by Amanda Cleary Eastep
On the upper sash of the window sit two russet potatoes, earth dusty.
Two more sit on the lower sash, and nearby on the top of a step-stool are two speckled bananas, just right for banana bread. Three brilliantly red tomatoes still on the vine shine up at me from a bowl on the floor. Outside the window, a maple stands its ground beneath a towering pine.
The window is a pastoral painting, a long lost masterpiece hung in between the water heater and the furnace of my great aunt’s utility closet.
Like a an art museum visitor who appreciates much but knows little, I stare at it for a long time, until my eyes sting and my heart grows quite still.
The last time I was in this southern Illinois farmhouse, my elder daughter, who is with me again, was about nine years old. We were sitting at the same kitchen table, covered in maybe the same plastic lace tablecloth, when my great uncle unbuttoned his plaid shirt and bared his chest to show all of us the Frankenstein-like scar holding his chest back together after heart surgery. My little girl froze at the sight, and I whispered, it’s OK. Uncle is better now.
These many years later, we sit at the table again to visit: me, my daughter (now grown), my mother, and my great aunt–alone. Uncle is better now.
I walk to the kitchen sink to rinse out our coffee cups. Outside the window is the white barn where my aunt parks the 1980s Ford truck she drives to church. On the window sill sit four solar-powered figurines–a smiling gopher, a butterfly, a turkey wearing a pilgrim’s hat, and an angel with the word love on its base.
Each tick-tocks back and forth, not marking time precisely, just keeping track of the light and dark. All the seconds run together now, and clocks don’t seem to matter much. Maybe they never did in a place where time and work and rest were more so measured by when the rooster crowed and the sun set . . . when the rain came or didn’t and the first frost threatened.
The house is full of these knick-knacks and collections of things. They fill up the empty spaces where a son used to play on the linoleum floor and a husband used to eat his bacon and eggs.
“It’s kind of lonely,” my aunt says. Her voice is as soft as her undone bun of white hair.
This house hasn’t changed since I was a child. The yellow, avocado, and tangerine-colored flowers of the wallboard my father and grandfather installed in the 1970s still set off the gold General Electric stove. And when I visit the bathroom, I recall the embarrassment of a shy and self-conscious eight year old trying to pee with only a plastic accordion door separating me from a kitchen full of relatives.
I have been visiting southern Illinois all my life; I’m also here to hike the cypress swamps with my daughter. Uncle took us into the swamp during the same visit when he proudly bared his scar. Despite it being a cold November, he warned us to stay on the path and not to reach for anything on the forest floor since the snakes might still be awake.
This year it is an unseasonably hot and muggy October, the middle of the reptile migration season when snakes like the Cottonmouth slither down from the limestone bluffs and slip beneath the green carpeted waters. As my daughter and I cautiously walk the trails, we talk to other hikers in search of box turtles. We swat mosquitoes the size of small pets. We sweat and breath in the woods and listen to the birds sing. We talk about science and God.
And I feel this place attach itself to me.
Southern Illinois is the birthplace of my grandmother, whom I loved. Her stories of it and my brief times here over the years stitch parts of me together. Hers were stories of poverty and abundance, the death of babies and Christmas mornings with a house full of relatives, hard church benches and revivals under the stars in arbors woven from tree branches.
On our last morning, before we head back to Chicago, my mother directs me down a one-lane gravel road she is sure leads to the cemetery where my grandmother’s first husband is buried. The tires crunch stones, but there’s no one to disturb out here, no one at the end of the road swinging open a screen door to see who’s come to call.
I park beside a tiny, white church, and we quickly find Jacob’s grave. He died of tuberculosis six months after marrying my grandmother. She was 20. In an album of old photos, there is a picture of her standing at his gravesite, but the tombstone I now kneel beside–I brush the dirt from his name–hadn’t been placed yet. But every day my grandmother would kneel in this same spot and weep, every day until the town doctor urged her father to send her to Chicago to find work before she lost her mind. And so she left and settled in the city I now travel to each day for work.
I stand and walk to the south end of the cemetery and take a picture of the view and wonder if my grandmother ever noticed how beautiful it was or if those green pastures just mocked her.
The places we live form us, for better or worse. Even research reveals that what we often consider stereotypes–the neurotic Northeasterner and the agreeable Midwesterner–are actual character variations in people caused by factors such as migration patterns, ecology, and social influence.(1)
We can whittle away the ragged edges of ourselves over time . . . but like characters being developed in a novel, we are shaped by our settings—their noises and smells, boundaries and open spaces, comforts and dangers.
My Chicago mornings smell of train diesel and hot brakes. The city is hard lines and grit. Beside me one day on the elevated train platform, a crumpled woman is hooked up to a portable oxygen tank. A smoldering stub of cigarette juts from the corner of her mouth, daring. Oxygen and smoke battle for lung space.
I move further down the platform just in case but consider the metaphor. Dreams of a home in the woods and the reality of my daily commute duke it out inside me. That’s OK, though. The tension is building some muscle in my character. It hurts in the morning, like an overworked hamstring full of lactic acid. But I begin my daily routine–Bible reading, oatmeal, and the Metra to the city.
As I scurry to my second train, I stick a dollar in the same homeless man’s plastic cup–both of us minor characters in each others’ stories and mere background for the hundreds moving in parallel universes around us.
On these crazy mornings, I wonder how the Spirit finds room in my buzzing head and often weary heart; I wonder if he has to shove his elbows into things to make way. So I pray and ask him to use this place to change me . . . and to make me aware of how I might change it, not by escaping it, but by looking the homeless man in the eye and saying good morning, by asking the train station employee if she has Thanksgiving off, then listening to how she prefers cooking fresh turkey over frozen.
Once on the train, I watch the city pass by my window. The sight is not like a painting of garden vegetables and idyllic, even lonely, days. It’s not a view of green pastures outside my aunt’s kitchen window.
It’s a flickering, silent film, and it takes my breath away.