Dad died last month, and it’s been a lot of things. It was closure, and sad, and frustrating. That was in the first ten minutes, and then it settled into my bones and became real.
Grandpa and Grandma Maggert
I went to Iowa for the funeral. I connected with people who are my flesh and blood, but have never met. It was an uplifting, somber, joyous mess of a day sandwiched in between two twelve hour drives with my own thoughts.
I miss my dad, I ache for my mom, and still have flashes where I think both are alive. I don’t know if that will ever pass.
My cousin Richine– well, I saw her and knew we were kin, and it felt like a gift. She sent me a hundred or more pictures of my family that I’ve never seen, dating back to the 1930s. It’s a treasure. My cousin walked me across the old farm and pointed out the place my grandmother was killed in 1955. I miss her, even though we’ve never met, and wonder how life would have gone for all of us if she had lived.
It’s a time of possibilities and sadness, metered through a lens of my own family. We are unique, identifiable, and now that I’ve been back to Iowa, more connected.
I’ll be in Columbia, South Carolina on Nov. 11 for the Authors Invade Columbia Event. Stop by and see me if you’re around. Check out the page here: Sakarlina, Y’all! Come see me!
Dad passed away last night. He’d been fighting cancer for six years.
Life is going to change a lot even if I think it won’t. He was a complicated man who never truly recovered from the loss of his wife. When mom died twenty-one years ago, we lost our family despite our best efforts to keep it. He loved his family because we were everything he never had as a child.
We were a 1970s family. Dad was a lineman. Mom raised us kids. We never lacked anything because of how hard they worked. I learned by watching, even if it took me years to understand what real commitment to a family means.
I’ve thought, over the years, about the good things that are part of me. He taught me how to be good to animals, how to interact with the natural world, and about loyalty and the value of work.
Losing him means being honest about a lot of difficult things. My own age. Our relationship. Wanting a family that is gone. Wishing for a life that can’t come back. Thinking of him as a person, and not a personification. Being thankful, even when I miss him. With each passing hour today, there’s a lot more hurt. I miss him. I miss my family. I don’t know how to explain wanting something that’s gone for good.
You can think you’re ready for things, but you’re not ready. You’re never ready. I miss him today, but I think I’ll miss a lot more things tomorrow, and beyond.
We went to Illinois! Land of Lincoln, corn, wheat, soybeans, cows, people with Scandinavian names, and the finest breakfast pizza in this wing of the galaxy. But I digress. First, some background.
This is Uncle Leon (of Leon and Cindy Oleson Farms), along with my enormous son, who is also an Oleson.
We spent glorious days on the farm. There’s no other word for it. I’ve never farmed a day in my life, unless you count raising chickens and gardening. Uncle Leon and the family are farmers; it’s what they do. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of topics that range from the hydraulic pressure in a tractor line to the tendencies of obscure beetle species. Riding around on the farm is like the best possible college lecture ever– you’re learning but you don’t realize it until after the lesson ends.
Iowa is, in some sense, my ancestral homeland, and there are a lot of similarities between Elkader, Iowa and Shabbona, Illinois. We start with the scenery.
That’s a lot of corn, and it requires large places to put it.
We visited Cousins Amber and Brent and their dairy farm. To sum up: loud, fun, smells like the essence of life, busy, beautiful, real. The Mueller farm is everything a farm should be, but with excellent Wi-Fi and lots of cats. It’s a lot like heaven.
It’s impossible not to feel connected to this place. There’s a visceral reaction to things of great purity, and being on the farm around great people is one such event. And now, the requisite picture of corn, if you will.
That’s the kind of scene that makes everyone think they can farm.
(full disclosure: not everyone can. it’s demanding work with a high degree of uncertainty. in short, farmers are cool under fire)
But the fact that simply being close to a farm engenders such feelings tells you that anyone who wants to refill their proverbial tank should consider a visit to the farm. I left with a head full of words, and it was more than the excellent company, food, and rest. It’s a mythological connection to something from the time before, when concerns, like life, tended to be more centered on community.
Speaking of community. Let’s see main street,, a couple towns over. They got the sign right the first time, so there’s no need to change. This is a testament to the power of Midwestern Culture, and yes, that’s a thing, because it’s so easily identifiable. If you step into a town and start looking for Frank Capra’s ghost– you’re in the Midwest.
