The Last of the Yankees

I am trying to re-find my voice for telling personal stories, as I start to think about writing a memoir in the next couple of years. This is reworked from a piece that I published here nearly 10 years ago, but pulled when I re-did this site.

I’d love to hear what you think, and whether I should go more in this direction.

My father was one of the last of the Yankees.  He came from a culture that has, largely, vanished.  Change didn’t happen fast, but it happened despite resistance. And when it happened, it came in a generational blink of an eye.

My son Jon and I watched a movie once that referenced the Salem witch trials, and he didn’t understand what that was about.  In explaining it to him, I had to tell him that one of his ancestors had been a founder of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1630

Even though I’ve known that for years, it’s bewildering when you think about it.  Anything involving Puritan life happened an incredibly long time ago from our perspective, and a world we can hardly comprehend.  But I can run a straight genealogical line from me to Charles and Gift Gott, arrived 1628 on the Abigail.

My dad was what they used to call a Western Reserve Yankee.  I don’t think anyone other than Ohio history geeks knows that term now.  But as far as I know, every grandmother, every grandfather in his family line could trace back to a boat full of Puritans landing in New England. The only exception I know of was my great-grandmother, who came here directly from England, and made the local papers as a result.  I inherited some of her china, which is hideous in the way only intensely proper, scrupulously formal Victorian people could have pulled off.   

I don’t say that out of pride, but from a sense of how bizarre that lineage seems today.

The area where I grew up around Cleveland is dotted with Western Reserve Yankee remnants…towns with ruler-straight central squares anchored by towering brick and stone Old Town Halls and massive Protestant churches.  Classic visual representations of power and order that date from far earlier than New England, rendered in the precise lines and perfect angles of a neat grid system imposed on relatively flat and un-rocky land.  You can almost read the ambition, the optimism, the sense of “Finally! A place where we can do it right!” in these intensely self-conscious town centers.  The one that my ancestors founded, LaGrange, Ohio, fits that description exactly, as is Bedford, the town where I grew up. 

(c) Bedford Tribune

The people who built and populated these towns had an unambiguous, unyielding, unquestioning and unquestionable view of the world and their God-given role in it.  You see that in the town lay-outs, and the ghostly admonition to remember your coming death on my great-great-uncle’s house in Massachusetts.

And the murder of innocent members of their communities who didn’t fit their precise standards.

And in the heads of decapitated Native Americans that they put outside their stockades to warn against any opposition to What God Hath Ordained.

Growing up in the heart of what we now call the Rust Belt, I knew that my lineage was out of the norm.  Where I grew up, the question “where is your family from?” was so straightforward that mostly no one bothered to ask.  The Lesniewskis came from Poland, the Starnonis came from Italy.  All you needed was a family name to fill in the rest of the story. 

Where’s your family from, Della?  Um, here, I guess. Sorta.

That Yankee lineage actually ended with me. My mom was Scotch-Irish Appalachian, although she wouldn’t have said it that way (Not “hillbilly,” either — that  would earn you a smack on the head.  I didn’t learn about the status strata of Appalachian populations until I moved to southern Ohio decades later.)

By the standards of the children of immigrants around me, the difference between Yankee and Appalachian cultures didn’t appear worth noting.  But after my dad died, my mom told me that her mother in law never accepted her–that she thought the southern girl, in her heels and pearls and crinolines and city office job and carefully scrubbed, scrupulously untwanged accent, was still not good enough for her son.  She believed that until the day she died.

My mother was the only one of all of her siblings and nieces and nephews who changed her accent after she moved North.

Years ago, I read an article that described the decline in the number of people in the US who trace their roots to traditionally southern population groups.  Even in my mother’s Appalachia, the proportion of people who identify as coming from that background is steadily declining.  

The precedent cited, the previous US population to pull this disappearing act? 


I can’t ask my parents what it meant to be Appalachian or Yankee–they’re both dead many years.  And I suspect that my child’s sense of their home cultures would miss large pieces of the story, and render their experience too simply.  

My dad’s view of the world seemed to carry an undercurrent assumption of personal responsibility, and that might have come from his place in a long line of Yankee small business owners.  And my mom placed a priority on justice and fairness that might have come from being the child of a blacklisted Appalachian labor organizer.  But what those cultures meant to them, how they were influenced, how and why they chose to pull away from them, I only know in bits and pieces. 

One thing that I do know is that the economic upheavals that hit the Rust Belt in the 1970s and 80s undercut both sets of assumptions, probably quicker and more deeply than generational change and intermarriage among populations could have done alone.  That Yankee optimism and emphasis on the rewards of hard work became much harder for my dad to hold during the years after the family business collapsed and his manufacturing experience became largely worthless.  And my mother’s Appalachian sense of faith and independence must have taken a painful hit when we had to accept food donations during a particularly rough year. 

