Thursday, October 22, 2009

Love in the Heartland

When I moved to Cleveland I'd only ever had one Wal-mart experience.  As I was growing up Wal-mart wasn't yet in the cultural vocabulary.  Plus, you know,  New Yorkers - it would be a long time before they'd have big box stores (if you didn't include Macy's), and maybe forever before they'd like them. 

My Wal-mart experience came as a result of trips I took with my sister, Erika, and my Dad to visit my grandma in Portage, Wisconsin.

My Gramma's husband, Ed, a sourpuss, died when I was maybe eight, and Helen lived most of my life as a widow. She lived to be 94, that entire time healthy, and only for the last year or two under the supervision of a group home, when it just didn't make sense for her to be on her own.

For the second act of her life, she worked as a docent for a historical site in Portage, called The Surgeon's Quarters. The site, the location of a tiny log cabin, had been home to the surgeon for the soldiers of Fort Winnebego, which was occupied until 1845. The fort no longer stands, but the log house of the surgeon remains, along with a one-room school house, also part of the tour.

Grandma herself lived in a small apartment above the gift shop that was provided for her, along with a small salary, by the historical society that owned the property,  for touring groups of  Boy scouts and out-of-owners through the premises which were impeccable, and for kids, contained many wonderful and gruesome artifacts.  For instance, the 'operating theater' such as it was, was a table in the middle of the cabin's living room, that had been handmade by soldiers at the fort. The table's main engineering feature was a hole the size of a golf ball, through which the patients blood would fall, collected by a bucket below.  In the adult bedroom (all the children slept in a loft above the kitchen) there was a trap door that led to a cold storage, dug beneath the cabin for keeping hides, and probably root vegetables.  Grandma took great relish in describing how the surgeon's family had once had to hide from the Indians down there.  She'd throw open the trap door to the nasty crawl space and a damp, distant animal smell would curl out and you'd have to think of the grim little children quivering in terror at the onslaught of the "savages", wide-eyed down there with the smelly hides. It was good stuff.

But after she'd given us the tour, and we'd gone to Denny's for lunch with like fifteen of her closest friends - after that Erika, Dad and I would head back to our motel in the rental car, my dad chain smoking out the widow, while my sister, in the back seat gently wiped cigarette ashes off her newborn daughter's head, to kill a couple hours before meeting back up later for the three-meat-buffet.

You may think that Cleveland is the Mid-west.  Some days I'm convinced. But there's some debate. While its a source of comfort for me personally that we partake of East Standard Time, we are not really considerd mid-westerners.  Cleveland has a wee identity problem. Portage, Wisconsin suffers no such crisis of self-identification.

My grandma's town was a main street with a few stores that sold work shoes and Dickies in one aisle and pleather covered canteens for tourists in another. A coffee shop. A post office. It was a  practical, no frills city plan. The gifts that came from this little town, for birthdays and Christmas, were the weirdest, creepiest little doo-dads - - tiny hand crocheted dolls that were sort of rain-poncho shaped, with hard plastic faces sutured into the weave. Or miniature playing cards with badly rendered faces of the presidents on them, and a few national landmarks to fill what remained of the deck -- all these things wrapped in layer upon layer of bubble wrap and newspaper, as if they were treasures or in any way breakable.

I loved Helen with the full depth of my young heart. She was as exotic and loving a creature as I had ever known.  She adored turquoise rings of a huge, and most garish kind and she'd lovingly pummel you with the brass knuckles of her affection and bad taste.  She was generous and convivial and blindly proud of my dad and his accomplishments, cutting out his reviews and recording his shows, bragging about him to her friends. I'd never seen anything like her, with her hair up in a super high tight bun, and a hairpiece on top of that, a tower of hairdo that she had tuck-pointed weekly at the shop, coming at me with those heavy rings...

By the time I was of college age, Wal-mart had landed on a hundred acres of farm land like the Death Star, and was successfully sucking Portage into its gravity with the pull of cheap electronics and ten-packs of undershirts.  We, as visitors, were no exception.  Across the parking lot from our motel, separated by ten-thousand parking spaces, rose this giant, alluring temptress, promising, if nothing more, a way to kill an hour in the farthest regions of farm country.  My Dad, in particular was fired up for a stroll through the aisles, fondling the merchandise. I can only imagine his take, born and raised in Wisconsin, but a New Yorker by choice, on both the promise and demise that Wal-mart foretold for his childhood way of life. But it didn't stop him from buying his daughters some temporary crap for distraction.

I thought the mid-west was the coolest place ever. For the kid raised in Woody Allen's New York, with all the assumptions of priveledge and the amenities of urban breeding, coupled with the complexities of putrid divorce and unsavory parental maneuverings, the dacron sweaters of Wisconsin, the endless rows of shoddy Wal-mart merchadise, and the simple adoration of my Grandma all combined in a perfectly balanced equation, the sum of which was love.


  1. Thanks Sis, for remembering all the details I had forgotten (or had wiped puposely from my memory banks). I loved the blood hole in the table at the Surgeon's Quarters too.

    I also loved the school house next door. It was set up to look like school was in session circa 1875. The rows of desks had little, frozen, costumed, mannequin school children at mute attention. At seven years old they gave me the worst nightmares of my childhood and to this day I abhor and am sickly drawn to diorama, dummies and wax museums.

    Another highlight was when Grandma would play the schoolhouse pump organ -- her little, stooped body dwarfed by the instrument, pounding those pedals with her tiny feet, her gnarled, ringed hands banging the keys and her rocking back and forth like Jerry Lee Lewis. Great balls of fire, she was something else! You made me miss her so sweetly today. Thank you.

  2. For the record, Grumpy Grandpa Ed got off one of the great one-liners ever. Almost always a silent bewildered partner in that marriage (which Helen usually filled to the brim) - he broke the silence once saying - as he looked down at this watch - "Why, I move around so little... I can't keep a self-winding watch going."

    Lovely piece. Gramma is bragging on you from some heavenly House of Pancakes right now.