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What They — And I — Remembered

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Last weekend, I travelled to a village about three hours from my New York City apartment. I have visited about two dozen countries and lived in one besides the United States. Yet I felt more like a stranger in that place, so close to my home yet a world apart.

New York is often cited, along with California and Massachusetts, as one of the “bluest” states in this country. While we elect Democrats by wide margins to national offices and the Governor’s Mansion, it’s mainly because the Empire State’s population is concentrated in New York City, Albany, and a few smaller urban areas. Beyond those metropoli are rural expanses like the Adirondacks and Rust Belt towns.

It is in the latter enclaves that one finds the detritus of a tide that receded after World War II. Someone once quipped that the Statue of Liberty was chosen as a state symbol because the splintered remains of a barn or the weathered bricks of an abandoned factory wouldn’t make for very good public relations.

But those barns and plants would be good stand-ins for not only what has left the state but what remains in much of it. As agriculture corporatized and moved south and west, manufacturing followed the same trajectory before leaving these shores altogether. The sorts of folks who vacationed in the Catskills and Adirondacks would follow suit once relatively affordable flights to more exotic locales became available; and the young decamped for Albany, New York, and other larger cities; the ones left behind felt like children whose parents broke promises to, and abandoned, them.

The promise, whether explicit or implicit, was that as long as they worked hard and did what they were told, they would have jobs that paid them well enough to support their families and, perhaps, spend a week or two in a cabin by a lake. And the fact that they were their families’ providers would give them a place at the head of their tables and the top of their food chains.

What I realized during my recent trip is that such people — nearly all of them white men, almost none of whom continued their education beyond high school, and many of whom “served their country” when they were sent to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan — were just like the man who occasioned my trip.

He was my uncle — and godfather, which, if you grew up Catholic, is almost as important as your biological father. I was there to attend a memorial service for him. He’d passed a week and a half earlier, nominally from a heart attack but, I believe, also from health problems many years in the making. While growing up, I spent a lot of time with him, as we didn’t live very far from each other and, I believe, we had a great love for each other that survived the changes each of us experienced.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I am a transgender woman. My gender affirmation didn’t seem to change his affection for me. In retrospect, that seems particularly remarkable given a change he underwent: About twenty years ago, a near-fatal auto accident caused him to re-evaluate much in his life and “accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” Until that time, his relationship to the Catholic faith in which he’d been raised wasn’t much different from mine after I’d drifted away, although I had yet to declare myself a full-blown atheist.

The pastors who presided over his memorial remarked on how avidly he read and studied the Bible and how important prayer had become in his life. In a few of our conversations, he said, “I’m not Catholic, I’m Christian.” My aunt echoed that declaration. At the memorial, other members of his church and Bible study groups echoed the pastors’ assessment of my uncle. With the exception of one man, who looked young enough to be one of the pastor’s grandsons, they seemed remarkably similar to my aunt and uncle: white people without much formal education who worked hard but, because of changes in the economy (and culture) could not reap what they believed to be the rightful fruits of their efforts. And they were marooned in a place that international economic neo-liberalism (in the classical definition of that term) had left behind.

In other words, the tide receded, and they were grasping at anything they could. They aren’t stupid but they don’t understand what left them where they are, any more than I — with a formal science education that ended before Reagan and Thatcher took their offices — can tell you what causes the waves to turn back toward the horizon. I hope I don’t seem condescending in saying that such people are easy prey for whomever and whatever would present themselves as saviors, or who or what would at least offer an easy explanation of why they are in their current plight. More important to those who feel helpless, those who preyed on them offered scapegoats, and the hope that everything will be better, if not tomorrow, then some day, some day.

