Rocks & Roots
This old photo of me captures a moment with our family cat. I was in college, studying literature, and I was home for Christmas. People from my small upper Michigan hometown are forthright folks. When I’d first left for college, crossing the border to Wisconsin for freshman year, they freely shared their opinions about studying English lit. Most thought it fine, but one person memorably furrowed his brow and asked, “Why would you study that?” Then he counseled me to take a class in shorthand so I could support myself. I didn’t do that. I wanted to be a writer. So I went off to study what other writers had done. My favorite thing about a university is that you meet people from everywhere. I loved taking my more urban college friends to my hometown, driving up from Madison in the wee hours. I’ve been thinking a lot about one of those trips. The memory is a mess of emotion, tied up in love and loss, and lately, in realizations about the thin line between generations. I should warn you—there are flying saucers involved.
My father loved a good flood. Where I grew up, along the Michigan/Wisconsin border, there was a lot of open country for a flood to roam. Of course, floods aren’t always well mannered—they’ll hollow out the ground beneath roadways, roil and crash through a town. Still, there’s something beautiful to see when water summons its power, washing away all in its path, bringing life and renewal. My parents had grown up in the area, too. The photo above is of my dad. Notice that the road behind him is covered with water. He and Mom were on their honeymoon and had just bought that new car. My father was raised on a farm, was practical in the way of someone who knows the earth’s cycles. He’s been gone from this world for eight years now, eight years of missing him, especially in the spring as the snow melts and waters gather.
When I was small, I began having a recurring dream. I was on my own, with no adults along, traveling the world aboard a wooden sailing ship, the sort of ship that billowed its sails through the Errol Flynn, seafaring movies my parents used to watch. The crew of my dream ship was a happy group of penguins. The birds could talk. They were charming and kind, pointing out dolphins or seabirds overhead, roughhousing, getting into exuberant tussles. Each wore a sailor’s cap and a belt—no pants, just a belt. The only thing the cook knew how to cook was spaghetti! That suited me fine. I loved my mother’s spaghetti. I would have eaten it morning, noon, and night, just as my sailing penguins did. In the dream, I felt loved, free. I had the penguin dream repeatedly, until at some point approaching puberty, the dream never came again. Some of the things I’ve written—poems, a narrative thread in a story or play—have grown out of my dreams, usually my wildest dreams. But recurring dreams are the most interesting. They offer powerful clues to what’s going on in the hidden self and, in my case, are a wellspring for art.
I gave the ball of dough a final pat, washed my hands, reached for my phone. My husband was nearby, playing with the dog. It was January 6th—Congress was tallying Electoral College votes, but our TV was turned off. I didn’t care to watch members of Congress object to certain votes, from certain states, making claims of election fraud without any evidence. I spent most of my working life teaching freshman composition. Wherever I taught—community college, private school, or university—even the freshest freshman-comp student knew better than to advance or accept unsupported claims. It’s a good life skill. You can ascertain a truth through evidence, but acting on feelings without proof is a way to get duped. Evaluating electoral counts certified by the states wasn’t Congress’s constitutionally assigned task, nor was it their right. I don’t believe that people in Congress are fools, so I had to conclude that something disingenuous was happening—something for show. I wanted to keep tabs on what was happening at the Capitol, but not get too preoccupied. So the TV was off and I was making an apple pie. As American as apple pie. It seemed symbolically right, on such a significant day in our national election cycle. But before the pie was in the oven, I was calling it my Insurrection Apple Pie.
It’s Christmas Eve, a day of gathering for my family. Please consider the hands in the image above. I took the photo seven years ago, at a family graduation party. Something about those clasped hands made me quietly snap a picture. The hands in white are my mother’s. The others are my Aunt Nancy’s. Here’s a poignant fact. My mother is at that table with three of her sisters-in-law. Now two of them, Fannie and Elsie, are gone. Only my mom and Nancy are left—and they can’t be together now, because of the coronavirus. Lately, I’ve been exploring my family history on my mom’s side, a kind of coping mechanism against the pain of the pandemic and this wild year of politics. (I shared stories from my dad’s side in an earlier essay—“Farm Boys: Lessons for the Pandemic.”) I’ve read historical accounts authored by, or contributed to by, a number of my relatives: my grandmother Hilda, Uncle Carl and aunts Mildred and Ingrid, and a distant cousin whom I’ve never met. As I expected, the reading has provided a kind of focus and relief from anxiety. What I didn’t imagine was how deeply that looking back would affect me.
All of a sudden, life will go to hell, as with this pandemic, as in the sorry things it’s revealed about us as a culture. Long before the virus, though, one of the hardest times for me was when my father died. He’d been failing, visibly—but knowing what was coming barely blunted the pain of losing the family structure we’d all relied on. In a corner of my parents’ great room was a daybed, with a second mattress that hid underneath. I took the picture above from that bed, in the days after my dad died. Whenever we were all at home, there weren’t enough beds, so we improvised, many of us on the floor. My youngest sister and I slept in those twin beds. The night I took the photo, I had just gotten into bed, fatigued by a day spent getting our mother’s new existence in order—death notifications, changes to accounts. My siblings were still awake, playing a board game in the dining room. In the low light of the great room, hearing their voices, I felt comforted. Hard times in my life have been interspersed between mostly good times, of course, and it’s tempting to wax idyllic about the good days. But they weren’t perfect, either. The past wasn’t perfect by a long shot—but life was “right,” in the sense of its unfolding, of gradually growing toward wisdom. What I’m saying is, there’s a gift even when things go to hell.