Photo: Steve R Watson/ CC.
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I’m Still Not Here

On Hating and Loving Ohio, and Misremembering for the Sake of Art

 

For years now I’ve told people I hate Ohio. But that’s not true. I hate the person I was when I lived in Ohio.

There are 4k people living in my hometown Lexington currently. There were 3k people when I was growing up there in the ‘70s and ‘80s. According to Wikipedia, Lexington was founded in 1812 by a white guy named Amariah Watson. But before that, it was home to the Delaware, Wyandot and Mohawk Indians. Wikipedia says everyone got along fine – the Indians and Watson – until a pig owned by Watson ate one of the Indians’ babies. Wikipedia says the Indians demanded Watson’s newborn baby girl after that, but settled for a pig instead.

I was meek, shy, quiet, sweet. I was a fucking nobody. I was someone you took advantage of, if you noticed me at all. For the most part, it’s like I wasn’t even there.

Usually when someone asks where I’m from I say Mansfield because there’s a greater chance they’ve heard of it. Mansfield has 50k people. Mansfield hosts the Miss Ohio pageant. Mansfield has the mall my friends and I got dropped off at when we were teenagers. Mansfield has the hospital at which all of us were born.

When I was in high school, more people in my class of two hundred knew my mother than knew me. She was a bartender at the only bar in town. The year after I graduated high school, she briefly dated the hottest guy in the year ahead of me. I didn’t date anyone in high school. I made out with drunk guys at bonfires and barn parties on Friday and Saturday nights, guys who didn’t remember me on Monday mornings at school.

Luke Perry from 90210 grew up a couple towns over in Fredericktown. It says on Wikipedia that Luke Perry likes to go home once a year for the Fredericktown Tomato Show, which is an annual street fair. I remember going to street fairs in Loudonville and Belleville as a kid, but not Fredericktown.

I still to this day feel nostalgic about fairs: street fairs, county fairs, state fairs. I’ll go to any. My friend Chelsea doesn’t understand the appeal of street fairs. I think they sound redneck to her. It’s the same thing with my love for Kid Rock. People who aren’t from small towns in the Midwest don’t get it. His songs remind me of living in farmhouses with quilts and hand braided rugs and no air conditioning, of the hog roasts my mother and her friends had every summer, of canoeing down the Kokosing River in the rain with Hefty garbage bags pulled on over our heads; six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Michelob dragging behind us in the water; my mother chopping wood; my mother chopping the head off a turkey; my mother spearing frogs from our pond; a photograph of my mother in a canoe with a cigarette and bottle of moonshine in one hand, a joint in the other. (It just occurred to me while writing that last paragraph that my mother was practically Kid Rock.)

When I was a senior in high school, my mom’s boyfriend ripped our telephone out of the kitchen wall one night in a boring rage. The three of us had just moved back to Ohio from Arizona, where he and my mom had moved to do meth. The rest of my senior year I had to ask neighbors if I could use their phone or ride my bike into town to see what my friends were doing.

For years now I’ve rehashed stories I learned in my early twenties to tell new friends about where I was from, about my hometown and my childhood, about my mother and about me. A couple weeks ago I was watching the movie Silkwood with my husband. The movie is set in a small town in Texas in the ‘70s. The main character, Karen Silkwood, played by Meryl Streep, lives in a farmhouse with her boyfriend, played by Kurt Russell, and her best friend, played by Cher. There is a lot of denim, a lot of boots, a lot of shirtless Kurt Russell pouring beer over his head. There is a Confederate flag on the wall above the bed. At some point in the movie, all three characters are in the kitchen, talking. Cher is sitting at the kitchen table with a pasta strainer and a cookie sheet.

“What is Cher doing?” my husband said. I started laughing. My husband grew up in a Mormon household in the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in a succession of rented farmhouses with a bunch of hippies in small towns in Ohio.

“She’s sifting weed,” I said. “She’s separating the stems and seeds.”

My stepfather kept a cookie sheet under our couch, rolling papers on the railroad tie coffee table. I used to lick the rolling papers that were strawberry-flavored when no one was around.

Years later, my mom said, “You mean you didn’t know we had to bury all that pot in the field out back that winter after a guy a couple steps up from us was murdered in Cleveland and the cops came around asking questions?”

