I remember reading the gossipy, absorbing and occasionally trivial Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. It is not really that moving a tale in the abstract: there is no intense suffering and the moral tapestry is less moving than the feeling that you are listening to a small town gossip go on about what she claims is “the Gospel truth” about all of her neighbors and acquaintances (why is this person in books and films always a hair-brained old lady who may not mean well but lacks the biting satirical qualities of a Dorothy Parker or the supposed Glamor of People Magazine’s Hollywood Stars). The truth is, this elderly gossip has this bit of truth, and I cannot say whether the upper class or lower class understand her because I never meet upper class people and largely never find the seedy gossips of the lower class if they exist (feeding, I suppose, on who got who pregnant and which crack-addled drug dealer was captured by the police this week). Yet there is something I imagine to be uniquely Middle Class that is left out of today’s books: our effectual knowledge of everything about in the people in our neighborhood that is none of our business. Oh, of course there are the horror stories of abused wives and adulterous preachers, but actually, I am thinking more of a neighbor of mine who takes her garbage and puts it into her neighbor’s trashcans so that she won’t have to pay for trash company to haul it away.
Just because I don’t want to make enemies out of my friends and acquaintances, I won’t tell some of the juiciest stories. Yet I will tell you that the glory of being middle class is speculating on why people do things that they probably don’t want you to know that they do but that you accidentally–sort of–found out about anyway. Yes, we are all spies, and we spy on each other. That intrepid believer in “small town America” Harry Truman, told somebody that in a rich neighborhood out of town looking for somebody, their own next door neighbor could not identify them. “That would never happen in Independence.” Well, it might not happen on our street (though I only know a few of my neighbors well) yet to tell the truth I am not exactly sure that it is the homey, kind-hearted friendship that Truman probably believed even when he mowed the lawn on Sunday with all the church goers going by.
I will share my favorite goody about that “great friend” with the trash bags. She worked at a prison and thought that the homeless shelters ought to require the homeless to have I.D.’s to prove they were poor enough to enter (so nobody could take advantage). The thing about this person is that she is one of those friends–we won’t comment on how Mom feels but I sometimes want her to go away. Why do I not tell her off? (That is, other than the fact I live in Mom’s house free of charge and she wouldn’t let me do it.) Because despite the fact she could read it here (and that is a worry), nobody in the Middle Class ever admits to not liking somebody who used to be a friend or telling somebody those cruel words supposedly only the Japanese can’t say, “I do not like you.” Of course, Mom takes her quirks in stride–more or less– because Mom is the one person who wanted my father to live a long life if possible, even after his second and third divorces with his soap opera occasionally spilling into our life. I do not know if I really was the great kid every parent wants, but my dad never had to be the great husband any woman would want for her to feel sorry for him while running like heck to get away after the divorce.
My mother “forgives and forgets” to such an exquisite level that she has forgotten how hard my parents’ marriage really was to the point where she is almost nostalgic about the man she never really liked. Of course, she does not think about him much. My sister is similar in only one way: after years of hating Dad she took care of him for the last two years of his life. Now she lives with two of her three adult children in her home, and though they do work minimal jobs they do not cook or clean any (even I can do that for Christ’s sake). Working hard, gossiping about the people you know (friends and enemies alike), and avoiding the friend who really loves discussing religious extremism (less because you object and more because they are a tiresome boor): All of these are fixtures of Middle Class life, like my mother believes gardening and baking zucchini bread are.
I admit that I do not write the gossip much in my books, or if I do I do it unconsciously. Why? Because when I read I actually find that reading about politicians, famous writers and artists, and alien cultures more interesting. When I was in High School, I read biographies. Some of them were about the nice people you would expect: Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt. Some of them were about writers (I aspired to be one): Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And then there were History’s Creeps: Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tzu Tung. I also read the biography of the notorious Mary Lincoln who was not really as great as her husband or as bad as Hitler but was unfailingly interesting. I was a chatterbox and people got sick of me I am sure. Yet I have to admit to finding them interesting–perhaps more interesting than my neighbor who places her garbage into our trashcan if we aren’t careful.