Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Small Lives -- A brief history of home

Minnesota, photo by Josh Martin

Northern Michigan opens like the gates to the kingdom of my Northern Minnesota childhood. This summer we drive with Moses in his car seat in the back. He is not so happy. Josh and I take turns sitting with him, making faces and cooing at him, playing little games until he falls to sleep. We head north out of Ann Arbor after a quick but much needed visit with my oldest friend, Jenny, and her husband, Cole. I watch for Rosscommon County, the county where the trees begin to turn coniferous and the humidity recedes. I also know that a former writing professor of mine, whom I admire greatly, keeps a cabin in Rosscommon County. I like to imagine him there, writing his beautiful essays in between working on novels. He is a kind and quiet man that most everyone adores, perhaps for his humility and self-deprecation as much as for his brilliant writing—humility and self-deprecating humor, being the inborn traits of most Midwesterners.



We cross the Mackinac Bridge with little fanfare this year and head toward the boondocks of Northern Wisconsin on Hwy 2. All along this highway we pass shabby houses, sometimes with neat lawns and gardens; we pass gas stations and the occasional cluster of bars; we glimpse the lake, magic and blue. I spend half my time wondering where the people in these houses buy groceries, work, go to school, socialize? I feel like we are in the middle of nowhere and my imagination gets the better of me. This is the third year we’ve driven out to Minnesota from Vermont to spend part of the summer with my family. I have a feeling that each year the same conversations will transpire: It’s weird here. Where do these people go? What do they do?

Josh, in his best red-neck Vermont accent: Hard tellin’ not knowin’.

I sigh. He is never interested in imagining other people’s lives in as much detail as I prefer. I had a friend who worked as a house cleaner; this seemed the ideal job for me and my fantasy world. I tried it but I wasn’t cut out for the unstructured nature of the work. I forgot to clean the main thing the guy wanted cleaning. I cleaned like I was cleaning my own home, arranging the plants and knickknacks for my eye, fascinated by the disaster of the master bedroom, that anyone could live in such sloth. I like to imagine fully the intricacies of others’ lives and I suppose this is why I like writing stories, but it’s also why I like having girlfriends.

We pass an old man riding a lawn mower. We pass the lake with the water that looks to be moving. Ashland, WI is considered a hip town. I once went to a Brandi Carlyle concert there. The college town of Marquette has a co-op where last year, pregnant, I bought organic fruit for a small fortune.

Along Hwy 2, I envision the inside of the small and lonely houses we pass. I imagine shelves of porcelain figurines, spoon collections, old lazy-boys with doilies on the arm cushions and grease stains where heads rests. My grandfather spent the last few years of his life in a blue lazy-boy, smoking cigarettes, drinking cans of beer, the television on all night. After we arrive in Minnesota, I return to my grandparents’ home, now empty. My aunt and mother are having a sale to get rid of the last objects that once occupied my grandparents’ lives. I run my hand along the oak dresser (a treasure) selling for $200 (a steal). I remember where the dresser stood in my grandma’s bedroom and I remember opening the first drawer to search for packs of pink chewing gum. I walk down the hallway upstairs and wonder how they once fit a book case in such a narrow space. On the back porch a pile of memorabilia Mom is sending to her brothers: I ask her if I can take the slides and try to get them transferred into DVDs. She says I can.

Objects have always possessed a life of their own for me and lately I’ve noticed essays and books on the subject: The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffel, for example. Another teacher of mine wrote that the objects in our home reflect our interior, psychological space. I try to remember the way my grandma’s house looked after Grandpa died, before my aunt moved in. Often I can feel the brown marble colored carpet under my hand; I know the way my finger traced the inroads of that carpet as a child. I can smell the scent of the glass in the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, and see the snow-covered streets of Christmas. From here, I am with my father in that room, standing before a new easel I just received for Christmas. “Daddy, you draw,” I say. But he giggles and tells me that he can’t draw; I’m the drawer in the family. This old house is filled with multiple lifetimes just for me.
My mother's parents, Ray and Betty


This house was beautiful to me as a child. Now, walking through it, I doubt it’ll sell for the meager 68K it’s been priced at for two years. The rooms seem awkward and small, the hallway narrow, the bathroom, barely usable. At a certain point in my life, the house became an ugly, repulsive thing. I could no longer eat there because of the constant cigarette smoke, the dirty floors, the sticky counter tops, the mugs that were never quite clean. My grandma was getting old, she couldn’t keep up the house and even with my aunt there to help her, the place remained perpetually unkempt.

