Friday, July 02, 2004

New Mown Hay and Moonlight on the Wabash, Part 3

I seem to have lost steam for recounting my weekend trip to Indiana. The upshot was that it was great and yet full of the kinds of moments that drove me crazy, and still drive me crazy. For example, my step-siblings decided a gift from the kids would be nice. Couldn't agree more. And their gift selection was perfect: nice new stereo, which my dad and step-mom have needed for probably the whole 25 years of their marriage. It just seems so obvious to me that, then, they should have asked my brother and me if we wanted to contribute. Nope. The gift from "the kids" was very publicly from my step-mom's three. Then, there was the typical: as my step-mom introduced us at the anniversary party, all my step-sibling and their spouses were introduced as "our" kids, while I was my dad's daughter. (My brother skipped the event and that's just a whole separate thing altogether. I spent a fair amount of my time fending off questions about his absence. It's taken me a long time to decide not to be his keeper.)

In a way, it's all okay, just because it confirms that I am not just neurotic to feel that I was outside of my father's family -- that there's truth there, too. And I really did come to a new peace about that on the drive to his house on Saturday. But in another way, it still prods at tender bruises and leaves me achey.

But there were really two other big features of that trip. One was Indiana itself. It's an interesting club to belong to: those who left Indiana. When two people who come from Indiana and no longer live there realize they have this in common, a certain kind of conversation is certain to start. First there are the self-effacing hayseed jokes. Then there's the discussion of loyalty: IU, Purdue, or Notre Dame. Then, there's the wistful communion about the beauty of the cornfields, and the taste of corn. And invariably, at least in California, the conversation ends with a statement along the lines of, "I could never go back." Pressed, most people will explain that statement with a politically neutral statement about the brutality of the winters. I think there's more than that, though, too.

Clearly -- as evidenced by the fact of it -- there are people for whom this is not an issue, but Indiana was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. To those of us for whom it is an issue, there's a kind of deep embarrassment in that fact, and an awareness that it's too easy in Indiana, still, to see that legacy -- not just in race relations, but in a kind of "us" and "other" mentality that pervades the social hierarchy.

Plus, Midwestern life is just not for everyone and it isn't just the winters. It's also the anti-intellectual, forced march Bible-thumping politeness.

Is this everyone in Indiana? Absolutely not. My family doesn't fall into this category. And my father's even a Methodist minister (have I mentioned that yet?). When I was in high school in Indiana (where I went after insisting to both of my parents that some part of my life had include time when my father was my father), my friends did not fall into that category and we lived in the smallest of towns.

Two of my longest-time friends, without whom I really would feel rootless, are from Indiana --- they remain, even as our lives have taken radically different paths, people who ground me not only in the past but in the moment, intellectually and emotionally.

But, see, this rant is classic. I am defensive for Indiana, for my family and friends from Indiana. For the land itself, which truly, as I've said before, is the landscape of my soul.

There were fireflies and crickets, bull-frogs and the sounds of rushing creeks in the night when I visited this weekend. The skies filled with dark clouds and for a moment I felt the electric anticipation of a thunderstorm, though we only got a little rain. And the drives to and from the airport, with their long stretches through deep woods emerging into the heavy golden drapes of sunlight on cornfields.... I love that land.

But I couldn't live there.

The other great aspect of the trip was seeing my dad's siblings. I probably see them once or twice every 5 years or so (while they're also all from Indiana, now they live all over the country). And everytime, it kicks me in the teeth: There's no missing to which side of the family my genes belong. I am my father's daughter in many senses of the word. And my father's four sisters, most of whom are now in their late seventies, headed into their eighties, are KINDRED. I know who I am and who I will be when I am with them --- completely beyond the fact and myth of my own self-constructed identity, I see WHAT I am. And there are some disadvantages: we are all what I've heard others call low to the ground voluptuous women. Not a one of us is over 5'5" (my height exactly), and unless we starved ourselves to the point of obvious and unattractive emaciation, we'd never get below a size 8 --- at our most fit, we're likely to be size 10s or 12s, but unless we're working at it, we're more likely to spread to size 14s or 16s. It's just a build issue.

But they're also all beautiful -- inside and out. They are fully engaged in the world, funny, smart, accomplished and fascinating women. I aspire to be like them -- to be as fully, palpably present in such a gracious and loving way as each of them are, now and especially when I am their ages. Plus, they all love me and like me. I can't remember a single moment, my whole life, that I've spent with any one of them alone or together when I didn't feel, most of all, truly loved and treasured. Not in a spoil-you-rotten indulgent way, but in an appreciated way. Every child, dear God, should be so lucky. Truly. It's a crime that anyone gets through life without at least one person who loves them like my aunts love me.

So, it was that, too, this trip to Indiana: Both an experience of alienation from my family and feeling my way along a rocky path on bruised soles, and an experience of complete kinship and exalting in the joys of feeling at home. Go figure.

It surprised me, because it's been such a long time since it's happened, but I cried for a long time as I was leaving. That old familiar song ran through my mind, even as I sailed the wind across the continent:

"Back home again, in Indiana
And it seems that I can see,
The gleaming candlelight,
Still shining bright, thru the Sycamores for me.

The new mown hay sends off its fragrance
Through the fields I used to roam.
When I think about the moonlight on the Wabash,
Then I long for my Indiana home."