“The Holy Scripture points clearly to the vanity of sorrow, and so does reflection…
but why does the heart grieve and refuse to listen to reason?
Why does one want to weep bitterly?”
—Anton Chekhov, “Easter Eve”
When, for Christ’s sake, when did I come to know what I know now? How could I have failed to mark the date, the moment, how could I not remember where I was? I must have known something from the very beginning, but did not, could not, understand it. And consequently, because I did not, could not, understand it, forgot about it? Is that possible? Children are selective, highly and carefully, consciously careful, selective about what they profess to know, what they appear to know, about what they will allow themselves to know, or even consider—and if understanding eludes them, baffles them, do they not divest themselves of the concern? Immediately, in an almost business-like and practical way? No feelings of resentment or frustration or inferiority, something like the beta male in any but human society, who rolls on his back, admits his loss without the faintest taste of shame, occupies himself with a piece of fruit that was not being contested? Maybe that is the way of the healthy child, the whole and unwounded child. Maybe the damage comes when they are forced to consider something they cannot understand. Maybe that’s when they become lost in the woods and preyed upon—when someone or something refuses to let them turn around and run away. I must have been a healthy, whole, unwounded, undamaged child. My mother and my father must have been very gentle with me, with my brother…my aunts and uncles and grandparents, my older cousins, so superbly and mysteriously princely in their older-ness…they must have known and understood so well that they were able to let me run away, rather than clutch and grab at me in their own confusion and, who knows, terror—it’s not too strong a word, I don’t think, it doesn’t take much to terrify a child—to terrify an adult—and my older cousins must have steeled themselves with what they knew and understood, must have been very brave and strong not to cry out to me—or even to just let something slip, a warning, a look, an obscure reference. I can only guess, but I must have known something from the very beginning, and must have come to that knowledge as I sat next to the faintly humming, occasionally rattling freezer in the breezeway. I cannot account otherwise for the primacy, in my imagination, in my memory, of the breezeway. What a wonderful place it was.
My grandfather, my father’s father, built the house in 1954. He and my grandmother moved in on All Saints Day, a Catholic holy day that meant nothing to them, as they were Lutherans—and not just Lutherans, but “Hauge Lutherans,” a stern and austere variation on the Protestant theme that had swept the western fjords of Norway in their grandparents’ day. I mention it only because that was also the day the French-Algerian war began: my future sister-in-law was two years old at the time, and lived in Algiers. It was also the year, a month or so earlier, that Martin Luther King, Jr., ascended his first pulpit, at Dexter Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama, and Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. I mention those historical events not in order to make the demographics of my childhood more clear, my story’s setting more effectively detailed, but to suggest a far greater world of things I did not, could not, know: the nearest darkies (term of choice—never either negro or nigger) and professional baseball teams were both at such a remove, in Chicago and Minneapolis, as to not exist, or rather, to exist only in lurid and exciting fables. Technically speaking, darkies had been encountered in Waterloo and Des Moines, where my grandfather had worked, at a government job, for a year in the middle of World War II, and my uncles had been in the Navy, island-hopping in the dreamy deadly South Pacific with every sort of Negro imaginable…but the college in town was as white as Ole Miss. Not by design or policy, of course, simply because of circumstances. Nobody in our extended family drank, either, but I saw reeling drunks before I saw blacks.