That was the same winter we had to bring in bowls of snow to flush the toilet when our pipes froze; the same winter my mom and my stepdad Wolfie had to drive their friend Benny Lee into town in the middle of a blizzard because he’d run out of nose spray, which, at that time, was highly addictive.

My senior year of high school, my friends and I would go to nearby Lexington to the ski lodge and the football games to see friends and to party. We didn’t ski or care about football. We didn’t care about car races. We didn’t have enough money to ski or to go to the races. We had to save our money for twelve packs of Natural Light or two liters of wine coolers.

We heard Paul Newman rented a house in town because he raced cars or because he owned cars that were raced. I forget which. Paul Newman was cool, though. It was cool that Paul Newman came to our town even if we never saw him.

Initially I wanted this piece to be about the women I knew of growing up. My mom’s friend Kathy who shot herself with her husband’s shotgun while he was at work shortly after they married; the woman my mom bartended with who drowned her two little girls in a river that ran through town; the mother of my best friend’s niece who was killed by her boyfriend.

I read a few more essays by people who had grown up in small towns and moved away and become writers and they didn’t sound too dissimilar. Under the essays were comments left by people who still lived in the towns. Most of the comments were in defense of the towns or of the people in them. Some of the comments called into question the honesty of the essay’s author.

I began to fear I would unfairly depict my hometown and the people in it.

Maybe it’s too easy or a cliché to write about the small towns we leave behind as depressed, to highlight the violence and crime and unheroic deaths.

And maybe it’s unfair to focus on the tragedies of the women I knew. Because the men in my hometown didn’t fare much better. One of my mom’s friends tried to kill himself with a shotgun and ended up blind instead. Another of my mom’s friends poured molten metal on his arm at the factory where he worked because he hated his job so much. My stepdad, Wolfie, had to help another friend pull his arm from a machine after it was caught at the paper box factory where they worked. They were able to save the arm but it was basically useless after that. Many of the men I grew up around drank themselves to death slowly, were dead before they turned sixty. There is violence and tragedy and alcoholism and depression in big cities, too. People don’t write about happy and healthy.

My other instinct was to write about my hometown in a more Stand by Me manner. I was rushed with memories of me and my two best friends in our junior high school years, riding bikes through town in flesh-colored bathing suits, digging through the Volunteers of America box looking for anything that might make a Halloween costume, watching one of my best friends pee over the back parking lot of the Post Office by pulling down her shorts and sitting on the railing, yelling out my apartment window to the high school guy’s apartment that he’d left his underwear at my place when I was twelve and had never even talked to him, making ‘Dial-A-Song’ flyers with my home phone number on them and waiting with my best friends for our neighbors to call, swimming in Janice So-and-So’s above ground pool even though we didn’t like Janice So-and-So (because we didn’t have a pool), playing our version of ‘poker’ with Oreos and Cheetos, walking to Bible School in the summer with my best friend even though neither of our families was religious, running into my best friend’s house anytime my mom and I had to pee while out running errands because they always left the door to their house unlocked even when they weren’t home.

My instinct here is to write about my hometown in an idyllic, sentimental narrative because much of my childhood growing up in Lexington was idyllic. The part I spent with my best friends, anyway. Every part in which I was riding my bike – with them or solo – around town. Every part in which I am walking with my dog through a field or wood.

I forgot to mention Mr. ___. Mr. ___ was the most popular teacher at our junior high school. He taught World History and coached track and was super charismatic and everyone wanted to be in his class. Years later, when I was in my twenties, I heard he hanged himself. Rumor was, a boy had come forward. Maybe two. I don’t really know.

Things I didn’t do until I moved to a city: go to a professional sporting event, go to a collegiate sporting event, see a foreign film, have a boyfriend, say no. In high school, on Friday or Saturday nights, if we had nothing better to do, we’d get some beer and drive out to Mary Jane’s Grave. Mary Jane was a witch they hung from a tree or burned alive in the late 1800s. Legend is that if you piss on Mary Jane’s Grave, you’ll die in a car crash on your way home. But mostly teens go there to drink.

It’s easy to make grand statements. “I never said no.” I did say no, just not that much. It was easier to go with the flow, to go with the group, to shut myself up in my room, to remain invisible. There were two other women from the late 1800s people told stories about around town. One was Ceely Rose, who allegedly poisoned her family by soaking fly-paper in water and pouring the liquid over cottage cheese. The second was Phoebe Wise, a Boo Radley-like eccentric and hermit. Phoebe shot and killed a man who may have been her lover. Later Phoebe was shot and killed after some locals broke into her house looking for money. There were rumors both these women were witches too.