My writing batteries were also recharged by something that is so rare as to be mythical. It’s the distinction between nice and good.
When you visit the Midwest and your family is filled with people who are nice and good, take a moment to consider the distinction. People can be nice– nice is polite, pleasant, mannerly. Nice can be your friend. Nice bakes for neighbors and picks up your mail when you visit relative on the other coast.
But nice is not necessarily good. Good is a kind of innate construction that makes some people break to the side of goodness out of instinct. Good is doing the right things without effort or thought, it’s the communal willingness to donate the two most precious things– time and work– to something other than oneself, in order to better the life of someone else. When you visit your family and realize that they are truly good, there’s a validation and hope that your child– my enormous, goofy, replete nine year old– will be emblematic of that tradition. Good is, in some sense, a choice, and it’s cultivated, not unlike the corn that soars across hundreds of acres on the family farm.
Good is not a goal. Good is a permanent structure, built by learning from others who share the ability to see beyond themselves out of a quality that cannot be measured or weighed.
Four days in July, and my tanks are full. Here’s to a wonderful fall.
Traveling makes you a better writer, and it also teaches you an array of skills you’ll need. This morning, we depart for my wife’s ancestral family land, a place called “Ill-uh-noy”.
Her tribe are a hardy people, tall, generally fair haired and prone to sacking and looting the coast of England and whatever else happened to get in the way of their ships. As I’ve mentioned before, I married an American-Norwegian-Lutheran, which is a distinct culture unto itself.
*this is how I picture us arriving. it could happen.
They are, simply stated, kind , lovely people who fancy covered dishes (casseroles to us elsewhere) and occupations like:
Teaching people things
Teaching people things about farming and building
As you can see, this is a good tribe to infiltrate. My bride was up until nearly three in the morning baking cinnamon bread and bread and just in case, bread– because we’re like a traveling circus, but with baked goods.
So, I’ll be in the American Heartland (a TRULY glorious place) for the next four days, with lovely people, home grown tomatoes, and diner food.
I anticipate a great deal of writing. And running, on quiet country roads. And eating, but you already knew that.
I may have mentioned I married a Norwegian Lutheran, who comes from a family filled with other Norwegian Lutherans.
Upon meeting my mother-in-law to be, she mentioned that she graduated from St. Olaf with a degree in home Economics.
Until that moment, I thought St. Olaf was a creation within the show, “The Golden Girls”, in which Betty White would relate hilarious Midwest tales of odd culture, covered dishes, and people being polite. To demonstrate Gwen’s skill at All Things American, I humbly offer you the salad she fixed for me tonight. Sundays are known as Family Day, which naturally includes dinner.
Dinner is always excellent.
As exhibit one of just what a Norwegian Lutheran with a degree in Home Economics and thirty years’ teaching experience considers a side salad, take a look:
It’s magnificent. Color, balance, crispness, variety– it’s all here. Even the dish radiates America, but politely.
Oh, and St. Olaf has a world class choir, filled with Midwestern sopranos that make every day seem like Christmas. It’s beautiful.
My mom’s birthday was this past week, had she still been here, she would be seventy. She died when she was fifty-two. I’m forty-six, so that seems quite young– in fact, it seemed that she was really young when she died. I have a son who is six. I find myself placing a hand on his forehead when I enter or leave the room. It’s a sort of reassurance, probably more for me than him. My mom did the same thing to us kids. Even when she was sick, her hands felt warm. I remember that warmth as something other than just a touch; it was a remembrance of her presence as she moved about the house. She died almost nineteen years ago. At what point do the factors of my own memory and aging begin to overtake the brilliance of her impact on my psyche? Will she pass into a state of legend? I have learned more about my mom since her death than I knew of her during her life– not the details, or the “mom” aspect of her, but who she was as a human. She was a person before I arrived. She lived for twenty-four years. When did she decide that something as simple as touching her children on the forehead would be the right thing to do? Was it natural? Or learned?
For me, it was learned. It seems like an anchor that keeps her memory closer to me than just a myth, or a legend. I think that when we lose someone we love so much, our goal is to stop them from becoming a part of history. History is distant; loved ones are now, even if they are giants in our memory.