Michelle was not born here but this was her home, her base throughout life. Indianola, Iowa. Her grandfather, Chicker, Doctor Grant, the town dentist, lived here for most if not all of his nearly 100 years. He passed just shy of that century mark.
“In eighteen hundred and ninety-five, little George Arthur became alive.”
His father lived to be 102.
I am, in this strange role I play, the keeper of memories, like a back-up drive. Michelle’s ever playful mother Genelle, along with Michelle and her brother, were athletes of language, teasing with it like creating shadows with a ray of sunshine. “The red eye of Melaconga” was the blinking red light on the top of a radio tower. “Craigaloqui!” (I have no idea how to spell that.) Was their Grant clan battle cry.
As a back-up drive, I have many flaws because I don’t really know the underlying significances, I wasn’t there at the creation, didn’t participate in the moment of laughter when the jingle first moved the airwaves and resonated on a long drive from Georgia or around the Christmas tree over a shot of “honey mead” as they would call Drambuie.
But I did get to see Chicker spontaneously stand after dinner and recite a poem, not a long poem and I wish he had lived in the days where we all had high def video cameras in our pockets. We didn’t used to think about recording everything. But he would stand and recite and he had done this hundreds of times. The proper posture and perfect tones were in contrast to little Chicker from the early days, with his diminutive stature but giant smile and heart as he would dribble a basketball up court and pass to his taller best friend. His nickname, Chick, came from those moments. But I wasn’t there for that either.
Fortunately, Michelle loved these stories. Her family was steeped in tradition and was completely opposite to mine. Everything had a context in an anecdote, a connection to history and origin of a playful sort. Unwrapping an Xmas gift in my childhood was an orgy of flying paper, everyone all at once and it was over faster than Santa’s trip down the chimney. Unwrapping in Michelle’s world, which she insisted was how we would do it, was a ritual. Each person opened one at a time and with each gift there was a story, often written on an elaborate tag of inexpertly cut wrapping paper folded over. Some of these product descriptions were written in very fine cursive describing where the item was purchased, something about the artist or location or what Genelle had been doing or the weather.
All of this was amazing to me. They just treated the moment as something that adds to the stories, to the continuum. I loved it and loved how it did battle within me—and our twins as well in years to come—to just rip and tear. Even some of the stocking stuffers had stories attached.
The next morning, we pile in the bus and go to all the places. Almost all. I decided I really don’t want to see the Village where Genelle ended her days. We visited it often and it was very nice, but it would just make me weep because I miss her so much and I would be expecting to see her sitting there and she would not be. Both Genelle’s father and mother passed here. Michelle will not.
We head straight for Chuck and Bertie’s “yellow house” as Cindy and her family call it, on D street and it is lovely. The glorious green of the lawn and familiar side entrance greet us, and I get Michelle’s feet out and down on the platform. She protests a little and there isn’t a sign that she recognizes this place where she spent so much of her childhood.
The Kerrs are also keepers of memories but in a different way. Bertie, who passed just over a year ago, had a great storehouse of photographs and when we would come over she would put out cookies and juice and in her resonant voice she would tell a story about Cindy and Michelle growing up as little girls and show an old snapshot of Michelle in pig tails, standing with a funny grin with the yellow house, now black and white, behind her. She would share some memories and there always seemed to be a reason, something significant in these memories, a lesson for me to take away and I would listen and look for that lesson. I learned a lot about respect from the Kerrs and from Genelle, this generation of storytellers and lovers of the art of living.
I feel as close to them as I ever did to my own family, different, but very close and my heart is heavy, but I am also fascinated and happy that a family member bought the house and is transforming it into a house share, updating all the very old décor and adding a bathroom and redoing the others and then sharing all the history with the world. It seems perhaps the best use for the house that is redolent with tales.
I know that Cindy and her sister Lisa and husband Steve who meet us at the house have heavy hearts. Chuck, their father, died just about a week ago. I loved that tall man and I feel the tears as well. But if there is a blessing in being a caregiver it may be that one’s own problems or emotions go to the backseat and I have to deal with her needs. It is, strangely, better in some cases, better than moving inward where darkness may reside.
I will always hear Chuck’s voice.
Mo plays on the grass.
Michelle stays with the bus because this is not a good walking place for her, level enough but with shadows and lumps of grass and stone, uneven, like the memories, too easy to trip over.
Steve, an architect, gives me the tour of the renovations and upgrades. It’s not his project but he knows the details and it’s going to be glorious and homey.
It’s pretty warm and we don’t stay long. We drive away—Lisa telling us she will come by the next day to Cindy’s house—and head for the cemetery.
As we pull away from the yellow house, I feel that great missing, that curiosity about a lifetime, that world of echoes and wonder for those passed. More data for the back-up drive.
Genelle and her husband Mo—yes, that’s where Mo’s name came from—share a lovely stone marker alongside Chick and Gertie. Someone has planted flowers which have not yet bloomed, and Cindy isn’t sure who that could be. Here I do cry a bit, just saying goodbye to someone who meant the world to me.
But I don’t stay long. She isn’t here.
Then we part ways with Cindy and make the obligatory stop at 1111 North B street where Chicker and Gertie raised Genelle and her brothers and all those stories started or continued from previous generations. Spicalstruthenreddishpalgrant. That was their dog’s name, a St Bernard I believe, they call him Spick.
Gertie kept an amazing garden and designed some of the town’s parks. Chick fixed the teeth and attended the parades for WWI, The Great War, as a Veteran.
The house looks perfect and I try to get Michelle to look at it. I can see someone moving about inside, passing across my view. I hope she will come out, ask us if we need something so I can go inside. I have met this new owner once before and she knows a bit of the history. She is a backup drive as well. At last, Michelle does look over and nods in a very knowing way. That is more than I expected.
We return to Cindy’s and life explodes with the arrival of Jax, Mo’s brother from a previous litter. They have very similar dispositions and are immediate friends, running around and playing. Same coloring, nearly the same size but hard to compare because Jax has had a nice cut and Mo looks like the shaggy beast from a children’s tale.
And the next day he gets to play with his sister Lucy who has just been certified as a therapy dog. She is smaller and a grey and white mottled beauty, and they play and play. Mo is happy.
I am happy for Lisa because she has this friend that needs her so much. Dogs are like gardens, they give us peace and responsibility and the kinds of problems we want to have, mostly.
I get to know Cindy’s husband John a bit better, enjoying his sense of humor and kindness and, most importantly, his love of coffee. He keeps coming and going to softball games where his grandkids are pitching and hitting. He will appear with another team jersey, the Mustangs, and off to root for team Kerr.
I watch Cindy communicate with Michelle. She is at ease with her, creating connections, not forcing anything. When Cindy is with her best friend, I just take internal notes, because she is so warm and direct with Michelle, not pushing anything. I hope that the little question that is almost always on Michelle’s brow will relax, that the confusion will reside, that she will be herself again, even if only for an instant. She has been content enough here, but I haven’t seen the “big recognition” I was secretly hoping for, a moment of context.
And later that day, it happens. All that this trip has been about, all that I quietly hoped for, happens. A smile. A smile I had not seen for many a year. I had seen smiles in the past few years, and even little laughs, but there is a Michelle smile, one that daggers my heart, and there it is, spontaneously there and it lights up the room and all the years are washed away, and I know that the trip is a success and that this was the right thing to do.