University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), 2013
In an unprecedented maneuver, Dad intercepts my weekly phone call with Mom to say: “I’m so proud of you and your promotion, punks. You’re really doing great.” He and I rarely speak, but my upcoming promotion is also unprecedented. Next week, I will assume the role of CFO for the Department of Neurology at UCSF, an organization with an annual operating budget of $100M. Especially surprising since the thought of studying business or accounting never occurred to me—dance had always been my passion.
“Thanks, Dad. I’m just a little bit nervous, you know? I’m going to be responsible for a lot of things, and I’m worried about being qualified enough.”
“But you’ve got the right letters behind your name,” he assures me.
B.S.? Really? Yes, certainly at one of the most prestigious academic teaching hospitals in the country, they were overtaken by my Bachelor’s degree in sociology from the state university. His naïveté chokes me up.
Although his enthusiasm does make me pause to consider: How did I get here?
Dip N’ Donuts Restaurant, 1994
Early morning sun glints in through the wall of windows overlooking the mini-mall parking lot, reflecting off the pie case. Warmed air mixes with the pervasive aroma of fried baked goods. A sickly-sweet smell that will embed itself into the fabric of my clothes by the end of today’s shift and coat the inside of my nostrils. The pastries and pies are what make this run-of-the-mill family restaurant distinct from the other nondescript diners around town. Our patrons can get an edible chicken fried steak and a freshly baked apple fritter all in one convenient stop.
As the restaurant’s hostess, I carry a pot of steaming coffee in my right hand and a pot of decaf, demarcated with an orange spout, in my left. Navigating a path between the booths that line the walls, their vinyl cracking under years of human mass, and the four-top tables constructed of imitation wood, I ask, “Would you care for more coffee over here?” At one of the smaller booths, two older gentlemen pause their conversation long enough to watch me raise my right forearm, I’m a little teapot-style, gesturing my question in case they’re hard of hearing. And being certain to smile—always smiling.
“Why certainly, little miss. I couldn’t say no to such a nice invitation as that,” the balding one replies, “and here’s a quarter for that pretty smile of yours.” He places the tarnished coin on the Formica table top and slides it my direction.
Smarmy as it feels, I place the quarter in my pocket and respond as expected. “You know you don’t have to do that—but I’ll sure take it!” With another big, warm smile, giving the men a show of dimples and my gleaming, well-aligned teeth, courtesy of four years of braces. His overly flirtatious tone makes me wonder, does he realize I’m only fifteen?
My brother, seven years my senior, works as the line cook here. He helped me get the job. In spite of my lack of previous work experience, all the waitresses request to have me assigned to their shifts. Like a sixth sense, I simply understand how best to get a job done. In this case: how to expediently seat a family at a table. Carrying four water glasses in my left hand, menus tucked under my elbow, a coffee pot in my right hand. How to keep the meals flowing without the patrons feeling rushed, dishing up cups of soup, bear claws, and milkshakes before the waitress even arrives. How best to support the busboy, what words and gestures will keep the customers satisfied, who to prioritize.
Once today comes to a close, fatigue will radiate up from my feet, having circled several miles around the restaurant floor. Most of all, my cheek muscles will ache from the incessant smiling, placating, asking people how they are, what they need, how I can serve them.
After graduating high school next year, I could see about getting promoted to waitress, make a full-time job of this. In light of where I come from, this could be considered good enough. But after witnessing the never-ending struggle of my family—never enough money and never enough joy—I’ve known since my earliest memories that I wanted something else for myself. Although no one has modeled this type of path for me, I need to believe it’s possible. I need to believe there’s something better out there.
Those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it, 1985
Stacks of decaying newspapers reach up to the ceiling, creating frightening towers to a little kid. Mounds of dirty dishes overrun the kitchen sink and the counters. My stocky arms and legs attempt to climb over the piles of things to reach for the one children’s book Grandma and Grandpa, Dad’s parents, keep on their shelf. Only the slimmest ray of light enters through a side window, dust particles dancing in the beam. Their house is kept so dark, it’s hard to tell what the piles consist of. When my hand finally connects with the book, it’s covered in a thick layer of grime, gross to the touch, crammed in tightly against other objects. I tug the book off the shelf anyway. My curiosity demands I flip through the crusty pages, to discover what’s between its covers.
Grandpa leans forward in his sagging recliner. The slim silhouette of his 76-year-old body—ravaged by war and his years as a lumberjack—groans with effort. Then, he looks me in the eye. “You know something,” he croaks. “You’re going to be the first Zumwalt to make something of themselves.” Although I am only seven years old, I know what he means. That although our family is essentially a pack of losers, I am supposed to be different. I am supposed to be the smart one, the “good” one, the one with the ability to make it out of here.
