My family and I belong to the largely undefined social group of Weird. I first learned this in elementary school, but it continued to be a theme until I graduated from high school. We lived on a dirt road far outside the city proper in the middle of a part of the county full of those people, meaning mostly farmers and migrant workers. We might technically have had the money to be considered as upper middle-class, but in the eyes of the largely white, largely conservative community of the city of Grand Haven, we were not one of them, especially not at school. Granted, we were also white, but we were still considered odd. This fact was driven home during various conversations with classmates over the years that usually included these three things at some point:
PLACE OF ORIGIN:
Other Person: “I live on [insert local street/sub-division name here]. What about you?”
Me: “I live on 136th Avenue.”
OP: (Brief silence.) “Uh…where?”
Me: “Ottawa County.”
OP: “Where’s that?”
Me: “Robinson Township.”
OP: “Oh, you live out there. Weird.”
SCHOOL OF ORIGIN:
OP: “I went to Mary A. White, where did you go to elementary school?”
Me: “I was in the Voyager Program.”
OP: “What’s that?”
Me: “An open-classroom program at Ferry Elementary.”
OP: (Brief silence.) “You went to Ferry? Weird.”
OP: “Well, I mostly live with my [insert primary parent/guardian here] but I sometimes spend weekends with [insert secondary parent/guardian here].” (There were also variations to this situation that included a more even split of time spent in each household.)
Me: “Oh, I live with my parents and my brother and sister.”
OP: “Your parents are still together?”
Me: “Yeah, why?”
OP: “Dunno. It’s just weird.”
Don’t get me wrong, I had friends and knew people whose parents were also still together, and there were also some people who knew about Ferry and where I lived, but on the whole, my family was something of an anomaly. We were Weird because of things my siblings and I were not allowed to have. We never had—and to this day still do not have—cable television. We didn’t have dial-up internet until I was in seventh or eighth grade, and even then the only thing we used it for was my mom’s work email. We had enough money that while my siblings and I might not have ranked among the rich kids at school, we never had to worry about how much things cost. I remember it drove me nuts thinking about the things I could have had but didn’t because my parents wouldn’t buy them for me. I was painfully aware that there was very little difference in monetary worth between myself and a large portion of the other kids at my school; the difference was in how my parents used it. This was important, because what school taught me—besides what I learned in class—was that when one had money, one spent it on things to make oneself look cool. The latest hairstyle, brand-name clothes, the coolest accessories. These were not the things my parents spent money on. Instead of X-Boxes, PlayStations, Gameboys, or cellphones, my parents bought books, practical clothes, and toys that didn’t involve screens. My mom cut my brother’s and dad’s hair, which meant no fashionable hairstyles. Hair wasn’t really a problem for me because by this point in time I’d already developed my own style and was happy with it, but I was highly discouraged from experimenting with make-up, even though most of the girls in my class wore eye-shadow and mascara.
In school I also learned that in addition to money and good looks, the most important thing one could have was the ability to manipulate people—a trait I lacked. It seemed to me that everyone lied, everyone cheated, and everyone had an ulterior motive for talking to me—usually because no one voluntarily did that unless they were a teacher or I’d been friends with them for years. The moral of the story was to never let people get too close or they’d turn around and stab you in the back. To me, everything in school was a game, a perpetual power struggle between the labeled social groups. Everyone was a part of some group that saw only itself and regarded everyone else as Other; we were never just teenagers going to the same school, never just plain old ordinary human beings.
But it wasn’t just what my parents didn’t buy that set us apart; it was also what they did buy. Besides the books and the clothes and the boring games, my mom bought "weird" groceries. She made my brother and me lunches nearly every day—we’d gotten over our love of hot lunch rather quickly—and the looks I got when I opened my lunchbox were often confused. Most people didn’t recognize whole wheat bread, because it didn’t look like the “whole-wheat” fluff bread one gets at a large chain store like Meijer or Wal-Mart. Our bread was thick and brown, not thin and white. It did not squish down into a ball the size of a shooter marble, plus—horror of horrors—it had crust. Even the things my mom made for dinner set us apart. I remember one conversation I had with a classmate about spaghetti sauce, where I mentioned that my mom liked to put onion in hers when she made it. The classmate then looked at me like I had three heads.
One dinner in particular comes to mind when I think about my family and our perpetual title of Weird. It was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. It was in late July, maybe August, and it must have been a Saturday because blue fabric Meijer bags were all over the kitchen floor full of fresh produce from the farmer’s market downtown. We had some friends coming over for dinner that evening, a family we referred to as a unit: The Gerhardts, which included Yvette and her three children, Ben, Claire, and Anne. This was a big deal because they were coming all the way from Asheville, North Carolina, and we hadn’t seen them since they moved there a few years before.
