Mom lay in their bed trying to sleep through her pain as Matt cried from his crib. I crawled up a chest of drawers in her bedroom and tipped it over. The dresser crushed me against the carpet.

Mom ran from her bed and somehow lifted the chest off me, straining so hard she tore her stitches. Blood ran down her thighs.

I don’t think we went back to the hospital. When she told me the story, it was about a day she barely survived because of my dad’s absence. I see it now as a day she barely survived because society valued productivity and autonomy more than it valued women and children. Pregnancy slows you down, so pregnant women lost their jobs; mothers were alone in their nuclear households while fathers worked extra hours to make up the difference. For the poor and rural among them, the situation was keenly dangerous.

When Dad came home that night, Mom was quiet. She stayed quiet for weeks, until Dad made another announcement. He would be leaving for a construction job a long drive east of us. That meant weeks away from home. Mom thought he was finding excuses to be away from us.

I see it now as a day she barely survived because society valued productivity and autonomy more than it valued women and children.

“Please don’t go, please don’t go,” she said, screaming and crying. She often screamed but almost never cried. It was like something had broken in her when the stitches between her legs tore.

But Dad packed up his tools and left again.

He was concerned about providing for his family, he told me when I was grown, sitting next to him in his work truck and telling him how Mom remembered that day.

“I couldn’t have turned down good money, even if I had to be gone for a long time,” he said. His eyes filled with tears. “Look, maybe I was wrong.”

* * *

How to handle the stress of it all when you don’t even know that your life is stressful? Women saying “my nerves are shot” was the closest anyone came to examining the situation. What they didn’t discuss, though, they felt. That’s what substances were for.

Every adult I knew was addicted to something — mostly cigarettes or booze. Also pills, both prescribed and gotten by other means. The women of my mom’s family, who had grown up in Wichita with doctors nearby during decades when health care was cheaper, were sold on the idea of prescriptions for symptoms rooted in psychological strife. Most of them were on “thyroid medicine” for exhaustion, “nerve pills” for anxiety.

Dad, however, didn’t take even the most benign aspirin — not thinking it harmful or ineffective but suspecting it amounted to money spent on something your body and mind could do on their own, for free and without side effects. Dad had a quiet inner life as a self-healer. Once in a while he shared it with me, and in that way he was the most maternal force in my life.

Dad had a quiet inner life as a self-healer. Once in a while he shared it with me, and in that way he was the most maternal force in my life.

He tucked me in most nights and helped me say my Catholic prayers to the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, Mary, and the guardian angels of me and all my family. This helped me relax at bedtime, but I had a horrible time falling asleep. I’d lie in my bed thinking through every problem and staring at my closed closet while my muscles were frozen in fear. One night I finally told Dad that I couldn’t fall asleep for the longest time, even after the prayers. He listened. Then he put his hands around my toes through the comforter.

“Relax your feet,” he said in a soft voice, and I did.

He said to relax my legs. I was amazed to find that I could and did.

“Now relax your tummy,” he said. I did, knots and tension disappearing as though Dad had helped me wave them away. I felt like a warm blanket was being drawn over me, but on the inside.

“Now relax your arms and your fingers,” he said. “Now your shoulders.”

By the time the magic had reached my head, my eyebrows relaxed, and I fell asleep.

Dad knew how to help me quiet my mind because he had taught himself to quiet his own. No matter how hard a day was, he almost always treated me with respect, if only by keeping his distance when his own emotions were raging.

And he really listened to me. Even though Mom was the reader and writer of the two, Dad liked to claim I grew up to be good with words because he talked to me like a grown-up rather than in baby gibberish when I was an infant.

Conversations were different with the rest of my family. They often fell into trancelike repetition of nonsense once a kid had worn them out: “He needs a good pop upside the head,” they’d say. Or “He’s lazy,” or “She don’t mind when she’s told.” Even warm, loving Betty would brag about how she’d been beaten as a kid and it did her good. “She’s up to something,” grown adults would say about little kids — words of warning like an old fairy tale from a European forest, where a poor child was a burden unless she contributed to the household and obeyed the rules.

Dad never said things like that. He would have troubles with drinking and gambling over the years, but he carried an aura of peace even when our lives were chaotic. He brushed my knotted hair before the sun came up, before he went to work and I went to school. He jotted poetic little notes of wisdom on scraps of paper and put them in my bedroom. When I was older I realized how remarkable all that was in our culture where manliness had a specific definition.

“Writing poems and brushing your daughter’s hair before school isn’t something men brag about, where we’re from,” I told him, reflecting on how nurturing he was by nature.

“It ought to be,” he said.

He was so good with little kids over the years that, even though he never said he wanted me to have my own, I sometimes felt simultaneously relieved I wasn’t a mother and sad that he wasn’t a grandpa to you.

Driving his truck, he would hang his left arm out an open window and let the smell of his wheat fields fill the cab. He barely pushed the gas pedal. The truck seemed to stand still, but through the large, flapping gash in the floorboard under my dangling feet I could see the dirt road moving past. Dad was quiet. The radio was off or tuned to AM. The fields were dirt or green sprouts or blond waves or tall stubble like Dad’s beard. I’d crank my window down and do like Dad.

The place we lived was full of sharp objects, poisons, and frustrations, but there were moments — maybe most moments, on the whole — like in Dad’s truck with the windows down, when the west wind that reached us all the way from the Rockies cleared the air, and I felt more free than I’ve felt in cleaner, safer places.

To find that feeling by myself, I developed a trick I called “doing the reflection.” I’d crawl onto the bathroom countertop and press my face close to the mirror, my breath creating two little circles of fog that disappeared when I inhaled. I would stare into my own eyes. It was important not to blink, for some reason. Then I’d feel a shift inside my head, hear a little “swoosh” like the ocean inside a shell.

My face would suddenly look a little different, my vision was a fraction of a millimeter outside my own eyes. Then I felt calm, unlike the upset child I saw in the mirror.

The poverties that threatened my safety forced me to find that safest place. Eventually I would think of that realm as where we come from, and where we return when we die. That’s where I heard you. That’s the calm center where I received my most important assignment, as the body of a poor girl bound for a different life: to make sure you were never born.

* * *

From Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Smarsh. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer and many other publications. A frequent commentator on class issues in the U.S., she recently was a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction. She lives in Kansas.