Recently, I was part of a little scene that is like one of several I’ve encountered this summer. I was out walking, and greeted two elderly men I’ve seen out at the same hour. After “Good morning,” one asked, “Does your husband work at the university?” Thinking these men must have either seen Sydney on campus or known him from a book group, I said yes. But since he’s also most visible as a farmer this time of year, I added, “part-time.” The men looked a bit confused, but one thought he’d continue, anyway: “My daughter, so-and-so, works in the counseling center.” I have no idea if Sydney knows her, but I do, so I responded with a simple, “Oh yes, so-and-so. She’s lovely.” Then they really looked confused, so I filled in the awkward pause with an explanation: “I also work at the university, in the English Department.” This time the pause was longer, before one of the men dug out an anecdote about a niece who majored in English before her family finally got her to switch to business administration. I just nodded after that one. After another minute of chatting we continued on our various paths, but I had the distinct impression that I’d confused more than I’d clarified.
I’m glad I hadn’t realized upfront that they didn’t actually know Sydney, because I would have been tempted to respond, “What husband? Are you assuming one from the fact that I live in a house? that I have children? That I seem happy?” Although most of my time in Kentucky has been spent with people I’ve known from professional settings, this summer I’ve had more interactions with people outside the university loop, and I find myself with increasingly little patience for questions about a spouse that, I soon gather, my interlocutor has never met, but that he or she presumes explains my presence in Kentucky.
I’m usually happy to make connections, and my mom has trained me well for community small-talk (Thanks, Mom!). Several times recently I’ve gotten to meet people in the area that Sydney has met elsewhere, and it’s been nice to put the family together for them (a common occurrence when you and your spouse trade off watching your children and socializing). But conversations like the one from my walk the other day are built on so many false assumptions that I spend the entire time scrambling to figure out how or whether they know Sydney, following up with helpful information when I see confused looks on their faces, and then trying to find a way to let them get over their astonishment without embarrassment. Not exactly the most satisfying of conversations. I usually go home, hug my kids, look at my husband (whom you should really get to know. he’s great), and get my hands on a book to shake off the odd experience.
The first few incidents just surprised me, but now that I’ve been around this track a couple of times, it’s starting to get under my skin. I’ve really enjoyed living in Kentucky and, barring the sight of a few obnoxious bumper stickers, have not had any problems in four years here. I have tried to be sympathetic when my female students explain why they struggle to stand on their own two feet in the South, but in my own life I’ve usually been addressed as an individual and presumed capable until proven otherwise. To my Northern sensibilities, using an entire conversation to ignore the individual in front of you in lieu of an inferred spouse is just rude. Am I missing something? Thoughts? Challenges? Anyone have any suggestions, so that I can remain even-keeled and approachable, rather than start responding to the husband question with “Which one?”