Finding the American Dream

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| This is the 94th story of Our Life Logs |


I grew up in Maryland in the 1940s and 1950s. During this time in the United States, children were free to play outside without much danger. It was a simpler yet happier time, a time to look back on fondly in light of today’s world. My entire life has been that of a typical middle-class American. If I laid out my story on a timeline, you’d see that I hit all the key points of the American life. I had the good job, the house, and the husband—well, for most of the time.

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I was an only child. My father worked as a sub-contractor and my mother did his books. We were not wealthy, but comfortable. I had everything I needed and a little of what I wanted, too.

Yet, despite the carefree nature of my world, I often found myself a bit lonely. My parents were older than those of my peers, so they didn’t play with me much or volunteer at my school when I was a child. I had to go over to other kids’ houses to find a playmate. Entertaining myself just wasn’t easy. I was often bored, lonely, and groomed to be self-centered. Since my parents couldn’t be friends to me, they often just gave me what I wanted to make up for it. I was an argumentative and stubborn child who simply wanted things to go her own way, and more often than not, they did.

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This air of selfishness carried over into my high school years. Everything went smoothly for me. I had my first love, went to proms with dates, and frequented the beach in the summer. Things easily fell into place for me, and I got what I wanted pretty much all the time. People paid attention to me and made me a priority. This felt reassuring after years of loneliness. I was confident my future would be just as bright and that everything would work in my favor. But of course, my confidence didn’t last forever.

It was first crushed during the first round of high school sorority invitations when I wasn’t included on their lists. The loneliness that I thought was gone had returned in that moment. Maybe people didn’t like me like I thought. Embarrassment, hurt, and sadness overwhelmed me. It knocked the wind out of my confidence. I felt left out and stunned. For the first time I realized that things weren’t always going to work my way. It gave me a much-needed reality check. The world isn’t going to always hand you things. You must take them for yourself.

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I went to college while the Vietnam War was in full bloom. My college boyfriend was afraid of the draft, so we got married. In that time, getting married meant you dodged serving in the military. I was too young and naïve for this step. Our marriage was driven more by circumstance than it was by love. My new husband was controlling, which made me regret the decision sometimes. We were both self-centered and simply butted heads too often. Nevertheless, we managed to move along.

I finished college in 1965 with a degree in Education, and I took on one of the few professions available to women at the time, a high school biology teacher. With both of us working, we were able to buy a modest three-bedroom ranch house and own two cars—one old, one new. Even though we still fought, I thought to myself, “life is good,” as I looked at the material things we had.  But that contented feeling wouldn’t last long.

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A few more years into our marriage, we had two kids—a boy and a girl. Then I started to realize that I hated my teaching career because it made me feel anxious. I was afraid of dealing with high school students that could be so cruel. I quit and stayed home with our kids while their dad was busy working a high-powered job. We were moving up in the world, but that sense of loneliness I had as a child crept back in. Not having my husband around most of the day while I took care of kids made me feel alone and overworked.

Then, the worst hit in. Mental illness ripped at the fabric of our lives. In 1970, my husband became incapacitated by depression. Depression was not a subject that you could even tell an insurance company in the 70s. The topic was very hush hush. The world we had created began to fall apart. Insurance wouldn’t cover the doctor’s visits for depression, so I decided to go back to work. I was making much less than my husband, while still raising our two children. I felt bitter at the change of events and worried that my children were now “latchkey kids.” Young and immature as I was then, I worried a lot about the material pieces missing instead of just accepting the changes and making the best of them.

Several years after the onset of my husband’s debilitating illness, I’d had enough. We fought so often that I couldn’t even be in the same room as him. The rug had already been swept from under my feet, and now I couldn’t live with the father of my children anymore. This was not what I had pictured for my American life at all. We were financially struggling, and I felt more controlled and less appreciated. Divorce became an inevitable choice for me. Leaving was crucial for my own mental state.

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Later in life, I was able to move on and get a chance at getting all the material things on my checklist fulfilled again. I met my second husband in quite an odd place: the jailhouse. He had been drinking and driving, so the police were trying to put him in the slammer. He was a relative of my best friend, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt regarding the jail sentence. When we first started dating, we saw each other about once a month, a time ample enough for us to get to know each other. Then, I probably did the most selfish thing a mother could do. I left Maryland, the place I’d come to love, and moved to Virginia to be with him. This split my children between their dad and me. My son chose to stay with his father, and my daughter chose to stay with me. I thought it would be a new beginning for us. I’d finally get it right. Unbeknownst to us, my daughter and I were thrown into the life of an alcoholic.

We got married in 1988. Now I was back on track to a middle-class American life. The divorce may have been atypical, but my new marriage gave me a fresh start. I worked in his family’s business, fostered a blended family, and bought a townhome in a small town. My husband eventually quit drinking for a few years, so life felt good and plentiful to me. I had finally gotten what I wanted.

Shortly after all the kids had gone to college, we moved to a marina and lived on a tugboat refurbished for two. I worked at Walmart, he contracted out his time, and we settled into 10 years of habitual life. Then, the devastating news came and my world came crashing down once again. My husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. Luckily, he was able to fight it with chemotherapy and radiation and live long enough to move off the boat into my second modest home in Greenville, North Carolina. We’d hit a roadblock, but we seemed to be getting back on track.

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In 2013, the biggest turning point in my life arrived. It was then I truly realized how wrong I’d been, not just about my husband, but everything. This clarity came when he died suddenly from liver failure. He had started drinking again and it killed him. In the aftermath of his death, I realized how naive I’d been all of my life. I was so focused on chasing material checkpoints that I had taken life for granted in the process. I thought that wealth was what the American Dream was all about.

I was wrong. Personal wealth doesn’t matter in death. My husband’s passing left me alone and vulnerable. With the household income cut in half, I could no longer afford the “luxurious” lifestyle I had been living, and I was forced to change my ways. I became in need of company, advice, and direction, all the things he had given me. I didn’t feel I could achieve any material goals, but I didn’t have the desire to, either—not anymore. I realized that even if you had something, it was not guaranteed that you would always have it. Things could be taken away, before you even had the time to realize.

After my husband’s death, my daughter moved from her home in Richmond, Virginia to live with me in North Carolina. The love and support I received from her humbled me and reinforced my new belief system in life. It was a real eye-opener to see how I’d been chasing the wrong things. Life is not just about material things, but more importantly, love, family and inner peace.

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At 74, I’m now living a comfortable, though not plentiful, life. I’ve learned that in the end, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, but rather it’s the people in your life that truly matter. I’m thankful to have my daughter and to share a home with her and her boyfriend. I am lucky that realization came to me, even at the cost of my husband and even at such a late stage of my life. I am freer, happier, and more fulfilled being selfless and self-sufficient. I’d been chasing the typical American life when I truly had parts of it all along with the people, not the things.

Section Break

This is the story of Linda Portlock

Linda started her life in the 1940s, lonely, self-centered, and oftentimes taking too much for granted, until circumstances taught her the real meaning behind her American Dream. Linda currently lives in Greenville, NC with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. Her family serves to help maintain a comfortable life for her. She recently finished a Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in Psychology at the age of 74. She spends most of her time enjoying her favorite TV shows, playing virtual games with friends, and playing with her puppy, Layla. It is her dream to have more time to travel to see friends and family while she still can.

Linda Portlock and Daughter
Linda and her daughter, 2016.

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on March 13, 2018.

| Writer: Rebecca Christman | Editors: Manqing Jin; Kristen Petronio |

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