As I’ve grown older my mother’s family has become less and less a thing of comfort. Year by year the cracks, the soot, the ugliness, the irreparable brokenness of this family has made itself known to me. We’re not without our redeeming qualities, but sometimes I feel like that part of my family might better off exist in the reliquary of nostalgia in my mind: relics of a former life where poverty, disease, and self-destruction still lay dormant within. True of all families, every child who reaches adulthood begins to see realities they might have rather ignored. This first began for me in college when after a Thanksgiving dinner with my father’s family, I returned to my Minneapolis apartment only to feel a pervasive sense of distance between myself and my family. I remember calling my mother crying, inconsolable. She tried to figure out what was wrong with me but I couldn’t really articulate a feeling akin only to some creepy post-modern play in which noise is the culprit signifier of the true disconnection we feel as human beings, even and sometimes especially, with our families.
Moses at the beach, photo by Josh Martin

We stop at a beach in the UP, lured by the yellow sands and cool-blue waters that stretch to the horizon. I carry the baby down to the beach and lay him on the blanket to nurse. Josh braves the frigid waters which haven’t yet warmed-up, mid-June. I half want to follow him in but the idea of finding my swimsuit or rather the yoga gear I’m using for a swimsuit deters me. For a few minutes we try to battle the sandflies, but they get the better of me and I insist we return to the car where I finishing nursing Moses and then he plays on a pillow on my lap for a bit. Then it’s back on the road to burn through the UP under a broiling sun and blue skies, passing craggy pine forests.

As soon as we arrive in Minnesota Moses learns to roll over. He rolls from back to belly and gets stuck there. He dislikes flopping around on his belly and cries, so I flip him back, but his urge to roll overpowers him and he swings his legs up and throws his arm down and turns again. I let him grunt a while on his belly until it turns into a soft humming cry, then when I pick him up he wails. I comfort him as best I can, knowing that my voice and my touch are the best medicine I can offer. Along with this new passion for rolling, Moses begins teething. His first tooth cuts a week after we arrive. It all seems a fitting part of our transition to extended family life and a good way for him to keep me close. Babies are smart like that.


My grandma’s house on Third Avenue is painted a dull butter-yellow, with brown window trim. My aunt moved in about ten years ago after her divorce when she was going back to school. She took care of Grandma for a number of years during the time my grandma’s health was on the decline. Slowly, the house began to change along with my grandmother. The mirror over the mantle and the mirror in the stairwell were removed—I spent my whole adolescence into young adulthood, walking down the stairs, getting a foot by foot glimpse of myself in that stairwell mirror. It no longer felt like my grandma’s house when I walked down the stairs. My grandma’s bedroom became the room at the top of the stairs, the room where I used to sleep when I visited. She had a tiny TV in there but no chair for us to sit on when we came to visit her. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to her. She had quit smoking by then. I guess she eventually forgot that she smoked, and my aunt told her she had quit. Furniture was rearranged; new objects replaced the old steady objects that had been there for years. The carpets were torn out and the wood floors refinished. After my grandma passed away when the house became my aunt’s, she painted the walls wild colors that Grandma would have said looked like either a “gull bladder attack” or an “upset stomach.” I am comforted by these thoughts as I walk through the red-walled living room, into the kitchen with the pea-green cabinets. My grandmother’s coffee mug collection distributed amongst her offspring, lost.
My mother and her siblings: Mom, Kris, Dick, and Bob


I know my mother and aunt have similar nostalgia about the house. But my mother’s irritation with having to pay the second mortgage on it and keep up the place has made her want to be rid of it. No one wants to buy this house. No one wants to take on the project of it. There are too many houses like it in the town, and enough homes on the market that don’t need extensive remodeling and new heating systems, to make this old house almost worthless. And yet, in memory, it exists for many people (aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings) as a library of personal histories, a relic of time, a museum of nostalgia.

