catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 3 :: 2013.02.01 — 2013.02.14


The weight of history

Crossing back roads and county roads that slice through flat cornfields in Ohio, you’ll reach the town of Van Wert, near the Indiana border. Originally known as the Black Swamp, the pioneers of the town braved malaria to clear the marshes and build toward 10,000 inhabitants today. As most small towns go, there’s a main street, which is decidedly dead on any sunny afternoon day, with a local economy that has suffered drastically in the past ten years with the opening of the “local” Wal-Mart.

My brother-in-law recently spent some time in Van Wert on business. Aside from the fields and fields of mesmerizing giant wind turbines, he didn’t have much of anything good to say about it. Staying in a chain hotel on the outskirts of town, he and his colleagues sought out numerous places to eat and came up short every time.

“We couldn’t find a single good restaurant. Usually you can find something halfway decent, but aside from the Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s, where else do people eat in this place? I’ve been to a lot of small towns for my work, but this place felt different somehow. Almost as if there is a weight or a heaviness to the place,” he said, shuddering off the feeling of spending a week there.

This is where my spiritual geography* begins. Van Wert, Ohio, where my mom’s family is from and where most still remain, including my grandparents.

Not far from this town is Huntsville, Ohio. Less than an hour away, this small village of 500 people lies at the intersection of several state route highways. My dad grew up here and met my mom in a bar somewhere between the two counties, most likely in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the largest city around where many people go to do their Christmas and back-to-school shopping. When I was growing up and visiting Ohio, everything happened in Fort Wayne. We watched the Fort Wayne news on the television every night, heard about the shootings, the rapes and the gangs that plagued the city. When we would load up in my grandpa’s old tan Chrysler, affectionately known as the Big Banana with the back seat belts broken, to make the trip over to the city, I would feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, thinking about the news headlines from the night before.

Watching the Fort Wayne news from Van Wert every night of our visits had a profound effect on me as a little girl. My chest would start to heave, my heart rate suddenly picking up, and I would feel as if a great weight had been suddenly dropped on top of my chest. I have since learned that the medical diagnosis for this feeling is panic attack, but to my young mind, it was the weight of the world coming down on top of me. Hyperventilating with pain in my chest, I would be convinced in my mind this was the end. If I could no longer get air into my lungs — the center of my life — I was going to die. Needless to say, I began leaving the room when the TV came on every night, at the request of my parents, but finding a dark corner in that house where you could not hear the concerned overtones of the reporter’s voice was difficult, as my grandpa was slightly hard of hearing. My mom explained to my grandma, in hushed tones, that the news reports did not suit my temperament. Much to my embarrassment, my grandma had a hard time understanding, and so I walked around with a kind of ashamed look, like a cowering, helpless dog.

But summer weeks in Van Wert held some good memories as well. Every day, we’d go over to my younger cousin’s house to swim in their four-foot above ground pool, holding underwater races from one side of the pool and back and contests to see how long we could hold our breath; giving each other piggy back rides through the water with my cousin and older brother while we were still young enough to be friends; drying out in the sun on towels. My cousins still lived in town at that point, in a one-story right next to the railroad tracks. Trains rarely came through Van Wert, but when they did, it was loud.

My uncle always had the latest gadgets and technology, things they didn’t need and most definitely couldn’t afford, but his bi-polar disease caused him to go on manic shopping sprees. This was something the rest of my family did not really understand. Without high school diplomas, my grandparents were not what one would consider educated. My mom often had to read notes to my grandma that she received written in cursive and at other times, write for her. My grandpa was not any better, and of my mom’s brothers and sisters who stayed around in Van Wert, none went to college. My mom, being the oldest, was the first of her siblings to leave town and make a break for it, and also the first to begin college, the reason being: she met my dad.

Similar to my mom, my dad also grew up in an Ohio family of many siblings with a Vietnam war veteran for a father and a mother who seemed to live stuck in the years of the depression. He grew up eating homemade ketchup and watching his mother slip sugar and other condiment packets into her purse from restaurants when the waitress wasn’t looking. She felt it was her right. I grew up keeping my distance from this spirited old woman. We did not visit my dad’s side of the family as often as my mom’s, but when we did, we rarely stayed over night.

One time, when we were visiting for the afternoon, I was asked if I wanted some ice cream, which was a treat for my grandmother’s house. When I asked for chocolate ice cream, my grandmother replied that I was a selfish child. Evidently, she didn’t have any chocolate, and I was being ungrateful for even asking. Already extremely timid as a child, this did not help my self-esteem around her. I remember trying to hide the tears burning in the corners of my eyes, feeling the pain of being scolded by an adult unexpectedly, suddenly tearing into my chest. My dad tried to reassure me many times, that my grandmother did like me, but was just a bitter person. I didn’t learn until much later how many grudges she’d held against others.

Oh, Ohio.

How many more untold secrets do you hold?

This is where my spiritual geography begins.  

* Thank you to Kathleen Norris for the borrowed term “spiritual geography,” which she explores in her book Dakota.

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