I Can’t Breathe

I grew up on the east end of Long Island, near the Hamptons, in a lower middle class family of five. When I started school, more than half my classmates were “colored,” as we called them in the 50s. They were children of Long Island’s large migrant population who worked on the duck and potato farms. The Long Island Railroad ran though our town and those tracks marked the divide between white and black residents’ homes. North of the tracks most homes were small, often unkempt shanties that usually had a shiny new car parked in the driveway. The “n” word was prevalent and we used to joke about those sparkling clean cars parked in weed-filled yards. The general attitude in my home and community was that black people were second-class citizens and I believed it.

Despite our financial difficulties, my mother was adamant that I attend college and I entered an upstate university to become an English teacher. Just a handful of black students attended and I vaguely wondered why. I didn’t yet tie that fact to another one:  by the time we graduated from high school in 1959, less than 25% of us were black.

As I was journeying into “happily ever after,” working at my degree, marrying my high school sweetheart, becoming the mother of two sons, the dream suddenly shattered when he disappeared with another woman. I, not yet degreed, was now a single mother of two small children, with a mortgage and without a car or income. I got a job I could walk to but quickly saw the minimum income would not be enough, so I did the unthinkable: I applied for public assistance for my children. In our town, people on public assistance were in the same boat as blacks: we were second class, society’s leaches, looking for a handout.

I could barely breathe the day I applied for “welfare.” I felt so shamed, helpless, and angry. In time I pulled our life back together, returned to college, finished my degree. Yet I never forgot those eighteen months on public assistance. To this day, I vividly remember standing in lines for government surplus food. Each time my check arrived, my face burned with humiliation.

I never became an English teacher either, for having fully experienced the predicament of my fellow “second-class” peers had changed my life. Suddenly I had a passion to help others move ahead in their difficult journeys, as I had been fortunate to do.

Four years ago I retired from a varied human services career, where I often met myself daily in each new client. The challenge to assist remains, yet now we have a new spotlight: police violence. Ferguson and Manhattan blasted to the forefront our crisis of the unnecessary killing of unarmed black men.

When Eric Garner cried out to the police that he couldn’t breathe, beyond the tragedy of his death, he also poignantly articulated the plight of all his peers. When will we all be able to breathe?

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About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I grew there in so many ways and today I'm a long-time editor for the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal, as well as a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site, another unique place in cyberspace. Then, next year, I’ll again be honored to be program chair for our Stories from the Heart national conference in Austin, TX. I have so many loves: first, my three children: my son, Chip and daughter, Polly, both in Virginia; and my youngest daughter, Susan, in Florida, and also dear family and friends. I must also include my cats Hilary (20) and Button (5). Sometimes I foster cats and kittens for the Humane Society, but Button prefers me not to. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. Now, all these years later, I believe I've sliced through the layers to reach the heart of my story, and am presently working on the final revision of my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life.
This entry was posted in Childhood, Family, Kindness, Poverty. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to I Can’t Breathe

  1. Mary Jo, This is profound. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Mary Jo Doig says:

      Thank you, Linda, for this. I’ve been away from my blog for a few weeks now. I hope you received my note about your last blog. It was a beautiful reflection of the depth I know you’ve been searching for. You are in my thoughts and heart with your recent events.

      Like

  2. Elaine Ercolano says:

    The more I learn about you, the more in awe I am about all you have overcome in order to accomplish and contribute all you have – in your personal life, your social work and your writing. Thank you for this beautiful piece which speaks to the pain so many of us feel about the injustices we see in our world. We hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas and a healthy, happy New Year, Elaine

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    • Mary Jo Doig says:

      I just found your note, Elaine. Thank you. I didn’t send my ecards out this year, but did think of you and can say here, a little late: I wish you and your family a year filled with the soft, silent, gentle gifts of the season.

      Like

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