I imagine my grandparents, a school teacher and a nurse, buying the house on a corner lot with pride. I imagine my mother hiding in the upstairs bedroom while her hippy-brother threw a party, a butter knife stuck in the crack of the door to keep it locked. I remember running up the stairs the day my first sister, Hannah, was born. I remember sitting in the living room, the sheer curtain always drawn, holding my second sister, Alida, the day she came home from the hospital. I remember my grandfather sitting at the head of the kitchen table correcting Civics papers with a two-sided blue and red ink pen, and the pencil jar that was an old tin can covered in parchment paper that sat on top of the fridge. I remember the smell of my grandma’s caramel rolls in the morning and the taste of iced tea on hot summer afternoons.
my aunt and grandfather

Cancer kills us all, Josh says. That’s just what we die of now.

I don’t want to die. Death anguishes me. Josh says I have a disorder because I’m so bothered by death. He does not think of death; he calls death a new beginning.

I inherited my fear of death. My father fears death and disease, I think in part because as a pharmacist he sees so much of it. The nature of cancer terrifies us—its unpredictable course: will it return? Will it go away? Quickly or slowly? My aunt has terminal cancer. We have not known what course it will take, but so far, while it has ravished her life, she is able to live with it. She tells my mother that she doesn’t want to be known as a cancer patient, doesn’t want to attend support groups for cancer survivors. But she is a warrior everyday battling the pain, facing death. She doesn’t know when it will take her; she just knows that it will eventually. I don’t understand what it’s like for her to live this way. How could I? She has always been my second mother. I see her at the Moving Sale at Grandma’s house. Her hair is short and gray and her face has curled into the face of history, of time, and of her ancestors. She doesn’t look old, she looks young for gray hair, it’s more that in that face I can read things—lines like the inroads of the old carpet I played on, weaving story in and out. Our faces map us, they tell the stories we ourselves refuse to speak. I see pain in her face, and betrayal. I see determination too, and hope.


I lay close to my son as he falls asleep. I wrap my body around him like a shell. He breathes into me; it is my body—his former home—that comforts him. I watch him sleep. As his mother, I find him alarmingly beautiful. The lines of his face have a pleasure to them, and when I wake some mornings and see him sleeping beside me, curled into me with one little hand outstretched to rest on my arm, it’s a gift all over again. The physical work of caring for a child overwhelms the mind: it shuts down, it forces presence of being. My mother sits with Moses while he rolls over again and again. Cries until she picks him up and places him on his back again and then immediately rolls over. It’s exhausting just to watch him do it. But I marvel at his determination, unconnected to his mind, his body needs and longs to move in this way. His body knows that the more time spent on his stomach the easier this position becomes for him.



We all lead small lives in one way or another. Beauty or grandeur can mask this fact, but when I understand both the smallness and enormity of life I am most content. Grandma’s house is nearly empty now. My aunt has moved into her new apartment. Moses is asleep for the moment and I’m free to imagine the lives of those who live along Hwy 2 as beautiful or as small or as gracious as my mind will allow. We fly home in August. Josh will drive back two weeks before us and he’ll pass those houses and maybe if he’s lucky he’ll see the old man on the riding mower tending his square patch of lawn. But he won’t think much of it.  Poverty or hardship won’t make him think of death, as he zips by those little lawns and porches with the hanging baskets of dead flowers. He’ll be on his way home, back to his childhood with all its nostalgia and presence, its perseverance and impermanence.

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