Western Reserve Yankees disappeared because people like my father found the freedom to marry outside of their old cultures–the classic tale of assimilation told from the inside out. And it took generations of living among others to get to that point. That house on the shore of Massachusetts that I mentioned before?  It never fully sold outside of the family. It had no running water until the 1970s.

We humans don’t change easily, especially when we have seen ourselves and our inherited beliefs as the Source of Truth.  Yankees stuck to their insistence on their rightness with God and position in an orderly universe long after they stopped calling themselves Puritans, just as my mother’s Appalachian community maintained fierce loyalty to family at nearly any cost.  That sureness allowed both groups to thrive in their manner, but it also justified them to commit atrocities against those who were not like themselves.

For both populations, change looked like a threat. A big threat  I suspect the Western Reserve Yankees knew that their power was fading long before the 1980s.  But their advantages did not give them any special powers to hold back the tide, not for any longer than an occasional stubborn moment. 

So here I am, hybrid of these two faded cultures, and the body of my speaking and writing and so on focuses on accelerating change, including change away from the assumptions that underlay their confidence.  

I don’t think Charles Gott would approve.

But he’s dead. 

My dad did approve — by the time my career was getting underway, he was on the other side of that great dislocation in his life, and I think he had at least a sense of what was coming.  In The Local Economy Revolution Has Arrived, I write about the last time I saw him before he died in 2002, and the packet of newspaper clippings he shared with me to show how much he believed in what I was doing.  Even when I didn’t know exactly what I was doing myself, or why I was continuing to grope toward that challenge in the face of a high-stress job and a young family and a community that asked why I should bother.

I still think about his belief in me, in that future whatever it was that I was working toward, even 20 years later.  Perhaps it’s been his belief that has helped to carry me forward all this time.  

We fight change, especially when the old status quo placed us in the position of supremacy, of Being Right.  And sometimes it takes a massive dislocation to open our eyes.  

We’ve all been through that dislocation now — for some of us, dislocation after dislocation for 10, 20, 40 years.  And if our people, our community, our worldview, benefitted from the old status quo in some manner, accepting that our place in the world has changed … it hurts.  It offends.  It frightens.  There’s no way around that.

And yet the world that is doing all of that changing around us doesn’t care, doesn’t change its changing because of our discomfort.   And it changes more and more. 

No matter our political orientation, or our level of expertise, or our comfort level with How it Used to Be, every year shows us that change, underway, in a little higher relief.  And when political leaders, or Board chairs, or other representatives of that old guard throw up barricades, engage in increasingly complicated machinations to hang on, or seem to prefer to play dirty pool, it’s easy to see nothing but recalcitrance, a stubborn old Yankee refusing to get those newfangled pipes.

It’s incredibly easy to forget to see the humanity behind that stubborn holding on to old assumptions, old expectations, old conventions and old ways of doing business.  People who are on the fading end of a way of life often react (in the pit of their guts, underneath all the rhetoric), out of a deep-seated, unarticulated, visceral fear.  For those of us who have accepted a changing world, let alone those who look aghast at regressive social policies and old-school political manipulation, all that holding on to the past makes no sense.  

And it’s really easy to demonize them.  All the easier because they’re often damn good at demonizing everyone else. 

There’s no easy wrap-up to this story.  Once upon a time I published an earlier version of this, and I concluded with a bunch of stuff about using rational thought and fact-based debate to combat that fighting back.

In the post-Trump years, my own words ring hollow.

There is something of a cold comfort in knowing that today’s stubborn opposition can, and perhaps will, fade from view like my Puritan ancestors, leaving behind mental and physical remnants as foreign to us as a beehive oven.  And that even when they don’t seem like they will ever fade, sometimes, all of a sudden, they do.

Sometimes, in a generation, in a matter of a few years, they do.  

We do not have the luxury of a shrug and a dozing wait for our current Yankees to finally slide off the stage —  not when the costs to people who are being hurt at the by that old certainty today remain so steep.  And not when the pace and scope of change facing all of us indicates that we have little time to waste.  Persistence and frustration live on the same coin.  

But if we take the longer view, if we can see change coming, perhaps we can be encouraged by knowing that when it finally comes, it may surprise us how quickly the dominant becomes a memory. 

After apartheid finally fell in South Africa, Nelson Mandela famously said “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Until it is done.

A cold comfort, perhaps, but an encouragement nevertheless.  

Maybe Dad would understand. 

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