On the day I’m remembering, I started noticing things that I hadn’t on previous occasions when the Gerhardts had come to visit. My mom had started preparing for their arrival before I even hauled myself out of bed sometime around noon, putting pieces of chicken and vegetables in her special marinade and letting them chill in the fridge. This was normal—but the amount she was making wasn’t. I knew my mom had a rule that said to always make extra whenever one had guests, but I didn’t think it required three times the normal amount she cooked. Then I started remembering things about the Gerhardts that I hadn’t before. I’d known they had less money than our family did, but this was when the differences I was noticing began to mean something. Their house before they moved away was smaller than ours and badly in need of repair. They’d always had very little food when we went to visit. But none of this had mattered until now, because school had taught me that money mattered. Now I realized my mom was making extra because she knew this was one of the best meals they were going to have for a long time, and she wanted them to be able to eat until they were full for once. Four people over five foot ten can pack away a lot of food, but they hadn’t had enough money to keep up with their needs.
By the time the Gerhardts showed up around five thirty in the evening, the chicken was in the oven and my brother was cleaning some green beans. Once they arrived, there was much hugging and happiness, and then my mom set us all up with things to do. I was on corn-shucking duty with Anne out on the back deck, but again, I started noticing little details that suddenly mattered because school had taught me that they did. They had only brought sweet corn to contribute to the dinner, and it was corn they’d gotten free from a friend. Their clothes were obviously second-hand and shabby second-hand at that. Their pants were all too short—granted, it’s difficult to find enough pants that fit four people who are over five foot ten and incredibly skinny—and a couple of their shirts had frayed edges. My new awareness of the gap between the incomes in our families sat badly with me, poking me in the back of my mind every so often. School had taught me that money mattered, and the fact that everyone around me was ignoring it made me uncomfortable. But, I said nothing and went on listening to the cicadas and enjoying the evening. I remember the sun was at that golden summer angle that makes the tops of the trees look like they’re on fire. The deck faces west, and I could tell it hadn’t rained in a few days because I could smell the dust from our road, even though it was on the other side of the house.
I was sitting there finishing getting the last of the silk off the last ear of corn when Anne mentioned casually that the chicken in the oven sure smelled good and boy was she hungry. This led to a general consensus from the rest of us that we were hungry too. The sound of dishes inside meant my brother and sister were setting the table, but my mom yelled over the sound of the exhaust fan above the stove that dinner was going to be a while, so she’d “come up with something to soothe the savage beasts.” What she came up with was garlic.
In my family, one can never have too much garlic. By that I mean when a recipe says something like “add two cloves of garlic, crushed,” my mother puts in four or five. When she cans pickles, she’ll add six or seven cloves to the jar along with the brine and cucumbers, and when we were little my parents had to make a rule that all the pickles in a jar had to be gone before anyone could eat the garlic cloves at the bottom. Even friends of our family like the stuff, and you can tell who we consider good friends because we always ask how much extra garlic to put into a dish rather than if they actually want any extra. The more they ask for, the better we like them and the more probable it is that we’ve been friends with them for a very long time.
Garlic itself is a root vegetable, in the same family as onions, leeks, and chives. According to both my mother and Wikipedia, it’s good for keeping your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels low, so maybe that’s why this memory has so many relaxed, happy feelings attached to it. My mom washed four very large heads of garlic and put them in her favorite white ceramic baking dish with the orange flower painted on the side, then stuck them in the oven and let them bake. It didn’t take long for them to get done, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, but it seemed like longer at the time because we were hungry. My mom said she didn’t want us to dirty the dishes on the table before we ate dinner off them, so instead she and Yvette herded us out onto the deck, and then we proceeded to eat it. Plain. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had. Then Claire decided that she needed some bread to go with this delicious treat. That was an absolutely decadent idea. It had the same consistency as hummus, so it was easy to scoop with a spoon and spreadable. When I slathered a slice of bread with a spoonful of garlic topped with just a dab of butter, it was like eating summer. Summer is supposed to be full of relaxation, family, good friends, and fun, right? That was what this was. My mom had bought a baguette that she had planned to serve with dinner, but, I’m not sorry to say, it never made it to the table. It took us maybe fifteen minutes to finish every last bit of the baguette and all four heads of garlic, with us fencing against each other with our spoons in mini-duels if there was a particular clove that two of us wanted. All that was left after that were crumbs, the papery skins, and the ceramic dish with its orange flower, still warm from the oven.
I think it was somewhere in the midst of spoon-dueling with Claire that I realized I had been viewing this whole Weird situation completely wrong. I had been thinking about how the Gerhardts ranked even higher than my family on the Weird Scale because they’d been homeschooled for a long time, but then it dawned on me that there was no Weird Scale at my house. There never had been. Nobody there cared about who was prettier, who was more popular, or who had more money. It was suddenly clear that my parents could have bought me everything that would have made me “cool,” I could have bent over backwards to fit in, but I would likely have been just as miserable as I usually was in school even with all the “right” things. On the back deck in the summer heat and mosquitos, it occurred to me that what made me happy was exactly what was going on right then: I was in a comfortable, familiar place surrounded by people who knew and loved me for myself, flaws included.