WORKING CLASS ROOTS
I wear my working-class roots like Spanx under designer clothes
my grandparents couldn’t afford, wouldn’t even think of owning.
At posh events, my roots poke out at inopportune times,
trying to remember which fork to use,
how to butter my roll, which is my bread plate
before someone realizes—
I am just a pretender.
My working-class roots slip out of my mouth
trying to unremember the mispronunciations
ingrained in my brain
the Napoleon ice cream we enjoyed
in the carton labeled Neapolitan.
For all intensive purposes
I gravel to be forgiven for my mistakes
red-faced with embarrassment—
the nuns correct me.
My working class roots will not stay hidden
like a too-long slip rolled up at the waist,
they shimmy down
at my middle-class boyfriend’s home with his university-educated parents
they talk about world events
listen to classical music at dinner
My family discusses Uncle Joe’s gallbladder operation
the latest side-hustle of my cousin Frankie,
At the sink, I wash the Thanksgiving dinner dishes like hired help
They say loud enough for me to hear,
“She’ll end up an unwed mother. That’s what those Italians do.”
I was 16.
My working-class roots are out of place
like Schlitz at the country club in an Updike short story,
the only first-gen college grad in the boardroom of wealthy trustees
my suit, not quite the right fabric or designer,
isn’t up to the mark.
Back to the faculty after my divorce,
I became a single mother of two small children
like my great-grandmother whose husband died
leaving her with five children.
She couldn’t read, but I had a good education.
My working-class roots are the anchor
my great, great Cornwall grandfather lowered as a mariner,
no matter how many degrees I earn,
languages I speak, or books I read or write,
I am a working-class girl,
always aware of my roots,
always wary of my roots
I am book smart and street smart,
working class and middle class,
both and neither,
I am ever conscious of climbing
of the connections and money I don’t possess,
of the journey of my ancestors
sailing destitute, to America,
some from Calabria and Greece,
others from Cornwall and Wales,
with only a dream, a hope—
only one step away from stepping back
into the precarious divide
separating one class from another.
I am the reason my great-grandparents
worked in the holy hot furnace of the foundry,
the scalding steam of the laundry,
the dangerous whirl of the knitting mill
all without complaint so that one day,
the granddaughter of a custodian could walk
into the classroom of a university
as the professor of a language
his mother never learned to speak.
Joanne L. DeTore, Ph.D., is an associate professor and program coordinator for Interdisciplinary Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she teaches Humanities & Communication courses. Her work has been published in various peer-reviewed journals, including Reed Magazine, where she was a finalist for their Edwin Markham Poetry Prize in 2016, and in Beyond Words, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and Italian Americana, among others.