The property abutted the campus. Its handful of buildings were situated on rolling hills with steeper hills, limestone outcroppings, and bluffs spreading east to the Mississippi, black loam farmland flattening out to the west. The Upper Iowa flowed shallowly through the middle of town. Caves, some of them big enough to attract and sustain a small tourist trade, issued currents of cold air that allowed more northerly species like balsam fir and lady-slippers to flourish on some slopes—my grandparents’ property, for instance. A broad avenue of bigger, older homes, and oak trees led past the front of the house up to the college, and a steep narrow street went up one side. The other side was college parkland, and the backyard was a wall of cracked limestone plates and ledges twice as high as a man. Sometimes flowers from the neighbor’s garden could be seen nodding over that height, but her house was far enough back so that only its roof could be seen. The backyard was consequently quite secluded, a narrow strip of thick green grass. The limestone seemed, naturally, like the wall of a fortress to me. Likewise my grandfather’s tool shed was an enchanted cabin in the wilderness: dark and musty and full of ancient hand-tools, awls and adzes and files, handles dark with dirt and sweat and smooth with use, edges bright and sharp, trays and jars of nuts and washers and bolts and screws, sacks of fertilizer, boxes of old issues of National Geographic, sawdust, cans of paint and turpentine, soft old brushes, a stiff red bristle here and there, heavy boxes of nails, clamps, vises, spider-webs…a bench to work on, a fluorescent lamp hung swaying over it, and a small desk with post-office style pigeon holes for his documents. It was his ambition, when he retired from the county relief office he had retired from farming to take over, to read a set of World Book encyclopedias from A to Z, and to write his memoirs. The documents in the tool shop were arranged in file folders marked by year, one folder for every year of his life, 1900 to the year I am writing of, 1960. There was also a map of Military Township, on the border of Winneshiek and Fayette counties, with the names of the farmers who owned land typed carefully over their sections: the Uhlenhakes and the Tinderholts and the Linderbaums (Conley and Viola I knew), the Hemesaths and the Zweibohmers (the old bachelor brothers Alphonse and Aloysius), the Schissels and the Schweinfusses, the Kipps and Bohrs and Dibbles. Little areas of variously-styled cross-hatching with an ink pen (a nink pin we used to say they pronounced it “down south”—which was anywhere from south of the Fayette line to Little Rock, and, a real howler, lat bubs) indicated, according to a inked-in legend the home place and the place my parents built after and the Nesvik #6 School and Stavanger Church. It was an ordinary, if well-appointed, tool shed, in other, less nostalgic, less elegiac, words; but like certain discrete, out-of-the-way, poetic spaces, it could exert subtle magnetism or focus the power to bind gentle spells upon an occupant, to induce and amplify day-dreaming. And yet, its force was negligible compared to the breezeway.
We only lived there for a short while, a little more than two years, but much of that house worked on me in that way—in fact continues to work on me fifty years later. The jagged broken shelves of limestone rising up to the flowers in the clouds, the tool-shed, the breakfast nook with electric percolater, the steamy surge of coffee into the clear glass cap atop the cover, and the clock with the fish that floated around with the hands, the door in the ceiling in the hallway that became a ladder up to the attic when you pulled the rope attached to it, the kitchenette apartment in the basement where we lived, the rooms for students in the garage, the breezeway: just a roof covering the space between the house and garage, narrow, no more than a couple yards wide, no more than four or five long, wooden arches, sawn plywood like a stage-set, at either end, through which eddies and gusts of hot humid summer winds were channeled and in the shade, on the mossy concrete, made to seem brisker, drier, cooler. In the winter the snow came from the west and would drift across the mouths of the breezeway but never penetrate it; sometimes we would get Minnesota-level accumulations and I could tunnel into it. I feel somehow as if I have never been anywhere else but in the breezeway, sitting next to the freezer, humming, rattling to a stop, rattling up again to a shaky hum…that everything that has happened to me has happened in the breezeway. I could be in Australia, for example, in vast and glittering Sydney harbor, listening to an opera, as I once in fact did, in 1986, an opera about an early explorer of the outback by David Meale and David Malouf, based on Patrick White’s novel Voss…and somehow be in the breezeway at the same time. I will try to say this as simply and prosaically as I can: I seem to view life as if I’m at one end of the breezeway, the back end, looking out towards the street, through that carefully sawn but false archway. The sky is gray but the sun breaks through unpredictably, the house across the street is shuttered, leaves and in the bursts of pale sunlight the faint shadows of leaves are moving up and down the sidewalk, and it is so humid there seems to be mist in the air, or the grass is simply wet and thick, time to mow again so soon but too wet, the blades of grass would simply fold around the blades of the mower and my father would slow his walk, push harder and harder, back up and take a mighty run at it, and finally be forced to stop. I was married on an island in Lake Superior, in 1989, under a chuppa, with a klezmer band playing, but it was as if my wife were coming slowly up the steep sidewalk toward a little housee in a little town in northeastern Iowa, crunching acorns, then appearing as if in a dream in that arch with her dress blowing wildly around her. The door to the garage rooms is open, and The Crew-Cuts are singing “Crazy ‘Bout You Baby.” My mother and father are looking up at me from the basement kitchenette, just the tops of their faces visible, hands waving close to their faces peering sharply upward, through the window well. The freezer is humming, then rattles to a stop. My grandfather is hammering something in his shed. That sounds too much like Faulkner, the bang bang bang of the hammer, but there it is.
