When a Census Counts…and Doesn’t

Thank the U.S. Census for repeating itself last week.

Such are my days:

  • I received a pair of 2020 census forms: one at our house, another at my sister’s house;
  • Two flashbacks followed: one to 1980, my year as a census enumerator, another to five months ago

I wish my parents had snapped a photo of me as a census girl. We didn’t take many photos 40 years ago. Each print! It costs money! If I had a picture from those days, you’d see a Melanie‐circa‐1980‐Census photo:

**right here**

I prized the homemade outfit I assembled. Over‐coordinated in perfect reds, whites, and blues, I reminded myself, “I’m working for the U.S. government!” 

I also proudly toted the government‐issued shoulder bag, a cheap black vinyl thing that swamped my small frame. It arrived with a massive U.S. CENSUS! sticker slapped on the diagonal across the bag’s front.

If I had a photo — again — you’d see that bag:

*right here**

But I grew to hate the bag’s wide black straps. They bit into my shoulder, the gouges deepening each day I criss‐crossed the streets of my Pampa hometown.

Many of its roads I’d never driven, much less walked. At 23, I was frighteningly young, long sheltered from another side of life in a small Texas town.

When Derek opened his door, I recognized him as a high school classmate and former football star. He now lived alone with his mother in a unpainted shack south of the tracks.

He grimaced, remembering me. I smiled. It was my job.

A day later, I stood on Mrs. Wilson’s porch. Her youngest daughter had been my best friend in first grade. Mrs. Wilson complimented my outfit, validating my sense of style.

But her face remained blank. I didn’t know whether to feel hurt or gratitude.

Fast forward four decades:

My family received two census forms in, yes, two different mailboxes: my house, plus the same form at my recently deceased sister’s home.

I opened Mimi’s first. It read “To Resident at….”

I entered her census ID, expecting questions about her status.

Instead, a plethora of questions gushed forth like a wave, all focused on the structure at her address. I answered that no one was living in the house. The computer responded:

Swallowing the lump bulging in my throat, I asked the screen, “Empty doesn’t matter?”

On our census form, DH confirmed we still occupied the building as “residents of the address.” Up popped a question about our names. Answering led to gratitude from Uncle Sam: I know, I know. The census exists to count people for many reasons.

But we only matter if we’re living? 

Yes, I’m still grieving my sister’s sudden death. Last week marked five months.

Time does ease the loss. It won’t go away when reminders keep coming.

And 40 years later, I remain sad about those porch moments with Derek and Mrs. Wilson. 

Interesting, isn’t it, remembering what we’d like to forget.

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