In October of 1994 my brother John and I drove from New England to Iowa to revisit the farm town where we had grown up. I was thirty-eight years old, John was thirty-one, and our mother, who lived in the town and with whom we would be staying, was sixty-four.
I did not like being thirty-eight. Thirty-seven had been much better and thirty-nine when it came would be much better. Here I am only talking about the look and sound of numbers and not about the events that came in these particular years. Forty-one suited me, forty-three did not, and forty-four, my age now, is if nothing else better than forty-three.
It surprises me, when I think about it, how long I have lived. It’s not that I ever felt headed for early death (or for death at all), but instead, I think, that sometime in my thirties the passing of years stopped registering with me. They went by too fast to seem real. Now on those unusual times when I have to give my age I don’t feel quite truthful, although I am.
But in October of 1994 I was thirty-eight years old and driving west with my younger brother and my black lab, Pogo. Sometime after midnight of the second day of our trip, wired from driving, we got off the interstate and stopped at a Kroger’s in Elkhart, Indiana, to buy a couple beers, but the store did not sell it cold.
“We used to,” said the kid at the cash register, “but we done away with it.”
John and I continued down the road. What a strange way, we considered, for him to tell us we could not get a cold beer, and yet it seemed somehow fitting.
Later that day we crossed the Mississippi at the Quad Cities and went over to Iowa City, where we had each lived in the Whiteway Apartments on Clinton Street when we were in our early twenties. Now John lived in Providence, Rhode Island, where he worked as a photo technician and made extra money by silkscreening T-shirts making fun of Mayor Buddy Cianci and of Newt Gingrich. These were part of a line he called “political activewear,” which had arisen from obscure beginnings with a T-shirt of the late eighties called “rats. . . as pets.” Now I lived in Litchfield, Connecticut, and was writing a novel, the eventual completion of which did not loom on the horizon.
After spending an hour or two walking around Iowa City with the stourhearted Pogo, we got on Interstate 380 North and headed up toward the town, about three hours away, where our mother lived. Blue and gray clouds moved across the sky, breaking apart from time to time to let sunlight fall in slanting rays that suggested the imminence of some event. But this is a common illusion; undoubtedly the light fell randomly and without premonition. The central event of this story of cross-country travel is the death of our mother, and that would not happen or begin to happen for five years, but I will say it here, as if it could be stopped in the telling, and to avoid a melodramatic finish.
We drove the interstate until it ended and then got off onto two-lane blacktops, which we took west, and north, and west again, and north again, and so on, turn after turn that could have been avoided had we not wanted to travel through as many towns as possible. If we had been watching our progress on a map we would have appeared to be climbing stairs. We saw all kinds of agricultural things we had seen before but not for a long time. We passed a truck whose side panel bore the words “McNess Premixes for Hogs” and a line drawing of a pig’s profile, which seemed noble to me then, as it had been a long time since I had actually worked with hogs, who in their prime come across as raucous and surly, and not without reason. We saw corn blasting from a green combine into a red truck with the dust rising and drifting off to the West; and pheasants gliding down into standing stalks with the odd little last-minute wing adjustments they make; and a grain elevator with signs in the windows giving the corn price (182) and bean price (482) so that passing farmers might know whether they would do well to sell, or not, on that day. And we heard Fairport Convention playing “Million Dollar Bash” on the FM station out of Waterloo, and this might have referred to the harvest, which was, as I remember, shaping up as good beyond anyone’s expectations.
All the roads had street signs now, which took some getting used to. I will give one example, the corner of Dancer Avenue and North Street, at which the only landmarks to be found were high corn, a lonely green street lamp, and a house with boards on the windows. Farms stood in distant relationship and appeared, as we drove past them, to come in two modes, thriving or vacant. There was little in between. But even the farms where no one lived appeared to be taken care of. The grass would be cut and weeded right up to the foundation of a collapsed barn as if this were not ruin itself but an economic experiment that was being closely observed by people who showed up every so often. We saw a roadside sign that said, “Golden Harvest Watch Us Grow.”
Han-shan, the hermit poet of seventh- or eighth-century China, wrote of going home after thirty years on Cold Mountain:
Yesterday I went to see relatives and friends;
Over half had gone to the Yellow Springs.
