Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wisconsin, Part I

Fourteen years ago, I wrote a "sense of place" essay about the Treick farm in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I'd spent childhood vacations there, chasing cats in the barn and sneaking into the attic for a peek at decades-old issues of Time and my dad's old report cards. It was where my dad and his brothers grew up; it was what they had each, one by one, left behind. It was where my Grandpa was born and where he was still living, 101 years later, when he died on Monday.

At the time, I thought my essay was wonderful.

Dr. Schaap gave me a B. In his notes, he wrote: "It will be a good essay one day."

I know now what he meant then. Understanding a place -- really getting a sense of it -- requires distance and perspective. Time must pass, things must happen, in order for an experience to have value. Otherwise a place is just a collection of objects and memories. In other words, it's only a place.

I'm writing this in the San Francisco airport, while seating zones one and two are boarding. I can wait a few more minutes; what's the point of being wedged into seat 21B for a second longer than necessary?

Since I heard the news on Monday night, I've been both anticipating and dreading this moment. The flight, the separation from real life, the reunion with far-flung family in a place that holds a strange, almost mystical attraction for me. I'm coming, I told my Dad. It doesn't matter the price. I'm coming to say goodbye.

Maybe he thought I meant a goodbye to Grandpa, but that's not really the case. When I saw Grandpa this winter (this winter of his fall, the head injury, the trip to the ER on a Sunday morning), I knew it might be the last time. My goodbye was a real goodbye; there are no certainties, especially when you hit the 100-year-mark.

There will be a viewing, a memorial service, family gatherings with fatty foods and laughter and tears. We'll say goodbyes again after a couple short day, and those might be real goodbyes, too. It's horrible to put into words -- but our next gathering may well be another funeral; it's what brings everyone together in the end. But we won't gather again in Manitowoc, Wisconsin - this I can say with reasonable confidence. What will there be for any of us, anymore? The land will be there, of course, but it may not contain a rambling farmhouse, the garage and sheds, the silos, the bar with its date, a proclamation: 1849. All the stuff will be gone, too, to one place or another -- the marble boards, the closets full of Grandpa's plaid shirts, the plastic containers he was always saving for some practical, mysterious purpose.

I'm trying to avoid cliche, but I know it's going to be true: only when it's gone will I finally have a true sense of the place.

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