The first two, not quite three, years of my life, I was in and out of the hospital. I had croup and nearly ceased to breathe, I pulled a pot of very hot water off the stove on top of myself, and I drove my “car” out the front door and down the steps, five of them, at some point flinging myself from the vehicle and rolling down the steep front yard to the retaining wall, rolling over it, and dropping maybe three feet to the sidewalk. I could have rolled off the sidewalk, down three more steps to the street, but had lost momentum, having more or less fetched up against the iron-pipe handrail. But Iowa in any case is not as flat as popular conception has it. My grandfather is reported to have said, “Well, now you know about that.” My grandmother had a brand new electronic organ which allowed the user to create special sound effects, and to accompany him or herself with a variety of “beats” or rhythm patterns: a couple of my older cousins were said to have been playing a very fast bossa nova beat, much faster than any human organist or dancer could have kept up with, when I shot out of the door. I cried a lot, and was fussy, generally, but by the time I was three I had calmed down and was making attempts to be a good son. One day, for instance, my mother was washing and drying and ironing some very large pieces of fabric—I don’t know what they were, curtains, bedsheets, tablecloths, maybe an assortment of these things—hard, time-consuming work, and it was naturally exhausting her. So I decided to cheer her up by bundling my toys and presenting them to her as a birthday present, even though I knew it was not her birthday. This act of spontaneous generosity, however, did not cheer her much. In fact it angered her, though a long practice of resisting anger, now almost a habit, kept her from any demonstration of real feeling—beyond, at most, a sharp word and brusque handling. Maybe she swatted my rear, but I doubt it, as physical violence was another routine we as a family were habituated against. The problem was that I had used one of the carefully ironed curtains as wrapping paper. I believe after she scattered my toys and threw the curtain back onto the ironing board, she sat down and cried. She must have. I can certainly see myself doing so. I am sure she put me on her lap and hugged me. Of course I am relying on a perforce unreliable memory, but the memories are there, crystal clear, panoramic, and as effectively detailed as any novice storyteller could hope for. What I do not know, what I do not know with certainty or even the hope of the possibility someday of certainty, is this: was I three years old? Or was I four. It makes a great deal of difference.
I retired to the breezeway. I sat next to the freezer and probably sulked a little, only to be lulled, as I almost always was, by the music coming from the rooms of the students in the garage. Maybe it was Elvis Presley or other pioneers of darkie music. As a young mother and father, my parents didn’t listen to rock-and-roll, and I believe my oldest cousin, closer to my father in age than to me, was coming to prefer jazz. He played the trombone, and in photographs looks very cool. It could be that the kids in the garage liked folk music, The Weavers, Pete Seeger, but not Bob Dylan yet, though he must have been playing in Dinkytown at that point, near the University of Minnesota campus. I don’t know what kind of music it was, but I liked it. Not too many years later, when we had moved to Minneapolis and lived on the edge of the UM campus, I was able to get a transistor radio which I was allowed to take to bed with me. It was red and white, had a collapsible antenna, and a volume control dial that clicked most satisfyingly when nudged on with my thumb, the static-fuzzy speaker up tight to my ear.
The students intrigued me, and when I learned that my mother and father had been students just like them, at the very college I could see if I went down to the sidewalk, I pored over their annuals, the only evidence easily to hand of their studenthood. I was learning to read and write and draw rather precociously, to render convincing shapes, and so, noting the fond addresses penned around the photographs, scrawled some valedictory hieroglyph over my mother’s pretty face.
No memory of anger. Maybe she laughed. I would not have. But maybe she did.
I have suggested that I was a difficult child, but one, I hope, that seems ordinarily so. And that I grew up in a place that was, if incredibly, even dangerously homogenous, safe and peaceful and beautiful. And that my extended family was comprised entirely of decent, intelligent, loving people. I have also suggested, I think, that there was some mystery, some unhappiness that was being lived through about which I had not the slightest idea—at the same time I was experiencing full sensory privileges and quickly learning about both the world and the people around me. I saw and understood so much that I am not just baffled but angry about the things I did not see and understand, or saw but did not understand, or saw and understood and ran away from, forgetting either naturally or unnaturally but so completely as to be surprised by it all now. I am not, and must make this very clear, not dealing in anything so specious and dangerous as “recovered memory.” No depraved or evil or defective person abused me or threatened to abuse me—I knew no such people, such people might just as well have been living on Mars. I was surrounded, for miles and miles around, it seemed, by people who valued decency and reason and kindness even more than money! (My nostalgia is simple, simple-minded: for days that had less money in them.) No. I plainly refused to accept something that had happened as clearly as everything else happened, refused to contemplate the consequences as I had every other consequence I’d had in my purview, declined to, as I have said my grandfather liked to put it, know about that now. And my question to myself is what else did you not know about? Certainly it’s ridiculous to hold one’s infantile consciousness to account, to hold it in contempt as I evidently am doing, and it’s equally certain that children have little or no interest in the lives of their parents until, usually, it’s too late, the wonder beginning to grow only as mother and father age and slow and weaken, their memories become chalky and nebulous, their interest in the value of stories dissipates. They become wan and enigmatic, or daffy, difficult chatterboxes, and the wish of the child to know is overwhelmed by sadness and annoyance, or outright fear. No no, we want to live and ignorance is bliss.