Bit by bit life fades like a guttering lamp,
Passes on like a river that never rests.
By leaving home you convert history from a vague notion into a real place. Wherever you left may seem to exist more in the past than in the present. And you can return, that’s the strange part, return to the past, but not really, as nothing exists in the past, and the present continues wherever you go. The river never does rest. And what about the people who rerun? They can hardly claim to be the same.
In two other poems Han-shan writes of one who goes home only to find that his people no longer recognize him.
It was dark when John and I got to the house where we had grown up, a yellow house now, although it may have been deep red at the time, on half an acre of lush grass and willow trees on the edge of a town called Swaledale. My mother lived alone in the house and drove up to Mason City every day to work at Easter Seals.
“I was just beginning to wonder,” she said. “Did you run into rain?”
She seemed nervous, but happy that we had made it. This was her way when someone she knew was traveling: between departure and destination lay a no-man’s land, the crossing of which was cause for celebration.
One of the things I hoped to do while home was to get her to talk about her past. This was not always easy. She would look at you as if you had brought a cello in and asked her to play a few tunes. Maybe this is putting it too simply, but it was something like that. I think she lived more in the present than most people. This made her a brilliant letter writer—she could do more with a line about the weather or a paragraph about a rabbit in her garage than the rest of us could do with pages—but of her early life I have only fragments.
She had grown up in the country, a farm girl named Marcelle, nicknamed Monkey or Monk.
As a young girl she fell and hit her head on a cream separator and was taken by bobsled to see a doctor named Kennedy.
She played basketball, wore the shimmering uniform popular at the time. She was beautiful—this I got from pictures. She would not have said so.
She graduated from business school in Mason City and married our father in 1951. He worked for the Chicago Great Western Railroad, and she worked for People’s Gas & Electric.
Their first house was out in the country.
In a photograph my mother kneels with five young dogs fanned like playing cards at her knees. She smiles, wearing black round-rimmed glasses. Her hair falls ‘in dark waves to her shoulders. There are ferns on the wallpaper, palm trees on the curtains, graceful leaves on the cloth grill of a big blond radio.
“All of our furniture at that time was light wood and not dark wood,” she told me.
I conducted a number of interviews that week about the state of the town, which was fading, filled cassette tapes with talk, covered sheet after sheet of paper with writing. All of this material is here on the floor as I write, stuffed in a box that once held a wine called Chateau Larose-Trintaudon, which I don’t think I’ve ever drunk, and where the box came from I’m not sure. Almost none of it has to do with my mother except that she helped me gather it. There is a transcript of a conversation that she, John, and I had with a friend of ours named Mark, who collected arrowheads and other artifacts that he found in a field, the location of which was known only to him and a few others. Mark laid out spearpoints, arrowheads, hammerstones, and scrapers, dozens of tools made of rock, on red and black cloth on the dining room table of the house in which he lived with his wife, Mary, and their small daughter. The relics he had found in that one field represented a span of more than ten thousand years. Mary walked in and out from time to time, and their daughter stood by, intently repeating her father’s gestures.
“How’d you get started in this?” my mother asked Mark.
“Oh, I always wanted to find one arrowhead,” he said. “I didn’t care where it was at.” “Well,” she said, “like when you were in high school, or—”
“Well, I wouldn’t like to find one back then, but I always had an interest in it. I just keep looking, you know. Well, I didn’t look all that much, I stumbled across this site. Found one arrowhead one day, on a rainy spring day, and I just kept going out after a good rain. I’m not doing any digging, I’m just walking this field where it’s planted crops. BUt see, this one was imbedded in a cornstalk. I was out there in August when the corn was about ten feet tall, and I was still finding stuff out there.”
“Are you going to tell us exactly where that’s at?” said my mother.
“Yeah. John knows. .. I was going to take you guys out there when we got all done here, if you want to go. . . .”
“No, I do,” said my mother. “I like this, because you know we went down to Coralville after the floods, went down there—”
“Oh yeah?” said Mark.
“Oh, that was neat.”
“Of course you couldn’t take anything,” said my mother. “But you must have an eye for this. I mean, we could go—”
“Well, see, that’s what everybody says,” Mark said. “It’s like, ‘Well, you’ve got to know what you’re looking for,’ but, you know, if you see something laying down on the ground like this, it’s pretty obvious what that is. .. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it—once you find a spot you just keep going back.”