While my uncle didn’t express the resentment toward non-white, non-Christian, non-cisgendered folks who “took” something by gaining the same rights other people enjoy — and, if this sounds self-interested, accepted me — he did grasp at a straw of hope offered to him when he was at his most vulnerable. At his memorial, I realized that vulnerability and the fear it engenders when one hasn’t learned how to deal with it, made him, and his fellow church and Bible study members easy “marks” — not only for the promise of an afterlife that resembled the one they’d lost or yearned for, but for someone who parlayed the silver spoon that was in his mouth when he was born into reality TV stardom and multiple bankruptcies. At least my uncle didn’t vote for him. But that’s not the only reason I miss him.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    This is beautiful, MJ. Your uncle sounds like a special man, who loved you the way you are even with his faith.

    Not everyone in rural America is angry over globalization shifting jobs, but conservatives certainly outnumber liberals/progressives/leftists/etc in rural America by a large percentage. I even know people who are happy with their lives. But you’re right, too many are resentful of the life they didn’t get that they think they deserve.

  2. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Religious belief is, among evangelical fundies, a ravenous dog. The beast devours and is merciless. As we age and become more vulnerable in ways, the pack of dogs move in to nip and corner us… I wonder if it might be possible to sneak a stun gun into one’s death bed so that upon arrival of the bloodsucking mutts, they could be lit up with shocking insight before they ‘comfort’ you with threats of hell.
    At any rate, your touching memory of your uncle is palpable and I am happy to know that his late-arrival to Jesus did not diminish the man’s natural ability to love and care for you.

  3. Avatar

    MJ, I am sorry for the loss of your uncle.

    It is sad driving through rural NY State (and other parts of the country) seeing the abandoned factories, businesses, restaurants, hotels, etc., that represented a “golden age” long gone. And contrast that with driving through booming cities like Nashville or Boise which change with newly constructed buildings every time you visit.

    I wonder how the aftermath of covid with more people demanding to continue working from home will bring about further change. I interview people for job positions at work, and now one of the 1st questions concerns whether or how many days a person can work from home. Some businesses are embracing WFH culture, others are pushing back. Will WFH culture possibly revitalize those rust belt areas with people moving to more affordable housing and open space? Will cities be drained of workers? Interesting ideas to ponder.

  4. Avatar

    As a lifelong resident of upstate New York I have to say it’s complicated. For every forgotten town in the southern tier there are also flourishing towns like Ithaca, there are unspoiled wilderness wonderlands and towns like Plattsburgh and Fredonia, Geneseo and Cortland that have state colleges in them and many who do understand what’s happened and are fighting to make NYS a decent place to live.

    Most of the time when I see certain flags and banners they seem to be on down at the mouth properties and I honestly what to ask what the faux news crowd has done for them lately.

    Also Buffalo remains the second largest city in NYS…

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    BJW and Brian–My uncle was indeed special. He had his faith, but he managed to remain true to himself. That included the way he loved people, especially those closest to him. Everyone, including me, who gave testimonies about him mentioned that.

    OC–I think it will be interesting to see whether WFH revives upstate areas, some of which are quite lovely and affordable. I know that some of those Catskills towns that were given up for dead 30 or 40 years ago are experiencing mini-revivals from NYC people who are relocating–or who couldn’t fly or take long-distance trains during the lockdowns.

    Autumn–I didn’t mean to paint all of upstate with a gray, sooty brush. You are right about college towns–I particularly like Oneonta and New Paltz. Plattsburgh also isn’t bad: It’s on Lake Champlain and an hour from Montreal.

    Also, I recommend the Finger Lakes and Adirondacks to visitors. I got some of my own love of the North Country from my uncle, who took me there. His love of it–and my aunt’s family ties–are the reasons why they moved upstate a few years before his accident.

    When Buffalo held the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, it was the nation’s seventh-largest city, larger than any city west of the Mississippi.. At the Expo, it tried to portray itself as a “world city” by showing how it could rival Paris (then the model for cities) as the “City of Light” with power from Niagara Falls. Alas, the fair was a bust because of the bad weather that depressed attendance–and because President McKinley was assassinated there. Some, including historian Margaret Creighton, have said, in essence, that Buffalo never recovered from its ill-fated Expo, and it’s been largely forgotten because most of its structures are gone.

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Bruce Gerencser