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Every Labor Day, I always thought about Nebraska because that is where I learned what real physical labor entails. The farms, where from dawn to dusk is made up of very hard physical work, where I spent weekends during the seventies. Their payoff for that labor wasn’t millions in the bank, but just enough to face another growing season, or generation of new livestock. Or, at least that is what it used to mean when I was there, when there were small farms, family farms, that had been there for generations. The payoff for them was a love and responsibility to work the land. To caretake it. To pass it proudly down to the next generation. That’s the Labor Day Nebraska that has always been in my mind on this weekend over the years.
I went to the University of Nebraska in 1972. My name was Christy Merser. I stayed four glorious years. During those years I cheered for the Cornhuskers on many a cold and rainy day. I became a PiPhi sorority girl; I had found a home at a time when my own home was so very far away and newly fractured. I went to Alliance Nebraska and stood up for my BFF when she took her vows. I made friends with the dashing Catholic priest, Father Rooney, who had the unfortunate timing to meet me as I was reading The Thorn Birds; he had no idea that I was plotting to have his child conceived in one of the nearby barns that were the wallpaper of any trip I took through that glorious state. He would have laughed. Thirty years later, after much debate about God and theology, he told me God put me on this earth to drive him crazy. But he never gave up on trying to make me a believer. He was my first call after the Towers fell on 9/11 and he told me sometimes there just isn’t a reason. I harvested milo at Jeannette Fossler’s family’s farm, where we ate huge meals at noon during harvest. And I prayed with them around the table, surreptitiously glancing up at them from downturned eyes, wondering if they knew I didn’t believe or had never prayed before. Every family I met embraced me, even though I was an outsider. Every single one.
When the banks, in some cases, took advantage of the farmers by not explaining the risks for loans to expand their farms in the 80’s, long after I’d moved on, I started a Farmer’s Foundation to provide scholarships to farmers’ kids who didn’t have the time for homework after working long hours in the field. When a college friend’s father hung himself in the barn because he’d lost the land that had been in his care, I wept and was filled with rage at the gluttonous greed that led him there. When my own daughter was getting ready to apply to colleges from her elite New York City private school, I made her drive cross country with me so the first school she saw was the University of Nebraska and so she could also see how vast our country is, and she could know how different from each other are its men and women. Yep, she glared at me all the way through the Iowa fields, but I know she remembers seeing the huge university in Lincoln, the vast cornfields, the simple life without a lot of diversion. She got it. She realized that the country was larger than her liberal, New York City world, and she respects it.
It was the seventies when I was there; when radical change was taking place out east, but it did touch us out in the hinterlands. I remember one day at the sorority when an anonymous “hat” was passed around to raise money for one of our own (no idea to this day who it was) so she could fly to New York City where abortion was legal. I had more money than most of the girls in the house, so I gave a lot. I think I actually gave $50, $365.66 today. We didn’t talk politics then; there was too much cheering to do for a #1 team that was the pride of our university family. We didn’t talk about anything serious, other than Patty Hearst.
I left Nebraska after college and never returned other than the trip with Sarah, but I always spoke of it as a turning point in my life, a time and place where I came to understand that Americans live very differently in different parts of this great country. And that hard work can also be physical, and what it means to truly be tired at the end of a day. I like that about America. I have Nebraska sweat pants, which I order every few years, and I wear them proudly. I consider myself blessed to have had the experience.
What’s your point, you ask? (I am such a strayer off the point.) I guess I’m justifying my right to have a point about the people of Nebraska when I’m an east coater, now and for the past fifty years. Here it is:
I lived there for a long time and loved every minute. I also believe that it’s in a cocoon where what’s happening in the world, or even the rest of the country, seems like a weekly TV show without much relevance to your own daily life. When you drive through Nebraska on Interstate 80, there is nothing there but Nebraska. No cracks to let in the air from the rest of the country or the world.
So is that why four of the five electoral votes in Nebraska went to Trump in 2020? Is it possible that 80 percent of you didn’t look into what he really thinks about you? Do you really think the policies that he said he will enact will help you? Or that they reflect what you say are your core values?
Why are the sisters that filled that hat voting for a governor that put a ban on abortions? Why are you allowing laws that will put you back in the kitchen, take away that which you need to help your families, and, and, and?
A dear friend who lives in Nebraska had no health insurance for many years. And she had health issues. And now, with the healthcare Obama brought us, she has the insurance she desperately needs. She’d better go to every doctor she can if she keeps voting the way I know she has voted over the last eight years. More than 300,000 people are on medicare in Nebraska. Medicaid? Also more than 300,000. That’s 600,000+ in a state with a population of 1.8+ million. Why would they vote against their own interests?
Shall I tell you how dependent your state is on immigrant workers? Your student loan debt? That Willa Cather could be banned from your schools?
How about one of the smartest financial people in the world telling you that voting for Trump would bring fiscal disaster? Warren Buffet is a resident who stayed in Nebraska when he could have left, and he’s revered throughout the state. I hear over and over again about the pride Nebraskans take in him being one of them, and the respect they have for him. Did you simply ignore his warnings about voting for DT, or not read them? Now he is trying, like the good person that he is, to make sure we don’t tumble into financial ruin as a nation, but I can’t help but wonder what he thinks at night when he thinks about his fellow Nebraska citizens.
I was asked by a friend on the East Coast just after 2016’s presidential elections if you are crazy. I said no, not at all-but now, after reflection, I will have to add that I think you are ill-informed. And sheep that follow a history rather than taking the time to think about what you want now. Why else would a state that uses so much of the federal funding and support that Trump wants to get rid of have voted the way you did?
And, the biggest surprise. To the women I went to school with, who voted for DT two to one … both times he ran … wow. I thought I knew you, and I don’t. I really don’t. So many of you are true Christians. What would Jesus say? Seriously, I ask earnestly, not angrily, how do you justify the way you voted when so much of what he said is against the teachings of Christ, who I know is your savior? And, his treatment of women? Does it mirror your own experience? Why else would it be tolerable to you? I’m so deeply saddened.
So this Labor Day, it’s hard to think only about the work ethic that I learned from you all fifty years ago. Instead I’m thinking I might not order my Nebraska sweat pants this year. I may leave my joy for the time I spent there on the shelves of my heart, growing cobwebs, part of a past that just doesn’t fit into who I am anymore. A fading memory.
With sadness in my heart,