We didn’t choose to spend Thanksgiving in Middletown, Ohio, merely because I’d recently read Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. But when we decided to travel to our college girl instead of asking her to make the second 4.5-hour trip from Cincinnati to Cleveland this month, it did enter our minds that maybe Middletown could use a little of our holiday spending.
I also didn’t seek out the story that I received from the breakfast attendant at the hotel. This is just a thing that happens to me. I can literally walk down the street, nod good afternoon to someone, and the next thing I know, I’ve heard about the spouse who they stopped loving before the accident, but who they now feel chained to by a crippling honor. Fortunately, the breakfast attendant’s story was a lot more uplifting than that one.
The image that stuck with me were the tied shoes in bed. If I understood her correctly, those were included in the early morning ritual that she follows nearly every school day.
Her family, she said, was pretty dysfunctional. That’ll happen after a couple of generations of crime and drugs and despair. But she felt like things were heading in a better direction now. Kin who were lifting the family average had custody of the children while those facing harder times tried to get their acts together.
That’s how she came to find herself with two school-aged children at home, just when the nest had started to feel less filled with the squawking cries of the unfledged. She was glad to have them, wanted to help, and she knew she could manage it if she just got a good system. The tied shoes were part of her current strategy.
See, her job demands early rising. Her employer had found a way to help with that part: she gets a wake up call at 4:30 from the hotel’s switchboard. They’re glad to do this. Sometimes that caller, working almost alone in the silence of a slumbering hotel, seems eager to chat. But she’s got to cut it short. She’s got three people to dress.
At eight and ten, you’d think that the grandkids would be able to dress themselves, but that isn’t the sort of early training they got. With one parent dead and the other incapacitated, learning skills like buttoning, tying, tucking and zipping would have been as likely as learning cello and Japanese. They’ve only been with their grandma for a few months, and it takes pretty much as long to learn life skills later as it does sooner.
So at 4:30 on school days, the breakfast attendant gets them out of bed, hoping that the rest they’ve received so far has been mostly adequate to their needs. She leads them quietly through face-washing, tooth-brushing, dressing in school clothes and tying shoes, hoping that they can do these things while remaining mostly unconscious in the pre-dawn darkness. Once they’re dressed for their day, they lay back down for a few more hours of sleep.
Then she leaves for work, hoping that her adult son really will wake in time to get the school kids up for the second time. She crosses her fingers that the 10-year-old really will watch out the front window for their ride while he eats his cereal or toast. She prays that they will both attend to school work, learn a lot, stay away from drugs, find work they love, live happily to old age.
I assume that this hopefulness fills much of her waking thought. That is undoubtedly why, given a nearby bucket with a little room left to hold them, she poured off some of her excess thoughts on Thanksgiving morning.
The next story I heard in the breakfast room was told by an older gentleman, and it was about how this holiday is ruined now that they refuse to stand for the flag. That one ends tragically.