Sometimes the births of our own children will cause some uneasiness to well up as we recall the blitheness with which we demanded selfless and absolute fealty from our parents, along with food and shelter and clothing—and our dismay and petulance when they were other than selfless. We ask them how things were to assuage our consciences, we are rueful over our selfishness, amused at our capering, and we come away wiser and gentler, we know about that now, we understand, we are only human and we are doing the best we can. But I have no children, and cannot therefore claim this smug satisfaction with the miracle of emotional development. Nor can I look to the ordinary comparisons that come of achieving benchmark ages: what was my mother like at nineteen? A bobby-soxer? To some extent, yes, but what else? A mother? Yes, but what else? And my father at twenty: leaner? Certainly, wiry and handsome—nearly broken in pieces by his time as a soldier? Perhaps, I didn’t know and apparently didn’t care then, nor even when I myself was twenty and breaking myself into pieces. How about Mom and Dad at forty? They were millionaires and about to divorce, but I knew nothing about it at the time—nothing, not the least inkling—and by the time I was forty, I was too concerned with alcohol and art to see beyond the whirling room I was in.
I am fifty now. Fifty-one, actually—mustn’t forget that crucial extra year of insight. It is a ludicrous age to be so confused, so needy of exemplary anecdotes, so bereft. All I have is this memory of the breezeway, the green fuzz, the moss and mildew, spreading out across the stones and up the bricks.
My brother’s birth inaugurated, when I was not quite three, an era of peace and goodwill of many months. There had been some concern about the “Rh-negative factor” in his and my mother’s blood, and he had to wear a brace, two little shoes bolted to a chrome-plated bar, for a little while, that kept his feet from turning inward so severely, but he was by all accounts a quiet and content baby, and I must have seen how well that worked: a photograph from that year shows me sitting in a cleft of rock on a lakeshore with a pipe in my mouth and a look of thoughtful indolence on my three-year-old face.
Another photograph, taken on Christmas Eve, after we’d opened our presents, shows my brother with a look of excited pleasure that was, for him, relative to his usual amiable sangfroid, suggestive of lust and madness, arms outstretched, about to roll up and take what must have been very early steps. He has been moved to this show by my new aluminum model of a service station, complete with mechanic’s bay, lube-station, gas pumps, pump jockeys, you name it, it had it. He is staring at it and I am staring, in disbelief, at him, as if it was all too clear to me what he was about to do: lumber toward it, fall on it, and utterly crush and destroy it. You can see it in my eyes, just as I saw it in his.
A photo from a few months later, early spring, no snow on the ground but the earflaps of my cap tied under my chin, clutching a puppy fiercely, protectively, jealously to my bosom. We are on the top step under the streetside arch of the breezeway. I may have been given the puppy as a kind of substitute for the gas station, but no one remembers how he came to be in my care, nor what happened to him. I believe his name was Scamp, but no one else remembers that name. It’s almost as if the puppy never existed, and yet there is the photograph, for which I am very grateful. At what point did I come to remember the puppy as “Scamp”? Because I cannot say, conclusively, without doubt, that I remember the puppy, just as I cannot the gas station or the pipe or the birth of my brother…. I remember looking at the photograph sometime later and believing the puppy’s name to be Scamp. Why would I do that for a life so briefly and tenuously part of my own? Was the puppy mine? Was it a stray? Why would my mother or father adhere to my pronouncement that not only was it mine, its name was Scamp, if in fact, in truth, it was a nameless stray that I’d held on my lap long enough for a photograph to be taken? Did this belief seem to them somehow essential to my well-being? And did it then simply become habit? I do not believe that is the case. I refuse to believe it. Scamp is something I have not forgotten. The memory is all but gone. I have only the memory of the memory, a photograph whose context, whose “truth”—the documents, the things you could point to if Oprah accused you of lying—is as lost to time as…as what, as Kertesz’s picture of a wandering half-grinning beggar-violinist, his son or apprentice and another very small child standing in the middle of a dirt road in somewhere in Hungary, but I believe it, I believe steadfastly in the memory of the memory, and I therefore remember Scamp. I believe that he was mine and that something unhappy, unpleasant, unfortunate happened to him. You can see the foreboding in my eyes. If you don’t have access to the goddamn photograph, you can see it in my eyes right now. That such things happen all the time to everybody fails to alter the character of my grief—that is to say, of inexplicable loss. You can in fact see it in anybody’s eyes: that’s what life is. You see the recognition, and it is either one of gentle sympathy or of violent outrage.