Where steamy August enwraps me like a security blanket and the cicadas sing lullabies from lofty shade trees, the aches and pains of my soul are eased. It’s muggy Illinois where I was incubated. I’m home.
The humidity softens my skin, soothing away years of wrinkles, and it curls and plumps my hair. In the oxygen-rich atmosphere, even breathing seems easier. Green, the colour of life and the source of that oxygen, rises from trim fields to crest in perimeter groves of vine-draped maples, oaks, sycamores, hickories and walnuts. “A tree that looks at God all day / And lifts it’s leafy arms to pray …” As in Joyce Kilmer’s tribute, the trees of these dense Midwestern forests stretch heavenward to form cathedrals through which run corridors of leaf-paved pathways and shady lanes of secluded estates.
Squirrels leap among the tangled timbers of the chestnuts, hickories and walnuts. They grow nearly as large as cats on the fruits of these massive deciduous trees. One was a pet who regularly scolded from a window sill until I hand fed him the nuts that he was too lazy to gather. Whenever I was outside, he tugged my pant cuffs for attention.
Dad had a favorite blackberry patch in one of these lush, temperate forests, but I lost its location when I lost Dad. However, a bluebird house still clings to a fencepost in a farmstead clearing where he placed it so many years ago. A John Deere tractor and corn-picker are parked beside. The big barn was never rebuilt after a tornado sheared its roof.
A tornado roared in on streaks of lightning during another steamy night when my parents went to a movie and left me to care for my baby brother. I was eleven but responsible as children were expected to be in those days. As the storm rose in the west, I opened the east windows to release the explosive pressure that occurs when cyclones suck around buildings. A huge sugar maple crashed upon our house, the lights went out, and live wires wildly sparked in the yard. Rushing to fetch my baby brother from his bedroom, I couldn’t budge his door although I threw my full weight against it. I feared he was pinned and lost under the fallen branches, and while the storm howled, I crouched in a centre hallway, nearly drowning there in fear, grief and shame for my failure to save him. When the fury passed, his door opened easily, and I discovered that my brother had slept unharmed throughout the pressure that had temporarily sealed him into that room. The house withstood that night’s storm and still stands as its reminder.
Illinois is other memories of lazy languid summers, rocking in a swing that once hung from that sturdy branch. There’s the river strand where I cooled in the muddy water while I waited for my turn to water-ski. There’s where Dad’s brick plant once stood — now a wildlife park of which Dad would approve. In another place, now occupied by a Kroger store with a sprawling parking lot, once stood the outdoor roller rink where I deliberately fell in front of the most handsome high school fellows so they would feel obliged to help me up. In the hollow near where I used to find Indian arrowheads, stands the church where my infant son was chosen to be the Baby Jesus in a Christmas pageant.
This heartland is Carl Sandburg’s Land of Lincoln with courthouse squares around which farmers park their pickups when they come to town on Friday nights to fetch supplies and to gossip. Their children pursue “lightnin’ bugs” in the courthouse park and remove these firefly abdomens to illuminate spooky fingers and faces with spots of fluorescent green. Grandma took me to the picture show on her square and afterwards Grandpa bought me an ice cream cone from the dairy around the corner. In the base of each cone, I invariably discovered a note: “You win another cone!” I never had appetite to claim my prize.
On such a town square 50 miles from home, Dad deposited me one morning with a suitcase that I was still too young to carry. Plans had been made for my grandparents to come from 50 miles in the other direction to gather me for a visit while Mom and Dad went on a fishing trip. Grandma and Grandpa never arrived. Pickup instructions had been misunderstood. When darkness fell and the lightnin’ bugs began to blink — and I began to blink back tears — I was rescued by the sheriff’s secretary. “What are you doing here, little girl?” she asked. “I’ve been watching you all day from my courthouse window.” She took me home with her, fed me and put me to bed while she set her boss to finding my kinfolk. Mom and Dad were already fishing on a northern lake and Grandma and Grandpa were at the Illinois State Fair where I was supposed to have been with them. An uncle eventually fetched me at about 3 a.m. If that blunder happened now, CNN would likely disgrace the whole lot of us.
Not far from Spoon River, made famous because of the Edgar Lee Masters anthology of the same name, meanders another stream labelled “Crooked Creek” on maps, but always called “Crigger Crick” among my kin. Theirs is a soft dialect to which I unconsciously revert when I am in their company. My people safeguard the stories of the many generations who preceded. They know, for instance, the whereabouts of the unmarked grave of Lincoln’s Uncle Mordecai. It’s in the bottom lands of my grandpa’s farm where Mordecai froze to death in 1830.
Illinois is a friend from my high school class of many years past who phones other classmates to plan a reunion picnic during my visit. It’s “How’s your Mom these days?” and lots of stories which begin “Do you remember that time when you …?” I have almost always forgotten. Someone brings a watermelon so large that it can only be cooled in a horse trough. They still grow big melons in Illinois, but they don’t “plug” them for sampling wedges as they once did. Melons judged imperfect by this means used to be thrown to the hogs.
Hogs and cattle have almost entirely given way to corn and soybeans these days because it is more profitable to grow crops for ethanol production than for livestock feed. Those corn rows stretch to the horizon on the flatlands with only storage bins and grain augers to break the tasselled sea of green. Corn grows much taller “than an elephant’s eye” here, and many a child has become lost in the dense maze of a cornfield. Fields of soybeans alternate with those of corn. These bushy plants also produce a fine cash crop while drawing nitrogen from the air to replenish the soil for another season of corn.
The Illinois soil is like none other — black, humus-rich, deep and without stones. Even today, distant Pennsylvania relatives refuse to believe the “no rocks” claim. My great-great grandfather was thrown out of a Pennsylvania inn during a rain storm because he was thought to be “a damned land speculator” when he gave the rock-free report about Illinois soil. Nevertheless he convinced friends there to make the trek to this Illinois Territory where they settled as neighbours and are now buried together deep in the black, stone-less soil of an Illinois country cemetery.
Illinois is a folksy restaurant offering deep-fried channel catfish, iced tea from scratch and green beans which have been slow-cooked in ham drippings until they verge on mushy. Hot biscuits are always served with honey. It’s the chatty waitress who makes it her business to learn the nature of a my business, who calls across the room when I leave, “Now you have a nice day, Darlin’!” and who will doubtless relate my business to her curious regulars — because I matter.
It’s Old Glory and red, white and blue bunting hung from porch railings. It’s strangers who look me in the eye on the street, extend a hand, and greet, “Aren’t you Fred’s daughter?” It’s friends who are expected to drop in unexpectedly whenever they are in the neighbourhood, and it’s keeping a tidy living room for hosting those unexpected guests and always giving them the best bed in the house if they can be talked into staying over. It is striving like grandparents and Abraham Lincoln said: “… with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right ….”
This Midwestern prairie is where my mother says “I love you” even after she has forgotten my name.
Where steamy August enwraps me like a security blanket, and where a soft breeze brushes my face while the cicadas sing lullabies, I doze untroubled in the shade of a shagbark hickory. I’m home.