This is part 2 of a series of posts about moving around as a kid and spending a lot of time living in Oklahoma. Check out part 1 here.
Of my immediate family, only my sister still lives in Oklahoma: my parents finally made their escape just two years after I moved away, and now live in Kansas City. Whenever I think about how much I love living in Iowa, I recall a passage from the novel Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. Shoeless Joe inspired the film Field of Dreams, and was written by a grad student at the University of Iowa, where I’ve been teaching and attending for eight years.
“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees. I looked up at the low gray sky; the rain had stopped and the only sound was the surrounding trees dripping fragrantly. Suddenly I plunged my hands wrist-deep in the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and I knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”
I bought Shoeless Joe in early 1994: I know this because the dated sticker from the used bookstore is still on the cover, a 1982, pre-Field of Dreams mass-market paperback edition. I bought it because I’d loved the movie and considered myself a Midwestern ex-pat. I wanted to connect to the place I considered my true home and my ultimate destiny. I was fourteen years old and I’d been living in Tulsa for two years. I read that passage and thought, I want to go to there.
I’d moved all over the Midwest as a young child – hopping from Missouri to Illinois and then Indiana. We moved for my father’s work in the soft drink industry (yes, we really called it that in our house). Crush, R.C. Cola, A&W: the complicated gerrymandering of your regional territories forced us in and out of quite a few states before Dad left the world of soda altogether. Certainly, there are cultural, geographical, and meteorological differences among Kansas City, Peoria, and South Bend, but they all share a soft topography and a genial, white Midwestern mildness that made them feel more similar than different. They (we?) are friendly by default, but not excessively warm; and because we (they?) abhor conflict, no one will inquire about your religion, politics, or those funny plants you’re cultivating in the backyard, as long as you return the favor.
Don’t get me wrong: Midwesterners are as opinionated, judgmental, and full of shit as anyone else in America, but this was the stew I’d grown up in and I was too young to have that kind of meta-awareness. I was a Cubs fan; I knew what snow smelled like; my houses had basements; and we drove through miles of cornfield ribbons to get to Grandma’s house. I love the look and feel of old Midwestern homes: the pastel interior paints, peeling linoleum kitchen floors; arched doorways, white clapboard siding, creaking stairs with plastic tread protectors. The powdery smell of old bathrooms; the rotten stink of well water; hooked rugs. When we bought our house in rural Iowa last year, we bought exactly the kind of home I always fantasized about: a 1937 cape cod with light, wood floors, gauzy curtains, and a telephone cubby.
Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.
My Mom’s family is Irish Catholic. She has nine brothers and sisters and they were raised in a town near Chicago. Grown up, they scattered across the Midwest, concentrated in central and western Illinois, the suburbs of Chicago, and Wisconsin. A few of the sisters – my Mom included – left the Midwest altogether. There’s just something about this family: full of charisma, music, great hair, and extreme volume, every holiday with them was an event of a lifetime. As a child, I felt like a bit of an ugly duckling, wondering how my brainy brownness fit in with these fair-haired wild wondrous people. I sat in the middle of the living room, surrounded by the noise of forty people trying to talk over one another, and was all ears. I used to write and rewrite the list of names, anniversaries, and birthdates of everyone in the family: Linda Jo, Kathleen Ann, December 1, May 10, etc etc.
- Fact: their last name is a synonym for “angelic.”
- Fact: as in a sitcom, each member of the family is fabulously attractive and talented.
- Fact: this family has been known to spontaneously burst into song and dance.
After four years in Missouri (from about age 4 until 8), we spent three years living closer to family (in Peoria and then South Bend IN), and I finally got to see my many cousins more than once a year. We went to christenings, 4th of July parties, random weekend visits, and every major holiday. I couldn’t get enough of being in the mix, eavesdropping on my aunt’s conversations, wondering at my cousins, who were a thousand times more cool and plugged in to culture than I was (they introduced me to NKOTB and the entire concept of “making out”). After we moved to Tulsa when I was 12, our attendance of family gatherings dropped to once a year, maybe twice. Tulsa is in the middle of the country but it’s so much further south: it really feels a million miles from everywhere.
I felt cut off from the universe: missing Thanksgiving felt like missing the party of the year. If I wasn’t there, I was going to be forgotten, and somehow being in this family felt like my one chance at being cool. And being in that family meant being in the Midwest. Thus as a pre-teen, my whole sense of personal possibility was set in a cornfield.
(More to come…)