“That place, too, has a lot of black dirt,” said Mary.
“Yeah, it’s a real clean field,” said Mark.
Eventually we drove out to see it. You have to walk in a ways from the road. We lifted the barbed wire of the fences so my mother could duck under. She appeared to be having a great time—animated, absorbed, on a mission. The field was planted in beans and we went up and down the rows looking at the ground.
Later that week John and I drove up to Manly to see our father and his wife, Doris. I wanted to track down a number of stories that I had heard fragments of over the years. He explained, for example, about the time that he went to Cuba with a woman he knew and about the trouble they got into once they were there. He was at the rime a young veteran of World War II who had served in the Philippines. This was, by his recollection, 1948, 1947, or 1946.
“We went to Key West just co drive over the causeway” he said, “and once we got to Key West we decided co go co Cuba. At that time the Key West airport was nowhere near as good as Mason City. Ie was just a shack out there, the terminal.”
But the things that my father said, and he said many, are things for a different story. I only want to show that he is still around.
Here is his response to a draft of this story: “I find it interesting and have no problem with it except I’m still wondering if you found any Indian arrows?”
We did not find arrowheads but did find jagged stones bearing the small parallel ridges of having been honed into a blade. I have one right here, still sharp enough to cut paper after all this time.
Eventually John and I drove back East. I tried to write the story of our trip, but the story was too scarrered. Ie may be too scattered still. I am scarrered.
I loaded all my research into the wine box and carried it up the narrow stairs into the attic of our house in Litchfield.
In March of 1999 I got a call from my sister Karen in Mason City. The word from the doctor was that our mother would die any day. My daughter and I had been back in Iowa three weeks earlier and we knew that she was in bad shape. She no longer lived at home but with Karen and her husband Ed and their three children, and she was sleeping in a hospital bed that Karen and Ed had installed in their own bedroom; as I recall, they were sleeping in their basement. One of the things my daughter, who was eight, and I did on that trip was to take my mother back to the yellow house in Swaledale. She needed to pick up some clothes and medicine, and she wanted to sit for a while in the living room. My daughter and my sister’s daughter played on the floor with an ancient set of building rings that my sister and I had played with when we were their ages. So my mother sat in her chair with her books nearby, among them Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Dr. Zhivago, all of which she’d read, and War and Peace, which she had been meaning to get to. She had proofread my two books but since her illness could not even listen to True Grit, which I had tried to read her one afternoon when she only wanted to rest.
After several hours we went back to Mason City. My mother would not let me take her arm while she walked but instead wanted to keep her balance by holding onto’ the sleeve of my coat. We would go down the sidewalk in front of my sister’s house but we would never get very far before we had to turn back. I got her a cassette player and headphones and some tapes that were supposed to help stave off terminal illness. You will try most anything at that point. It seemed likely that she would soon have to move to a hospice, and she did, not long after my daughter and I had gone back to Connecticut.
Now on the phone in our kitchen I told my sister that doctors had been wrong before, they were wrong all the time. People come back, they rally, they don’t have to go just because someone says they are going. The emptiness of this reasoning was no big secret but I hung onto it. I asked her to tell our mother to wait until I got there, and she said she would. I drove all night, listening to the radio and watching the darkness around the highway. Every FM station seemed to be playing Jewel’s song about how her hands were small, she knew. At seven in the morning, from a pay phone in the parking lot of a liquor store outside Cleveland, I called my wife, Christian, back in Connecticut, and she said the news had come the night before: my mother had died.
I got back in the car and headed toward Cleveland. The sun was shining and it was cold. Soon I saw an old man hitchhiking by the side of the road, pulled the car over onto the shoulder, and he got in. He said he had been visiting his ex-wife, as I recall, and was on his way home. It was Sunday morning. He might have been anywhere between the ages of forty and seventy, with clothes that did not seem warm enough and a small weathered face, although I may be confusing him with someone I used to know in Swaledale. I explained what I was doing and what I had just found oUt, and he talked aboUt illness and death in his own family. We agreed that everything slips away.
Later I asked him what living in Cleveland was like. “Do you follow the Indians?” I said.
