These days I consider myself fairly privileged— comfortably middle class (by any definition), White, highly educated, healthy in mind and body. I live in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood in the northeast. Only upon hearing me speak, with a thick I-dialect and unconventional syntax characteristic of southern West Virginia, might you wonder about my background.
I was reared in one of the poorest, white working class regions of the US. It’s true I had a home, and although there was plenty of dysfunction, more or less I grew up knowing I was loved. My parents weren’t missionaries or activists, or outsiders of any kind, really. They were not educated. During my childhood, I had a kind of privilege, but class privilege was not something I enjoyed for most of my life.
I read this piece in The Bitter Southerner the other day by David Joy about how outsiders don’t understand rural southern culture, particularly what it means to live in a trailer. Although my trailer tales aren’t as hardscrabble and traumatic as Joy’s, I share his assessment of what living in a trailer means in those backwoods places in the south.
When I was a small child, when my biological parents were still married, we lived in a trailer next to my grandparents, a common living situation in southern Appalachia. Eventually my dad built his first house and we lived there for a couple years until my parents divorced. My dad remarried; shortly thereafter he sold the house and we lived in another trailer, in a small trailer park, while he built a new house.
From that point on, neither set of my parents lived in trailer homes, but their homes could pass for one—especially my dad’s place, a 3-bedroom ranch with white siding and black shutters. Every outsider I bring home to meet the folks assumes it is a double-wide. Dad, more or less, built the house himself. I can remember being on-site when he and some other family members dug the foundation and framed the house on the hill.
What I remember of my maternal grandparents, was that they lived in a built-on trailer. If you’ve never seen one, typically it is a single wide trailer with rooms added on in the back. Usually they have a big front porch too. My aunts and uncles, almost all of them had a single-wide at some point, as did many of the friends whose homes I visited. My point here is to demonstrate that trailers were a very normal part of my childhood. They were just one of the kinds of houses people lived in. Of course they marked a family’s class within the community, but it didn’t, and doesn’t, have the same stigma as it does in more urban areas, where trailers and trailer parks are often barred.
I once lived in one of these just-outside-of-town trailer parks. During my second marriage, when I was 20, my husband (at-the-time) and I bought a new 14×70 trailer and rented a lot in a nice trailer park outside of town. A wiry, old man in a big car, one of those boats from the 70’s or 80’s, lived in and managed the park. He’d drive around with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, making sure people had their grass mowed, that cats and dogs weren’t running around wreaking havoc, that people had nice looking underpinning. It was a nice place to live.
If you drive through rural areas in the US you will undoubtedly come across many trailers. But nowhere are they as numerous as in the southern mountainous areas. Some are dilapidated, sad-looking places; others are sweet homes, nicely maintained, surrounded by flower gardens. Both cared for and neglected, just like any other type of home in any given neighborhood.