The Question

He was a typical UP local who either worked in the copper mine or in the woods. He wore the signature sorrels, a bulging, buttoned flannel shirt and red timberjack cap with ear flaps askew. I can’t imagine how we’d come to be in the same place, but there we were. His question was not delivered aggressively but wasn’t exactly friendly either.

“So, what are you anyway?” My puzzled look gave away that I had no idea what he was asking and I told him so. After he humphed and rolled his eyes he gave it another try.

“So, are you Finlander, Italian, or what?”  Still puzzled, I hesitated a minute and then gave what was to me a logical reply. I’m an American. 

“No, really, what are you?” His impatience was growing. I fumbled around with what I knew of my parent’s background, that Mother was German and French and Dad was Swedish and Norwegian but I ended the conversation still insisting I was an American.

I saw what he was trying to do. Put me in a box that would make him comfortable and would also firm up his expectations of me. He wanted me to fit into his cultural stereotypes. Finlanders are stoic. Italians are emotional. So, what was I with my German/French/Scandinavian background? A puzzle he couldn’t figure out.

I could also see what he was thinking. Here’s another one of those big city people who come up here and think they know everything and that they have a better way of doing things. They come with their money and big cars and think they’re better than everybody else.

And yes, I guess we were some of that.  We had come to the UP for an opportunity. My husband had started a construction company and built chalets at the local ski resorts. I heard it was being said around town that I shouldn’t be working because we were rich. If they only knew how our fly by the seat of your pants operation really was worked.

That was just one of the ways there was a disconnect between them and us. I learned to watch what I said and to whom since everyone was related. I made it a point to not pick up the local dialect filled with ‘you betcha’ s and ‘der you go’ s. I picked my battles regarding a woman’s place in the world.

Being an eternal interloper made me strong. I found others who were from someplace else and we banded together. Turned out I’d live in this unforgiving place for fifteen years, tolerating the social limitations as well as the overabundance of snow. It was a challenging time but one thing I learned was how to answer the question of what I was.



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