He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. The question was evidently senseless to him and threw him Into a moment of crisis.
“Do I follow the Indians?” he said.
The funeral took place at a Baptist Church in Mason Ciry. My older brother Douglas, an accountant and part-time minister who lives in Cedar Rapids, gave the eulogy. “She had a real belief that if something needed to be done and you could do it, you did it,” he said, and he compared the way our sister had taken care of our mother to the way that our mother had once taken care of her mother. Six men carried the casket: Mark, David, Brian, Bill, Robot, and Mike. Robot is not Robot’s given name, bUt it is what everyone calls him, and it is surprising how traditional it sounds once you get used to it.
About a week later, Karen, John, John’s wife Celeste, and I went to see a gravestone salesman in a nearby ciry. I was the oldest family member on the scene and must have looked it because, although he spoke to all of us, he spoke especially to me. He called us by our first names, made us feel that he had never had any customers that he wanted to help as much as he wanted to help us, and explained the kinds of stone we had to choose from, including “first cut,” which was a kind of granite, but I couldn’t quite understand what made it different from any other kind.
The salesman spoke fast and almost obsessively, like the “Man of Ideas” in Winesburg, Ohio. He kept saying that he would call up the people in Fort Dodge and have them bring a stone into the shop, heat it up, and get to work as soon as we knew what we wanted. He was not careless or callous but only displayed a great enthusiasm for his work. As the conversation went on he began to sound, as John and Karen and Celeste would say later, as if I were his assistant, and he had explained all this many times, and he was trying to remind me of what I already knew.
Then he started hitting me on the back and smiling and yelling. That’s how I remember it anyway.
“First cut! Tom! Don’t you get it? First cut.”
My sister and brother and sister-in-law turned and walked away so that the salesman would not see them laughing. They pretended that they were interested in the stones in the side yard. I was laughing, too. It was that tense kind of laughter that happens when you are trying not to laugh yet your breath keeps escaping and you may seem to be having some kind of seizure. But I couldn’t leave because he was talking to me.
“Don’t you get it?” he said.
We wondered what to do with the yellow house in Swaledale. A neighbor had come by with food, the way you do in the Midwest after someone has died, and quiedy suggested that she might be interested if we decided to sell it. We did not want to, but the question remained open until John and Celeste went back to Providence, considered their options, and decided to move to Swaledale. In late June of 1999 they loaded all of their things into a Cadillac, a Volvo, and a U-haul truck, put the Volvo on a trailer behind the truck, and left the East Coast bound for the Midwest. Their cats rode stacked in crates on the passenger seat of the truck.
Not long after moving in, John decided to run for mayor and won by a vote of 28 to 10 on the same day that Celeste gave birth to a premature infant who would have been their firstborn, who was their firstborn, but he did not live.
It was then that I really began to wonder at all the death in our family. My mother and father lost their first child, a daughter named Linda Jane, and their fourth, a son named Robert, at the age of ten. Christian and I lost a daughter named Phoebe. And now John and Celeste had lost their Ellis Thomas, who is buried in Pleasant Valley Cemetery, not far from the graves of my grandparents on my mother’s side, and my uncle, on whose farm I once worked, my aunt, who was a great and good-humored nurse in Iowa City, my mother, my older sister, who never really lived, and my younger brother, who did for ten years.
But then I think that anyone could draw up such a list.
Peach blossoms want to live through the summer,
But the wind and the moon press on—they won’t wait.
You may look for men of Ran times;
Not a single one still remains!
Day by day blossoms alter and fall;
Year by year people transform and change.
Today where we kick up the dust
In olden times was the great sea.
That’s Han-shan again.
John and Celeste are doing all right these days.
Being mayor and first lady of even such a small town keeps them more wrapped in controversy than you would imagine. They have hopeful plans for bringing the town back to life again, and they have filled my mother’s house with the eccentric souvenirs they collected over the years for their legendary Flag Day parties in Providence. John will still make a T-shirt if you ask him.
This winter in Iowa has been one of heavy snow, so that driving down the road called the Burchinal Blacktop is like going through a tunnel with the snow banked high on either side. The other morning John and Celeste had ten pheasants in the backyard, eating from a feeder they made out of an old tree. ▼
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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