RECOVERY OF A FAMILY’S PAST
What the madeleine conjured for Proust, Ohio conjures for me: memories of hot and happy summers on my grandparents’ farm where I, a “townie” from the West Coast, milked cows, gathered eggs, caught fireflies, made dolls from hollyhocks and nightly with Grandma whipped up “our” snack of vanilla ice cream mixed with instant coffee, ingested with giggles.
Ohio conjures its soundtrack too. It was at my older twin cousins’ that I met “my” instrument, the piano, though Marilyn and Carolyn wouldn’t introduce me, having just made its acquaintance themselves. After a demonstration of their pianism and singing, I ran back to Grandma’s, enthralled: “Where is this middle C?” She showed me, and I played from there.
But sensuous delights are only a start. Ohio represents more elemental firsts: for one, my first act of responsibility, assigned me at age eight when Grandpa, suddenly short-handed, announced, “M’girl, I need you to drive the tractor.” Nothing so concentrates a kid’s mind as an afternoon of easing out the clutch sans hiccup—not one!—with a tower of baled hay at her back and her asthmatic grandfather working a pitchfork full-speed.
And there was the moral education Grandma imparted with her special genius. Rather than cite a set of “don’ts,” whenever I was about to err she’d look at me and say softly, “Now, Carla Nan, you know that’s not right.” Put that way, I did know. Which is why her seven grandchildren adored her (though “adore” isn’t an Ohio word): she made each of us feel worthy, capable, smart. As for group relations, she practiced demonstrative love, nonviolent teasing, tolerance. And if we “got to fussing,” she’d “knock heads,” gently.
Naturally the twins and I, our musical rivalry aside, became “thick as thieves,” so thick they took me on their dates. Though we were unlike—they were future homemakers, I was “the brain”—we imitated each other: I strove to emulate their flawless ironing and they’d actually crack a book. And bless them, they laughed at my emergent wit: “Carla Nan, you are a scuh-ream.” In my astringent household, you see, I was not a scream.
No wonder then that the prospect of Ohio was so thrilling, the leave-taking wrenching. I’d cry from the moment Grandma roused me at 3 a.m., all the way to the train station in Fort Wayne. Usually the first to laugh, especially at herself, Grandma herself turned somber and let me bawl. Truly, is there any desolation like leaving a beloved grandparent?
Well, yes there is. All kinds. And the relevant one here is: in the late ‘60s, several years after Grandma’s death, my Ohio evaporated. All of it. How?
It wasn’t the usual disintegrative forces of individualism or constant moving. It was something more old-fashioned: a feud, between my cousins’ parent and my own, over the usual—land, money, furniture. Overnight the offending relative became a non-person; my cousins, “conspirators”; and as a Berlin Wall materialized, we became exiles. Going back to Ohio would be disloyal, as I understood, more through pained bristling than discussion.
Out of filial regard, I deferred to the break; also my life’s setting has been bicoastal. Meanwhile, the years lapsed and my grandparents’ generation thinned. Long afterward I learned of the deaths of aunts and uncles. To compensate, I uncovered my other parent’s roots in Finland. And more than compensation, I have made a happy second marriage. But I never forgot Ohio, nor did I approve of the schism: I knew it was not right. Moreover, it was uncharacteristically passive of me to accept it, for I’d discovered the joys of activism: reinventing myself post-divorce, tracking Mr. Much Better, flourishing first in civil rights, now as a writer.
Equally compelling was this constant question: what is real and what is illusion? Had Ohio all been illusion? Then reaching midlife, another question: Is loss inevitable or is renewal possible? Finally, I came across a quote from Gorky: Writing, he said, depends on “who your grandmother is.”
Enough dithering! Mere remembrance of things past was not enough. I would try for recovery.
But, what if my cousins preferred the status quo? What if they had hardened against me? For that matter, where were the four of them (the twins and their two brothers)? I had but one clue: several Christmases earlier, my parent received a call from cousin Bill. But the phone had, pointedly, not been passed around. I needed an intercessor.
I called Aunt Bonnie, widow of Grandma’s brother Irvin. The reaction? “Well, Carla Nan, will wonders never cease?” Aside from the welcome, it was a powerful whiff of Ohio past, the only place on earth I am known as Carla Nan. Aunt Bonnie offered to sound out the cousins; we set a date for my return; we wished me luck.
Next, I called my parent. The reaction: “You do what you have to.” Not exactly a blessing. But not censure either.
Finally, in November 1988, in Aunt Bonnie’s parlor, I kept the date—and so did all four cousins. The relief was so profound and elevating that a dramatist would have thrown in his rubber band: all the conflict had been in the dithering, the deferring, the compensating. Reconciliation may not make gripping theatre, but it makes great Life.
Granted there was tension when, after a high-speed exchange of histories, they asked if I’d visit their parent, who was “suffering” knowing I was nearby. But they understood when I declined, explaining I didn’t want to force my parent’s hand. As for us, we agreed the sins of the fathers, so to speak, no longer were to be visited on the sons; nor was it for us to judge or reconstruct the whys of the schism. But it was for us to reclaim each other.
The tension broken, I then ventured some levity. “Remember how you used to play duets and sing?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Now it can be said: the playing was O.K. but”—pause—“you guys sing off-key.”
Another pause—and they whooped with laughter: “Oh Carla Nan, you are a scuh-ream!” And with that, it all came back: my Ohio.
That weekend we found our memories coincide in the highlights: for one, Grandma remains our idol, whom we think of daily. The bonus was the new perspective: theirs. For the twins, a prime memory was their demand that during sleepovers I lie in the middle, so they’d each “have a side” of me. But mostly the weekend was the exhilarating fact of reconnecting, including with Uncle Willy who at 93 could recall eating ouefs in France during World War One. And with my grandparents. At their grave this reluctant modernist, for whom family is provisional, touched down again, home. With my bouquet I left a note quoting Emily Dickinson:
This World is not Conclusion….
For now, in this world, there are visits, notes, phone calls. On my return the following year we advanced to the next stage: kvetching—about the times, about the people in our lives. But not about our parents. That way, we sense, lies our undoing. Unlike with warring nations, reconciliation between individuals requires not a war crimes trial, with prosecutors presenting evidence, but a peace conference.
Since then, as mortality has tolled—my cousins’ parent died, my parent survived cancer just as Carolyn’s husband lost his battle with it—our alliance has proved mutually fortifying. Concerned about Carolyn’s double loss I asked her, “How really are you doing?” Without missing a beat she replied, “You know me, I’m a survivor.” We paused, as we both noted the 20-year hole in that knowledge. And then she moved the keystone into place: “You really do know me, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said, hearing the click, “I really do.”
Though our parents never did reconcile, their surviving parent, whom I eventually met, is pleased with our reunion. And my parent, finally, said to me: “Tell me about Ohio.”
I cannot claim my Ohio has been fully restored. I have to remind myself to call my cousins; I know their children only by name, not personality. The most comfortable connection is with Aunt Bonnie, in large part because she is a pip, but also perhaps because she is not blood. But no matter; even tenuous contact is better than bad feeling.
Will wonders never cease? Not if we can help it.
And we can.