I have a category of things in my mind that’s labeled “Real American.” I started filing things in there early. When I was four, my Malibu Barbie with her big, round sunglasses was a real American. Marcia Brady, with her sheets of blonde hair, was a Real American. 1970s Cadillacs were for Real Americans, as was having the right picnic blanket for 4th of July fireworks and remembering to dress in red, white and blue. The impossibly pretty, star-spangled bicentennial bike my parents got me for my sixth birthday… that was the most Real American thing I could imagine owning.
It was always a nose-pressed-against-the-glass feeling. Real Americans just instinctively knew things I didn’t. They knew that there are different kinds of towels – bath towels and beach towels – and that there were special gadgets for specific circumstances. They knew words like, “picket fence.” Real Americans didn’t peel potatoes with paring knives, like I learned to do, but with special potato peelers. Real Americans didn’t wipe their noses with toilet paper, because they had tissues magically configured for the task.
To contrast just how much “my people” don’t do special gear, I have a strong memory of family friends moving up from Florida and arriving in time for snow. Not only did the kid (about six or seven years old and a couple of years younger than me) not have snow boots, we also didn’t have any to lend him. The grown-ups tied plastic bags over his sneakers and sent us out that way. I was mortified to go out in the street with him looking like that. It wasn’t the first time, but it definitely stands out as a memory of realizing just how poor we really were. For some reason, my child’s mind bound that up with being outsiders, not American.
Americans, in contrast, were amazing.
When I got old enough, I started collecting the badges of Real Americanism. Never mind that it was an image fed by media idealizations and incorrect assumptions. Never mind that it ignored a whole lot of things, like race inequality and the poverty native-born Americans experienced too. Or that consumerism wasn’t a great basis for a national identity. I was on a quest for my Brady Bunch-inspired life. I bought special folders to organize my papers, the way I imagined Real Americans might. I bought the right brand of jeans, the right kind of car and, eventually, a house in the right sort of neighborhood.
But Real Americanism remained elusive.
Symbols of my inadequacy abounded. Like the rain boots, the special ones with the “Joules” logo on the front, called Wellies. (I am too out of the loop to know why they are called Wellies). I remember the first time I spotted them, these rain boots extraordinaire. It was maybe six or seven years ago. They were on the feet of a hip, country-club-going mom in town. It was on a Saturday, down at the swampy lot someone decided to turn into our town’s soccer field. I was coaching my daughter’s team, and my sneakers were mud-caked (the wrong kind, also, not even real cleats). But this mom was in fabulous knee-high rain boots and what looked a lot like riding pants, a hip-length, stylish rain jacket, plus a jaunty scarf. She looked like a Ralph Lauren ad.
Of course. Special footwear for rain. How had it never occurred to me? Because only Real Americans know that there is specialized gear for every occasion.
Try as I might, I couldn’t find the right rain boots. Oh, sure, I made an effort, buying a pair from Target in an odious green. They turned out to not even be the right height, cut off awkwardly mid-calf. After a few months of wear their insoles fell out. Also, I couldn’t remember to check the weather and match my footwear to the expected precipitation. I was a failure as a properly attired Real American.
The other day, they showed up in my Amazon suggestions. Wellies. I clicked on them and put them in my cart immediately. In my ongoing quest to get myself the proper accoutrements of Real Americans, I spent more on rain boots than any non-rain boot-wearing human should spend.
It turns out my Real American boots took their sweet time because, ironically, they were coming from England.
When they finally arrived, I ripped the bag open enthusiastically and pulled them onto my feet. I’d picked a pair with little bees on them, a touch of whimsy emblazoned on my need to belong. My teenage daughter eyed me skeptically. “Not to be mean, but those are hideous. What would 20-year-old you think?” she teased. I twerked at her in my Wellies while singing, “Wellies!” just her get her to stop pointing out the obvious.
It was something about the Wellies that finally helped me see the futility of the chase. Or maybe it was the question: “What would 20-year-old me think?” Would she be happy to know that a quarter century later she’s still searching? The goal post of Real American has been moving a few yards out of reach all of my life. I can go after the right boots, the right gadgets, the right life, or I can finally give up the chase. There’s no one right American way, or right anything, for that matter. I can’t be a real anything except a real me.
I put the boots on and trudged out to my thawing garden. They kept my feet dry as I cleaned off my flower beds. And, for one of the first times, everything was as real as I wanted it to be.