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, Clara, not Mae, in whose basement we lived, died shortly after the appearance and disappearance of Scamp. We drove several hundred miles northwest, to a crossroads town in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, close to the Manitoba border, called Pittsburgh. My mother’s family had farmed barley and potatoes and sheep there, back in the days when socialists ran the state legislature and fought the railroads, and later, sunflowers and sugar beets. The funeral was held in the basement of the Pittsburgh Lutheran Church, a little white building with a steeple. I was lifted up so that I could see over the edge of the casket. I remember being grasped under the arms and the edge of the casket slowly lowering before my eyes, revealing my grandmother. Her eyes were closed. I remember all this very clearly: rising up over the casket, and the difference between her eyes when they were open and when they were closed. Certainly my perception and understanding of my grandmother’s eyes has been strengthened, even, possibly, to the point of modification, by my perception and understanding of my mother’s eyes, and it is much too much to say that there has ever been violent outrage there…but the change, the simultaneous and perhaps paradoxical darkening and brightening of their eyes, the precipitous fall from kindness and sympathy to something else, that is something I understand very well.
The drive home must have been a long and sad one, but whenever I drive those roads now I am flooded with feelings of peace. Grief brings people physically together at the same time, I think, that it isolates them emotionally. The car was crowded: my father driving, unlatching the vent window and tipping his face toward the rushing air, my mother, pregnant for the third time, between my toddler brother and myself in the backseat, my grandfather in front, adjusting the other vent and allowing me to study his leathery wrinkled neck—and I must have found some hypnotic pleasure in the flat green eternity of the valley, the Pembina hills in the northwest subtle but fantastic evidence of another world entirely. My father’s struggle with himself, initiated by those terrible nights in the Army, had abated to the point where he’d decided not to enroll in the seminary: his religious conviction had deepened, and, he believed, saved him, but the idea of being a pastor had given way to a plan to follow one of my uncles into banking. My mother was not quite twenty-four and given over wholly to motherhood, which she felt saved her from an excess of grief. My grandfather had always been very quiet, and continued to be so, though I had seen him unable to walk past the casket without the support of my mother and my aunt.
It is now, simultaneously, July 3rd, 1960, my second brother’s birthday, and July 3rd, 2007. I am a month away from turning four and turning fifty-one. He would have been forty-seven today, but he lived only to the 5th. I can find no trace of him in my memory. I can find no trace of him in my memories of my family, my mother, my father, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts and cousins, no trace of sorrow or grief or pain of any kind. No memories of the hospital, no memories of hearing the news, no memories of those long hours stretching into days and weeks and finally years. No memory of having been told how the great happiness that surrounded the expectation of his birth could possibly have given way to such incredible reserve, and silence. No memory of silence. It’s as if it never happened. There was once again a potentially lethal antagonism between the blood of the mother and the blood of the child—but the antagonism was expected, and a relatively simple matter of a blood transfusion would resolve it. The transfusion was botched. Air entered my brother’s bloodstream. I was taken by my father’s father, and two or three of my oldest cousins, to the river, the Upper Iowa, to spend the afternoon fishing. I still have the tackle box, with its rusty old spoons and daredevils and cracked plastic bobbers, and my cousins must have been guffawing and snorting and snickering because I never saw them not laughing, they are the funniest men on Earth, and my father tells me that my grandfather put on his waders and went upstream to cast flies for trout, which is where my father says he saw him, up around the bend, standing in the middle of that shallow rippling river, rod in the water, line all spooled out downstream and following the current, holding his other hand over his face. It has taken me forty-seven years to come to his grave, and my brother says that he does not think he ever will, there are millions and millions of lives that could have been but never were, and he is satisfied with the brother he has always had, enough so that he feels no grief, no need to mourn—and I understand that. I understand as well why there are injunctions against grief, why holy books and common sense both counsel against it…but what I do not understand is why I so often feel I am sitting in the breezeway, looking out through the little arch at the dark gray sky, feeling the humid air just begin to move, hearing a soft and comforting roll of distant thunder, absolutely certain that something is about to appear.