Dad’s Legacy, 2013
“What was his occupation?” the owner of the funeral home asks, waiting, pen ready to record our response. Mom and I look at each other, stymied. It feels like we are cartoon characters with a giant “?” above our heads.
My eyebrows rise, and my fist nestles under my chin like some displaced Rodin’s thinker, while Mom’s mouth opens, then closes, searching for a response.
Our thought processes move in unison, flipping through a shared mental rolodex of memory, viewing Dad’s life on lightning rewind: Forklift Operator? Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)? Bus Driver? Security Guard? Staff Sergeant?
Do we go with the last job he held?
The funeral planner stares back bluntly. How much can he guess about my father’s listlessness, his temper, or his constant—and fruitless—money-making schemes?
Or should we try to tally his various roles? Or guess the one he’d enjoyed the most?
Under my breath, I mutter, “Renaissance Man,” and Mom chuckles with me; the first levity we’ve enjoyed in days.
If the funeral home manager notices, he doesn’t let it show. Is he used to this? How often do families stall on this question? Still, the longer we pause, the more awkward this silence becomes, until finally my mother settles, shrugs it off. “Just put down bus driver.”
College opens doors (could someone please tell me to what?), 2000
My process is diligent: Pick up a French fry, dip in ketchup, bite in half, dunk the remaining portion in salt, chew. Repeat.
A recent college grad, I ended up moving into an apartment not far from where Mom works. We’d agreed to meet up for dinner this evening, but now our strained conversation ignites my stress eating response. Pick up the next French fry, dip in ketchup, bite in half, dunk in salt. Repeat. Like a chain smoker, a chain eater. Picking up the next fry before I’ve finished with the last.
Mom keeps sawing through her pancakes, pouring on more syrup. Tension has never stopped our family from eating.
“Did you get a lunch break today?” I ask, knowing she will say no, but wanting to demonstrate I’m thinking about her—that I empathize with the physically and emotionally demanding nature of her nursing jobs. That she has spent a lifetime caring for the elderly in nursing homes, cleaning dressings and soiled bodies, hoisting limbs and torsos twice her size, assisting in gruesome surgeries, working nights, weekends, and holidays in Emergency Rooms. All of it against her will.
“No,” she murmurs, shaking her head, having just taken a bite of pancake. Mom chews each mouthful to completion, waits until she has fully swallowed to resume talking. “I’ve been on my feet all day—not a single break.” The fatigue causes her shoulders to round forward, her once ramrod straight posture bending under the weight of her job. The bags under her eyes are pronounced, and I worry about the drive back home awaiting her once we finish our meal. Seeing what Mom’s work takes from her makes me desperate to find a job that will fulfill me emotionally.
Because her life had not always been a shuffle of nursing shifts and long drives. Back during the early 1980s, in small-town Oregon, where I grew up, she had been a local fitness icon before Jane Fonda exploded onto the scene with her leg warmers and VHS tapes. In my early childhood, Mom had been an entrepreneur, a rising star, bursting with physical beauty and athleticism. While my dad bounced from job to job, Mom knew that someone had to sustain the family. The star rising within her, she recognized, would have to wait; and eventually, she packed up her dreams to pursue her fallback gig in healthcare with its consistent paycheck.
“What’d you do today?” she asks.
“I’m looking for work. Cleaned the house.” I keep it simple, trying to evade potential landmines. Her frustration since my graduation from college two months ago has been mounting. In her mind, the point of college is to land a job. Why am I still unemployed?
No one in my family had attended college before, so we all assumed it must be the secret passage to the “way out,” the missing ingredient needed to unbind us from the shackles of low-wage, exploitative labor. Once I finished school, my parents assumed the process would simply manifest itself to completion, like running a dishwasher. Unfortunately, I emerged from university as a “dancing sociologist” with a strong understanding of chemistry—simultaneously prepared for everything and nothing. I possess only the vaguest concept, as yet, of what I might be qualified to do professionally, and an even vaguer concept of what middleclass America does to earn a living.
“All day? Did you do anything else?” A slight edge to her tone sharpens.
“I’m going through the instructor training at the Fred Astaire Studio to teach ballroom. That takes up the whole morning.” French fry, ketchup, bite, dunk in salt.
“You’re still doing that?” she balks, mildly disgusted.
“I think they’re going to select their instructors next week. It’s been really fun to learn ballroom, and it’s free classes.” I do my best to sound lighthearted, happy, positive—trying to tap into how much she knows we both love to dance.
“I taught ballroom dance at Arthur Murray when I lived in New York City. I didn’t even have my GED then. Dancing with a bunch of creepy guys.” Her hand flicks, “Pfft. They didn’t even wanna dance; they just wanted to touch you.” She takes a drink of her decaf. “We didn’t have to send you to college just so you could do this.”
The disappointment radiates off her, penetrating, engulfing me from the inside. My hand-to-mouth reflex continues, shoveling in French fries to dull the sting.