When I was little my mother drove us into Mansfield to a place called Kingwood Center. Kingwood is a mansion and gardens once owned by one of the richest residents in Mansfield, Charles King. When King died, he had no heirs — his last wife had run off with the chauffeur — so he left his estate to the city. There was a large pond with ducks and geese and several fountains and peacocks on the property. My favorite fountain as a child was located down a path into a small wood. My mother would walk me there to make a wish and throw a penny into the fountain.

Around this same time, I was going to Safety Town, a course for preschoolers that teaches traffic safety. But what I remember from Safety Town is the black and white movie they showed us about a young girl getting kidnapped and murdered by a man in a car who lured her with candy.

I don’t know why I associated those woods where the fountain was with the movie about the girl getting kidnapped in Safety Town. But the fountain was thrilling and terrifying to walk to because of the association. I felt like the man was lurking in the flora and fauna, that he might lure me away from my mother, that I might be tricked into wanting to go.

I don’t know when I knew I’d be a writer. There were always books around when I was growing up. Anais Nin. Virginia Woolf. Gloria Steinem. Alice Walker. My mom was a ‘70s feminist. She took me to the library every week when I was little. Read A. A. Milne books to me in bed. When We Were Very Young. Now We Are Six. Winnie-the-Pooh. The House at Pooh Corner. Later she assigned me books to read in summer. The Color Purple. Siddhartha. The Good Earth.

I don’t remember if it was my mother or someone else who told me about Louis Bromfield. I remember driving by Malabar Farm every time we drove to my grandmother’s house in Loudonville. But Malabar Farm didn’t mean much to me then. Malabar Farm had a fresh water spring where my mom liked to stop to get a cold cup of water.

Louis Bromfield was a prolific writer. In 1927 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Early Autumn. In 1925 he took his family on vacation to France and stayed there thirteen years. He was part of “The Lost Generation.” He was a friend of Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis. He had stories in The New Yorker. His novels were made into popular films. He wrote thirty bestsellers. It’s okay, I know you’ve never heard of him.

Last night I took a break from writing this essay to walk downtown, meet my friends at The Moth. At the beginning of the evening, the host reminded us of the rules. “And, of course,” he said. “The stories you tell must be true.”

I looked at my friend Sean.

“But what is ‘true’?” I said. ‘True to whom?’ I thought but did not say aloud.

Louis Bromfield was born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio, the son of farmers. He studied agriculture at Cornell and journalism at Columbia. He worked as a journalist in New York City before he wrote novels, before he moved his family to France, before he had a family, before he fought in the war.

When he moved back to Ohio he bought the thousand acres that became Malabar Farm. He was a conservationist and an innovative farmer. He started writing nonfiction books about farming instead of novels. He became as famous for farming as he had been for writing.

James Cagney sold produce at the fruit stand when he visited. Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married at Malabar Farm. You can still see the scratch marks on the doors of the house from the boxers Louis kept.

Across the street from Malabar Farm is a large hill known as Mt. Jeez. My mother and Wolfie would drive us up it when I was a child. You can see Malabar Farm and all of Pleasant Valley from the top of Mt. Jeez. If I were the type of person who cared about what happens to me after I die, I would say I want to be cremated, my ashes scattered on top of Mt. Jeez.

It was after I moved away from Lexington that I started going to Malabar Farm when I came back home. I’ve taken the tour of the house ten or fifteen times.

I’m not sure what I find so inspiring or comforting about hearing the life of Louis Bromfield told to me time and time again. Maybe it’s the simple fact he was a writer from my hometown. Maybe in part it’s because despite winning a Pulitzer, no one outside of Mansfield, Ohio has ever heard of him. Maybe it’s because in the end, he moved back home to farm. Maybe it’s that he had four boxers. Maybe I’ve made him into the father figure I never had.

My father was born in Mansfield too, but I never saw him there. Or I saw him there one time. For a family wedding. I don’t know much about my father. I know a lot more about Louis Bromfield.

