A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.
“Jean shorts again?” my husband says, reading a draft of an essay I’m reworking. I look at the paper in his hand and strike through the description of my grandmother’s frayed, cut-off jean shorts with a pen—though she was wearing them over a faded one-piece swimsuit with a sweetheart neckline—but I leave the Winston smoldering in her hand and the “cheek meat” frying on her stove.
Maybe I rely too heavily on the shorts that characterized my family’s wardrobe nearly forty years ago, or on swirling Kmart Bluelight Specials and the steel-toed work boots left by a patio screen door. Perhaps I call too regularly on the keg my grandparents kept year-round and from which my grandfather, father, and uncle drank freely—alcoholism and railroading flowing through three generations of men like the Platte River near my grandparents’ home. (I have a hundred more details where these came from, though in my writing they’re spread out and used sparingly, not lumped together like the lard my mother scooped out of a can before cooking biscuits and gravy). How else do I convey the texture of an upbringing that had its start in a small Nebraska town, in what my father calls a “crackerbox house,” a rundown home for poor white people like us?
It is a certain kind of Midwestern essay that is intimately and urgently familiar to me, one that doesn’t worry about its descriptions reaffirming the nation’s laziest assumptions about Flyover Country, if that is the lived reality of it (though there is one assumption I will correct: my family are Democrats, as many folks who belong to labor unions are). In Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh—who, like me, is a first-generation college graduate—explores the complexities of the white working class and growing up in the rural Midwest during a time when America refused to acknowledge class existed. When I first flipped through Heartland, my eyes landed on phrases like “chapped hands with bruised fingernails,” “a flat stretch of grass and dirt,” “old warsh bins,” and I knew I’d found a kindred spirit, someone who recognized these details shape the stories of how we see ourselves, even if other people can’t see past them to our full humanity. Smarsh doesn’t romanticize the working poor’s survivalist grit, either, deftly cataloging her family’s job-related illnesses and injuries. Unfortunately, I found parallels there, too: Fibers from the asbestos used in train parts accumulated in my grandfather’s lungs over the years he worked as a machinist. My father suffers from emphysema, caused from years of smoking cigarettes and inhaling diesel exhaust from trains. Working-class jobs have always come at a great personal cost to the laborer, which the more privileged among us have historically chosen to ignore (or show contempt for). Smarsh writes: “Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth.”
My two daughters are far removed from the working-class culture I was raised in. They’ve never detasseled corn or heard the cornstalks exhaling from each slender row. Or learned how to waterski in a murky lake, their grandmother yelling out advice from the dock so their skis don’t cross in a giant X in front of them. I count these and other similar moments among their childhood losses, though I’m grateful they’ve never had to wait with their father in an unemployment line after yet another Union Pacific Railroad lay-off, their eyes lingering on shoes or handbags, never on anyone else’s face. I don’t often pockmark—or invigorate, depending on how you look at it—my writing with greasy symbols of socioeconomic class anymore because I’m living a college-educated, professional, city life with all the usual trappings in Omaha, the second largest city in the Great Plains. From time to time, though, I still summon forth my family in their cut-off jean shorts—maybe we’re floating down a river on inner tubes with coolers of cheap beer, the water so filthy we can’t see the longnose gar swimming next to us, tied to each other by rope and laughter—and I bear witness to both the ugliness and beauty of it, the place and truth of where I’m from.
Jody Keisner’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Normal School, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, and many other places. Her book Under My Bed and Other Essays is forthcoming (U of Nebraska P, 2022). Read more of her work at https://www.jodykeisner.com.