“It’s not like I’m going to do this forever,” I acquiesce.
As a working-class kid, the belief that I had a right to work that would feed my soul, not just my bank account, was unusual. But I’d seen the impact the opposite approach made on my mother as her psyche ground down, day upon day, and I was terrified to end up the same way.
“Yeah,” she exhales. “Where’s the bill?” She looks around for the waitress. “I need to get home.” She cannot comprehend why she has just spent four years overwhelmed by the expense of my college, taking out a third mortgage on the house to help finance my education, only for me to end up where she was when she’d dropped out of high school.
Mom’s Pedigree, 1998
“My stepdad was a good mechanic, even though he only had a third-grade education,” Mom says. “A mean drunk, but a good mechanic.” She shakes her head. “One time he went missing on a bender for two months. No one knew where he was. But when he sobered up, he went back to his job, punched his timecard, and started to work. Nobody even said anything about him being gone, he was such a good mechanic.”
Thinking about my mom’s chaotic childhood pierces like an arrow to my gut. Although I do find some solace in the fact that the trauma has ebbed enough that she’s now able to identify this one positive trait in her abusive stepfather.
“What about your mom?” I ask.
“She was a hard worker,” Mom sighs. The way the words come out so fast and immediate, without a moment’s thought, make them ring with an undeniable truth. Hard worker. “She only finished eighth grade, but she was good with math. Growing up, we moved back and forth a lot between West Virginia and Chicago. Mom always got jobs at the factories—like Schwinn or Motorola—and in West Virginia she worked in the dry-cleaning plant.”
My maternal grandmother passed away long before I was born. The image of her in photos comes to me: her dark lustrous hair, an open smile that makes her seem a gentle personality. I envision my grandmother’s hourglass figure hunched over an assembly line or manhandling an industrial steam press. The taxing physicality of her labor, much like my own mother’s. Both of them sacrificing their own spirits and bodies to provide for their families. And although they would eventually leave the hills and hollows, both of them descended from an industrious lineage of Appalachian women. Women who knew how to work, the knowledge embedded in their bodies from birth, the same knowledge most certainly embedded in me.
Temporary Employment Services, 2004
After several years of pursuing dance and ending up with only dead-end jobs, I need to figure out a way to take care of myself long-term. Which means letting go of dance as a career path. The loss feels demoralizing, but I understand it’s required to ensure I don’t risk becoming a burden on my already cash-strapped parents.
Though without a clear direction, I find myself here, face to face with the Temporary Employment office manager. She skims my slim resume, a slight frown to her brow. “People want to see your hard skills—the typing and answering the multi-line phones—right up front. You should place that at the very top, above employment history and education,”
Answering the phone is more impressive than my college education? Couldn’t potential employers ascertain that if I could get a degree, I could figure out how to answer a phone?
“Also, can you 10-key?” she inquires.
Did she mean pushing those ten keys on the side of the keyboard?
“Yes,” I respond.
“Great, because you should list that, too.”
Rosboro Lumber Company, 2004
Sitting on a dirty footstool in the middle of a crammed hallway, slouched over, back aching from lack of support, I have been appointed Rosboro Lumber Company’s File Girl for the summer of 2004. The company has a massive paper filing system. The temp agency has placed me here for at least the next eight weeks. My responsibility is: take current year files and box them up; move future year files to the top drawers; then create new future year file folders. The task sounds simple, which it is. But because of the sheer volume of files involved, it takes a temp approximately eight weeks each summer to complete the task. This year, I am that lucky temp employee.
Except I wasn’t, at first. After reviewing my “updated” resume and interviewing me, Rosboro had initially selected another candidate for the job. What kind of selection criteria did they employ for such a simple task?
But either luckily or unluckily for me, the initial woman selected was offered another, and certainly better, position elsewhere. So, the runner-up was crowned. A college graduate, a professionally-trained dancer, second-choice for Rosboro Lumber Company’s Summer of ‘04 File Girl.
“Do you have any kids?” The front desk receptionist, who has come to retrieve a file, leans on the open cabinet and looks at me, trying to make banter.
“Oh, God no,” I cough. How freaking depressing would that be? Sitting here, moving files from one drawer to another, while someone else spent precious time with my kid? I remember that this was my own mother’s unbearable reality, and her mother’s before her.
The receptionist is the only one who even attempts conversation with me. I don’t bother learning anyone’s names, nor do they learn mine. Crouching in the hallway all day, my head hardly lifts to say hello as co-workers pass. What’s the point? We all know one another works here. How many times do we need to acknowledge this is our fate? That shuffling these papers around is the most I’ve been able to accomplish with myself?
UCSF, Entry-level, 2006
“The job pays Forty-two. Seven. Oh. Eight,” Marianne informs me.
On the other end of the phone line, my fingers scramble to record this number on my dry erase message board.
