Finding the Midwestern Woman in”the wild”

Occasionally you will see a Midwestern Woman outside of the normal boundaries that constitute the Midwest. The internal drive that brought our ancestors to the Midwest, has beckoned that Midwestern Woman to seek new shores. She ventures to the unknown with her knowledge of casseroles, polite domesticity and car maintenance.

That surprised me more than anything: how many westerners (Pacific coast in particular), women (and men too), who lacked basic car maintenance skills.  This may have to do with the fact that cars are a non-necessity in the western urban centers, with their fancy train lines and efficient bus routes and accessible bike lanes.  However, most Native Westerners that I met, did in fact own a vehicle, and their lack of understanding of how a car functions and the most basic of car emergencies, would throw them for a loop.

When I was 15, I did not take drivers education classes, I did not go to get a learners permit.  My father, who had a chalkboard in our kitchen (that featured inspirational quotes such as: “Eat Lightening. Crap Thunder.” or “Win if you can.  Lose if you must.  But always cheat.” or “What is good in life?  To crush thine enemies, to see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women.”) He had erased it and drawn the basics of a combustible engine.  He had drawn the engine, with the fuel lines and the fuel tank.  There was the oil stick with a pink chalk line to represent the red handle to check the oil with.  There was a blue chalk box representing the coolant container with description of “when hot”/”when cool”. The whole engine that was a replica of the engine sitting in my driveway, the family boat: a 1981 Thunderbird.

This 1981 Thunderbird was either a dark cream or a light yellow depending on the time of day.  It’s headlights were hidden behind these garage like doors with the Thunderbird Logo that would flip up automatically when you started the car.  It had POWER WINDOWS and a cassette deck!  It was a top of the line, beautiful beast of a car with faux leather seats and wood panel inserts on the dashboard.  It also had a “handi-help” (a little knob attached to the steering wheel to turn the wheel) which was so awesome to drive with, but a cop eventually made me remove it as it had been “recalled” as a choking hazard to women with long necklaces.  One choked out lady ruined it for the rest of us. Dad bought this amazing piece of machinery from the lady across the park who sold it to my father for an unbelievable $3,500.00.  Although it was “the family car”, it was understood that this would allow my mother to not have to drive me to the multitude of school activities and would also allow my parents to get their empty nest a little earlier.

My father took the chalkboard and me to the Thunderbird and went over in detail what would be expected of me as a car owner.  He showed me where all the belts were and described the sound it would make once one of the belts broke, or were off their line.  He had me check the oil, and read the stick.  He showed me the coolant and how to read the levels.  He walked me through what to do when the car overheats, how to test the cap to make sure the car is cooled down enough to add water and coolant mixture.  He handed me a milk crate with oil, coolant, water and rags to put in the trunk.  In the trunk was an empty gas can, a heavy duty jack and crow bar, and a full tire (no “donuts” for these animals of the road).  He had me take out the jack, crow bar and tire and he watched me change a tire… twice, just to make sure I knew what I was doing.  I didn’t need coaching for this- I’d been helping him and watching him change tires my whole life.  It was only then that my dad drove me to the park behind our house, to the empty parking lot and had me get behind the wheel for my first drive.

This detailed exhibit by my father isn’t just something that happened to me.  So many of the  Midwestern Women I know had similar experiences with their father.  Perhaps it wasn’t a car, but a horse, or an airplane, or a tractor but at some point, a Midwestern Woman will learn a stereotypically male art form from their father.  This rite of passage bonds us to our fathers, connects us to them all while creating an independence of self.  The fact I can change a tire in under 10 minutes is something my own husband cannot and will not do.  He says “That’s why I have Triple A.” Yet, it is something he loves to brag on me about, a notch on my belt, a signifier that his wife is more than she seems.

I never thought of this as something special here in the Midwest.  Most of my girlfriends knew a bit about their cars, could maintain their vehicles or had some aspect of themselves that was “masculine”.  It wasn’t until venturing into the unknown of the west that I particularly noticed how little people knew about the machinery they travelled in.  It became a tell on whom I was dealing with.  Not that it wasn’t hard to find the Midwestern Woman in the wild.  In fact, we were drawn into each other, found each other and even found people who had traces of the Midwestern Woman in them, although they were born on the coast.

One friend in particular that I met in Eugene, OR was from San Diego, CA.  However, when I first met her I was drawn to her ease and down to earth nature.  Her humor was Midwestern, biting and dry, and she had the assurance of a Midwestern Woman.  She didn’t take shit from anyone, gave it out to those who deserved it and yet danced with a feminine grace and walked with a certain sashay and I assumed she was one of my Midwestern Brethren.  When I learned she was in fact from San Diego, I thought my radar may have been broken, but I then learned that she spent her formative years in Arkansas as a college student at Lyons College.  That is where she had defined herself as I had met her; and the Midwestern palate was palpable.

In Eugene and Portland, OR where I spent seven years of my life growing and exploring and learning more about myself than I could imagine; I met many transplants such as myself looking for Mecca.  The fact that I can count the “Native Oregonians” I was friends with on one hand says a lot about what has happened to Oregon city centers in the last decade or two.  Or it says a lot more about the circles we create, and how hard it can be to break away from your roots.  Regardless, the majority of my friends were Midwesterners.  There were a sprinkling from the East Coast and a rather large contingent from Arizona in particular, but our closest friends, the ones we see and speak with on a regular basis hail from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.  We’d seek each other out, find each other watching sports (a decidedly anti-west coast thing to do… unless your team is in the playoffs or it’s become a hipster friendly activity for a second until its “so last year”), see the baseball cap and know its a friendly face, or spy each other at Creole inspired restaurants.  You’d learn to ask people “Where’re you from?” and then ask the obligatory “Hawkeye or Cyclone?”, “Cub or Cardinal?” or “St. Paul Saints or Twins?”.  We learned how to decipher our hatred of the Chicago Blackhawks from the love of the Portland Winterhawks by glancing at the sleeve of a hockey sweater looking for a P or a C before we started heckling.  We would heckle, and like a mating call in the wilderness, the Midwesterners would come out of the woodwork and buy a round and shake hands and become fast friends.

I would know I was in a Midwestern Household, when there were beer and alcohol and food provided, even if you were just stopping by.  You know when a Midwestern person was visiting you, as they always brought a six pack at least, a side dish and probably a $10 bill for the keg they assumed you bought for the occasion.  The Midwestern women were brash and unapologetic, unless they feared they really wronged you and then they apologized profusely.  They didn’t judge your hallway of family photographs or the un-hipster shrine to Cardinals Baseball, or your use of tablecloths or habit of drinking out of jars (before it became fashionable).  They eased into the homes because it reminded them of their homes, of their sisters homes of their aunts house and a little of their grandmas.  They didn’t flinch at random yelling, or random singing or random displays of affection showcased as “toasts”.  The huzzahed alongside.

Recognizing that Roland and I refused to shed our Midwestern Roots, while others inter-wed with the Westerners and slowly became West Coast -I’m talking to you Iowa 😉 Roland and I knew it was time to come back to where we belong.  However, the seven years on the coast have tempered us a bit and there are times that I feel “my west coast is showing”.  I’m suddenly a bike riding person.  I am pickier about what types of food I eat.  I have a taste for better coffee, better beer and wine.  However, I can still change a tire in under 10 minutes and can tell when my 1985 Impala’s belts are loose and never miss and oil change.  Can’t take the Midwestern outta the Girl!


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