Sunday, August 14, 2005

Biographical snippet rediscoverd 7/3/2005

On Jul 3, 2005, at 11:20 AM, Roseanne Sullivan wrote to family.

When I was looking for something else tonight, I just found the biographical snippet I included below, and I want to share it with you. I added a lot to it. Mary, you might be interested in this because it tells about my life as a student trying to raise two small kids at the same time.

Hope you are all doing well. Happy 4th.

Love you, Mom/Roseanne

When I started at the U of MN in the Fall of 1975 I was 30, older than most of my fellow-students, and raising two small children alone. My son Liberty had been 4 and my daughter Sunshine was 2 years old when I'd divorced my husband the previous April. I am not proud of the reasons I married or the reasons I got divorced. And I'm not proud of what I put my ex-husband, George, my ex-in-laws, my kids, and myself through in trying to finish the college education that I had started at Brandeis University in 1963 at the age of 17. But I just had to flesh out that part of my life a little bit more because I want you to know I wasn't always on welfare.

I had brought up the subject of divorce to George soon after I found out that the State of Minnesota had a generous program (which was cut long ago) to try to help women get college degrees or other training to help them get off welfare. The program paid for child care. That's the only way I could have gotten through.

Writing this reminded me about another thing that had also precipitated my leaving. I had found out some people I knew from Moorhead State College, where I was taking a class every quarter, were moving out of an apartment I liked and that I could afford on welfare. The apartment was in a nice old wood-framed home about 12 blocks from the college. To qualify for the free child care, I would have to take a minimum of 12 credits. It would be hard to be the sole caregiver for two little ones and take a full load, but I would do it since I had to.

Before we broke up, we had been living in the country, 23 miles from Moorhead, six miles from the nearest town for almost four years. In the living room of our little rented house on the prairie, I told my husband that I wanted to separate so we could work on our relationship. I had wanted to leave before, but I would end up staying because whenever I brought the subject up, he would pay attention to me for a while.

So using some convoluted reasoning, I thought that if I left I would be able to get him to really pay attention. I didn't say that if I left I wanted to pursue the goal of becoming a professional with a college degree that he had not followed. It had been a blow to realize that he was never going to follow that goal. And a big disappointment that he had changed the plans we'd made together without letting me know.

He said quickly, probably because that's what he really wanted, "If you leave, we'll get a divorce." And, I guess because that is really what I wanted to do by that point too, I said, "Fine."

I was telling him about the apartment and about the chance for me to get on welfare and still finish my degree, when Liberty walked into the living room with us, and I told Liberty we would be moving. He run out and brought in his Big Wheel to start packing. George and I were both grieved by Liberty's innocent enthusiasm. Poor little LIberty had no idea of what the move would mean for his life.

If I had known what it would end up doing to the children and to us all, I could never have done it. The common wisdom says that children are better off if warring parents divorce. The common wisdom is a lie. A child from a broken home may live a happy, fulfilled, and productive life, but he or she is still going to be crippled. I think of divorce as an amputation. Sure, an amputee can have a full life. But it's not the same life as he would have had with all his limbs intact. Being two, Sunshine was too little to realize much about what was going on.

A few hours later I went looking for George. I climbed the ladder to the hay mow in the old barn, and I found him lying on his back on a sleeping bag he'd brought up there looking up numbly at the beams of sunlight coming through the many holes in the roof. Swallows darted around among the dust motes dancing in the light. He wouldn't speak to me.

I used that image in a poem later that I wrote for one of my poetry classes without much compunction. I was perversely glad to have experienced such a poignant moment and being able to write knowingly about the inarticulate man not being able to express his grief. Now I realizee that maybe he was up there because he didn't want to express his anger.

I finished a B.A. with a double major in English and Studio Arts in 1979. I was able to afford going to college only by applying for welfare, being able to pay less for food by being able to buy the food stamps (do you know people have to pay for food stamps?), by applying for financial aid and loans, and by living without most things that people in this prosperous nation take for granted.

Not only the material things were hard to come by. My family was 1500 miles away in the East Coast and they had their own problems. With the food stamps, we had plenty to eat. But when I was done paying the rent in my subsidized apartment, buying the food stamps , and paying the utilities, I had about $40 left for everything else, such as clothing and transportation. For one of the kids to lose a pair of mittens was a dreadful loss, every bit of clothing was so hard to come by. And without a scramble to get new mittens right away, frostbitten fingers would have been inevitable.

Robin Brown, head of the English Composition program at the U of Minn in those days, indirectly got me started in the direction of the work I've been doing since 1984. He gave me a job as a teaching associate in composition when I entered the M.A. program. The composition-teaching job --even though it was part time and earned only $9 an hour--paid enough to get me and my family off welfare. There I was, taking a full load of classes, and teaching half time. No wonder I was stressed out.

Robin required all composition teachers to learn to use computers, and to encourage their students to learn how too. There is no way that I can adequately portray to you young folks out there how radical that idea was then. I find the notion of a computer-free past hard to recall myself. I also got started by acting as a T.A. in a computer science writing class.

I earned an M.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing in 1983, after working with memoirist Trish Hampl on a memoir that, along with some short stories, served as my thesis. After spending another year on courses towards a Ph.D. in American Studies I broke out of the graduate- student coccoon into a technical writing job --which got me and my family finally off of food stamps and out of subsidized housing.

Sad to say, my experience at the U of MN was mostly-friendless, alienated and painful. I remember most of all trudging on biting winter days from one impersonal university office at one end of the campus to another similar office at another end of the campus in the ordeal that was called "registration for winter quarter." I also remember walking home other nights from working late on an art project in that dismal old art building on the west bank, again in the -20 degree cold, walking because I could have frozen to death if I stood for more than a few minutes at any of the bus stops along the long walk home on Central Ave. to Northeast Minneapolis, waiting for buses that never ran on time.

I also remember getting my diploma for my undergraduate degree in Northrup Auditorium, and going up to get the diploma wearing my honors robe, with my son in front of me and my daughter behind. I had nobody there besides them to cheer me on, and I had to take them with me to the stage because I had nobody to leave them with. When we had walked into the auditorium, my son excitedly said that the long walk down the center aisle with all the standing people and flashing cameras on either side reminded him of the award ceremony at the end of Star Wars. It did me too.


Liberty wore my cap and gown while we walked on the bridge across the Mississippi on our way home that day.

(This was mostly written in 2001.) I am now a lead technical writer at Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley, have been for 13 years.)

I like the detective part of my work. I enjoy using the skills I've honed for extracting hidden information from the brains of engineers and from sometimes-impenetrable design documents. And I can write a procedure for--say-- replacing a disk drive faster and better than just about anyone else. Mine is a noble calling, I feel, as I try to depart from the norm. I wrestle every day with the challenges of trying to create computer manuals that clearly tell readers what they need to know, no more, no less. And the nostalgia I sometime feel for the other career possibilities I once contemplated, artist or fiction writer, is assuaged in part by the goodly pay check I get every too weeks.
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