My pen plays with the position of the decimal and the comma, attempting to comprehend what is being offered to me.
Trying to calculate—a week? A month?
But who would say this “$427.08” as “Forty-two. Seven. Oh. Eight?”
Did she mean: $42,708?!
This is an annual salary greater than I anticipated ever earning in my entire working life. Having just arrived in San Francisco a month ago without any job prospects, I’d come searching for more promising opportunities—though still unsure what those might be.
“This is wonderful—I can’t wait to start!”
After applying countless openings, when Marianne called to invite me for an interview, she had to remind me which position I was in consideration for: as an HR assistant in the Department of Neurology at UCSF. My job hunt had focused on a teaching hospital, in healthcare, because of its familiarity to me, because of my mom’s longstanding relationship with it—the one professional field I’d seen up close.
HR seemed positive: dealing with people. I liked that. I had no idea what neurology was, but figured it didn’t really matter. It’s not like I was going to be responsible for anything neurological.
The HR suite resides in a decrepit old house, oddly juxtapositioned on the main hospital campus. Upon starting my first day, I find that my office lies in the former file room, half of the room filled with cabinets, half with my desk. The door to my office locks from the outside, so I could end up trapped within. And there is no central heat. But the space is entirely my own; plus, it contains a proper desk chair.
Even though it’s already the 21st century, my responsibilities consist of completing reports on carbon paper forms, executing data entry into a DOS-based payroll system and walking around the labyrinthine campus delivering mail to different offices. It does please me that part of my day is designated for this—walking around—leaving me a moment untethered from the confines of a desk.
When my dream of a career in dance slipped away, no other goal emerged to fill the void. My main objective has become to find a job I can feel good enough about each day, and that will pay my bills. So, for now, this place is enough.
UCSF, Management, 2010
Six months after I was hired at UCSF, my boss retired. In absence of a leader, I saw for myself what work needed to get done, and I simply did it—no direction required—a talent inherited from my mom. Because of this, within another six months, I was promoted into my former boss’s position, becoming the supervisor for people I’d been hired to assist just one year prior, and who had decades of work experience over me.
Since then, I’ve been promoted three additional times, accelerating into a career not of my choosing at breakneck speed. After stumbling around for so many years, it now feels like I’ve received a Monopoly playing card—proceed directly to the next rung up the ladder, do not pass Go—skipping half the game board in one fell swoop.
Recently, I’ve been participating in a professional development program for emerging leaders at UCSF. The program consists of four full-day educational sessions with other up-and-coming leaders, a strengths assessment and aptitudes test, and three one-on-one coaching calls.
The results from my strengths assessment and aptitudes test came back last week. Apparently, my responses were so incongruous with one another, there was no way to make any sense of them and the test couldn’t offer me any development advice. Basically, I broke the test.
I guess there is really no way to provide useful occupational guidance to a dancing sociologist with a strong understanding of chemistry.
On the call with the coach, as we review my jumbled test results, she asks, “What do you enjoy most about your work, in your current role?”
My tongue twists up, tripping over itself. Although my life has become financially stable and my career well-respected, I thought work—“success”—would feel more rewarding somehow, more purpose-driven, more how it felt when I used to dance. “Well, I mean, no one really chooses administration, do they? It’s just kind of where you end up when other things don’t work out.”
She pauses a beat, then advises, “Maybe you should consider other lines of work.”
UCSF, Leadership, 2013
Upon entering my new office, my breath catches at the display of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the greenery of the campus quad and the people scurrying below. Through the shimmering glass, an image of myself—in a Banana Republic dress and heeled shoes—reflects back to me and causes a cascade of unsolicited realizations to tumble through my head. Maybe, in spite of my average resume, I do understand how I got here after all.
Of course, there’s the luck of opportunity, the right time and right place. Positions becoming available, a boss who believed in me and recognized my talent, the luck of genetics, and the ability to take what I learned in one field—dance—and apply principles of lead and follow and mimicry into a business environment.
But I also understand that I’m the product of generations of laboring, each lifetime trying to push the next further forward. That I, too, am descended from that same long line of Appalachian women as my mother and her mother: women of fortitude and ingenuity and courage. Each of us toeing the line between personal ambition and familial obligation.
I’d set out with aspirations to surpass my parents and grandparents, striving for a middleclass existence, hoping my work would provide me both financial security and emotional fulfillment. Ultimately, I’ve attained the former, but fallen short of the latter.
Still, it feels ungrateful to complain about this bittersweet victory. No substitute exists for the ability to breathe easily, to fall asleep at night, that comes with knowing my physical needs are met and I’m able to help my family.
Melissent Zumwalt is an artist and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in Arkana, Longridge Review, Full Grown People, Pithead Chapel, Oregon Humanities, and elsewhere. Read more at: melissentzumwalt.com