The Truth of My Family Is Different

I’m happy to say that an essay I wrote, “Stories from the Lost Nation,” will be published next summer in an anthology of writing about fathers and sons their children. The essay originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Colorado Review, edited by Stephanie G’Schwind, who is also editing the anthology. Here’s an excerpt. You can read the whole thing here [pdf]. If you’re not familiar with Colorado Review, check it out and consider subscribing.

The truth of my family is different when I coast down off the hill. The bumps begin to add up. This is country where it is easy to get lost, even for my dad and my aunts, for people who grew up here and whose people once settled here. I once rode in the car with Dad and Mary K on a trip back—this was just a couple years before Mary K died, and her hair was white and Einstein-ish and her grin typically elvish; nobody could ever giggle with more high-pitched ambiguity than Mary K—and they spent the entire fifty-minute ride debating the efficacy of various routes to and fro, although “debate” is the wrong word. They weren’t arguing; this was more a ritual, a mapping out of Clinton County in conversation the way that Joyce is said to have mapped out Dublin in Ulysses.

“You always took the Such-and-Such Road, didn’t you?”

“Oh no”—and that voice of hers would dance up two or three octaves—“goodness no. Now, Tom. The only way to get to So-and-So’s was to take That Other Road.”

“But didn’t That Other Road go west?

“Did it?”

And so on, with rhetorical stops in DeWitt, Delmar, and Maquoketa. In Toronto and Lost Nation, Petersville and Charlotte—pronounced shar-LOT. When Dad turned off 61 to find the “old homestead,” as he likes to put it, there was the obligatory mention of Mr. McClimon, that cigar-chomping Irish farmer who, back in 1926 or thereabouts, obstreperously refused to sell his land to the government, which was trying to extend the highway. The line on the map was forced to loop around him.

And the conversation also began to loop, confusing even Dad and Mary K. It was as if the geography of Clinton County refused to sit still for them. On another trip back, a few years earlier, we actually did get lost, hopelessly lost. We were headed for a McGinn family reunion at the home of Father Ed Botkin, another of Dad’s cousins, and we ended up stopping at a Casey’s for gas and advice. My aunt and uncle and two cars full of cousins happened to pull in at the same time, retreating from the opposite direction. We hadn’t planned it, but we became a caravan and were all lost together.

Stories, you’ll recall, are like maps. They are the opposite of simple. As Mandelbrot suggested, the more carefully you study them—zooming in on perfectly straight lines until they begin to waver and then finally to squiggle—the less they’re able to perform their original function. They don’t answer questions but only ask them.

image: Route 136 east of Delmar, Iowa (Google Maps Street View)

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