When I was seven or eight we moved away from Mansfield and Lexington, out to real country, to Butler, Ohio. All our immediate neighbors were Amish. I walked my Irish Setter through the field and woods, ‘ice skated’ in boots across one of two ponds in our backyard, bought eggs from the Amish farm next door…but it was a lonely place to be for an only child. I couldn’t play with the Amish children and there were no other children within a walkable distance.

My mother was married to Wolfie then and on any given weekend night, a handful of Wolfie’s friends would be in our living room, rolling joints and drinking Rolling Rock by the woodburner, guys with names like Goofy, Skinny, Hog, Smoke, Squirrel. I could visit early in the evening with the grown ups and then I had to stay in my room. I slept in long underwear shirts and bottoms. The pipe from the woodburner cut straight through my room from a hole in the floor to a hole in the ceiling.

I remember we had a pair of geese that lived in the ponds out back and one winter, the winter of ’76, maybe, there was a blizzard and we brought them inside. Shortly after that someone gave us a black Lab puppy and the black Lab puppy killed one of the geese. After that, the surviving goose walked around the backyard honking incessantly for days. My mother said it died of a broken heart. I don’t remember what happened to the Lab puppy but we didn’t have it long after that.

I have told this story so many times.

Years later, I moved to another small town in Michigan. I was pregnant with my daughter. Her father and I moved to mid-Michigan to be near his sister in Flint. We lived in an old farmhouse with a big backyard that backed up to a creek that ran through town. I tell people this was the happiest, most peaceful, most serene, I’ve been in my life. My daughter’s first four years.

And that is not untrue. But in a way it is as false as the stories I tell in which I say how unhappy I was at other points in my life. Because even though I was happy and peaceful and serene as a mother, I was often fearful and uncertain as a wife. My husband, my daughter’s father, was suffering from mental illness to varying degrees during the eight years of our marriage.

My instinct when writing about my daughter’s first years and when writing about my daughter’s father is to skim over this aspect, to only talk about the pleasant, to protect rather than to exploit. I don’t know why my instinct is not to protect when it comes to telling stories about my mother, why our instincts for protection seem to be almost exclusively with regard to our children.

Things I miss about living in a small town: the fields and rivers and cows and my bike. Malabar Farm. My junior high best friends. Mt. Jeez. My dog, Rufus.

I remember my favorite part of Mask was Rocky’s poem about the sun being on his face being the best and worst thing about being alive.

The best and worst thing about growing up in a small town is growing up in a small town.

Things I don’t miss about living in a small town: Feeling invisible. The loneliness. The undercurrent of sadness and desperation

Or am I misremembering? Am I fictionalizing the undercurrent? Is it ever possible to speak about the past in an honest manner?

At The Moth last night, the theme was ‘escape.’ Several people told stories in which they were escaping someone who had wronged them, an ex-lover, usually. The people the storytellers were escaping were reduced in most cases to a single line of dialogue meant to paint the person speaking the dialogue as cruel or unfeeling or selfish. The audience booed or cheered accordingly.The winner of The Moth told a story about a man she had dated for eight years. A man she told us she had loved. At the conclusion of her story we knew only of the man’s worst behavior, one terrible thing he had said. I realized this was what I have been doing to my mother for thirteen years in my writing. I have done it to other people whom I have loved and cared for also.

I have been as dishonest. For the sake of entertainment. For the sake of art, to consider myself an artist.

I’ve told these stories about my mother and my childhood and my hometown so many times they’re almost all I remember about my mother and my childhood and my hometown.

It’s hard for me to remember anything else, anything but these handful of stories I tell.

I’ve told the story I told earlier in this essay, the one about my mother moving to Arizona with her boyfriend to do meth, many times. If I wanted to be truthful or honest in talking about why my mother moved to Arizona, I would first have to ask her, and second write more than one damning sentence.

The opening of this essay, “For years now I’ve told people I hate Ohio …,” sounded good to me when I wrote it. And, it’s true: I did say that for years. But I don’t think I was being honest with myself when I said it.

Last summer I took my friend Chelsea with me to Lexington. I took her to the bar I’d ‘grown up in,’ and to several houses and apartments in which I’d lived with my mother. I took her on a drive out to the country where we lived next to the Amish. I took her by Malabar Farm and to the top of Mt. Jeez.

At some point during the drive, I asked Chelsea if she’d ever seen anything so beautiful. I was talking about the Ohio countryside. To be honest, I don’t remember what she said.