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Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner
By M. J. Andersen
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 M. J. Andersen
All rights reserved.
WE LIVE near the train tracks. They run along an embankment, just beyond a row of houses that rattle whenever a train passes by. The houses are old, but most are well kept. The one that is mint green has a narrow strip of yard on one side, and in late summer it bursts with red dahlias that look, from a distance, like roses.
These houses are just down the block from ours. From the rear bedroom on the second floor, the trains appear to whiz past at eye level. One day, one of them struck a young woman as she stood on the tracks. Some people believe that she wanted it that way. The engineer, unable to stop, knowing it would be too late, put all his strength into braking just the same. The train carried the young woman's body for several feet.
High school boys in enormous shorts, their caps turned backward, watched from the nearest bridge as the police took measurements. If it were not for the row of houses, and the trees just behind them, I could have watched the whole thing from our window — could have seen precisely where the young woman was struck, and how far the train carried her.
The local newspaper told us the young woman had been due to leave home for a new job, in upstate New York I think it was. Perhaps it was a promotion, with new responsibilities. People said the young woman had everything ahead of her, that they could not understand why she chose death, which comes soon enough.
Perhaps, on the verge of leaving, she could not see the point. She may have envisioned all the stages of life before her, a series of predictable crises and transformations, and wondered about the use of going through them. Everything would bear her farther away from home — from a native landscape fastened to the earth by train tracks and blazing maples; from the school rooms and church of her childhood.
Why should she endure this?
In the same week that adorers of Princess Diana were laying down fields of flowers in her memory (thousands of blossoms left at palace gates, the doors of embassies, places where the blond goddess might have lunched) our young woman received precisely two bouquets. They were attached to the bridge and made of common greenhouse flowers. Nobody touched them for many days. Very soon the flowers wilted and the ribbons faded. At some point, the bouquets were taken down, and the train tracks simply led to Boston again.
Leo Tolstoy is said to have written his great novel Anna Karenina after reading a newspaper story about a woman who threw herself in front of a train. The novel is a mountain of gorgeous detail, hundreds of pages of Anna, her husband, her lover, and all the people they knew, all of it funneling toward the moment when Anna is standing by the tracks and understands that her choice will be death.
But Anna's choice is only the penultimate section of the book. Afterward comes the religious conversion experience of Levin. Something mystical happens to him while his wife is giving birth to their child. He understands that he must live for God, and embrace goodness. But he also understands that the moment of revelation will fall away, and that his life from this point on will not be easy. In fact, it will seem much the same. But there will be no turning back from his vision. He must repeatedly choose God.
Levin is Tolstoy's jumping-off point. After conceiving him, he must become him. He must exchange a life of art — the least doctrinaire state possible — for a life of certitude. Or so it seems.
The facts of Tolstoy's life are well known. He was born into Russian nobility and hence a life of privilege. After an interval of youthful adventure, he inherited Yasnaya Polyana, the estate about one hundred miles south of Moscow where he grew up and to which he returned after marrying. At Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy scribbled and studied and begat children, while serfs brought in the harvest and cared for the horses.
There is no writer alive who has not pictured Tolstoy in his study: It is crammed with books and pictures, sumptuously carpeted and finely draped. A robust fire burns in the grate while Tolstoy drafts another chapter of War and Peace or sits exclaiming over Schopenhauer like an excited undergraduate. (He cannot understand for the life of him why everybody is not reading Schopenhauer.)
The main thing every writer knows about Tolstoy is that he had it made: He was living the perfect writer's life at Yasnaya Polyana. He had no teaching commitments, no deadlines he did not set for himself. He had no job as a waiter or a night watchman. He had a young wife, children, plenty of all that he needed. He even had fame. What a setup, every writer since Tolstoy has thought. What a deal.
Because he was a child there, Tolstoy must have known every inch of Yasnaya Polyana: where the snow piled highest in winter or melted first in spring; which woods offered the best hunting; which hill the finest prospect. He would have absorbed the sky in all its moods, especially the sad twilight of summer, which seemed to tell every Russian nobleman: We cannot go on this way, cannot go on with our golden samovars and silk dressing gowns, with our armies of serfs.
In the early 1880s, a few years after completing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote A Confession. The book described his spiritual despair and a conversion not unlike Levin's. In the prime of his life, Tolstoy renounced his two great masterpieces and instead recommended, as the highest example of moral art, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Thereafter, Tolstoy promoted a Christianity stripped to its ethical teachings, including a de-emphasis on material things. Family members and friends were appalled. They loved Yasnaya Polyana and its comforts. They wanted to keep things the same.
The worst part was that Tolstoy was attracting followers. They came to the estate on pilgrimages. One, Vladimir Chertkov, installed himself there. Chertkov was a former horse guard officer who believed in a new kind of community. Soon, Chertkov and Tolstoy's wife, the countess Sofya, were locked in a battle for Tolstoy's soul. It went on for years, until, unable to bear the tension any longer, Tolstoy fled Yasnaya Polyana.
Where was he to go? He hardly knew himself. But his end is now famous. Tolstoy came to the train station at the village of Astapovo and died there. In one view, this is the end, duly recorded, of a great author. In another, it is an old man's confused flight from home, in a last-ditch attempt to find that very thing.
Like a number of New England mill towns, Eastboro, where I live, has a passed-over quality. The enormous Victorians erected during the town's heyday as a manufacturing capital have been divided into offices for lawyers or CPAs. The less lucky ones have been stripped of their ornamentation and entombed in vinyl siding, then carved into rental units. A few have been restored but not in the self-conscious way signifying a community's discovery of itself as "historic." What has been going on in Eastboro is something closer to maintenance.
Though relatively modest in scale, our house is one of these old Victorians. Except for its lack of a fireplace, it is exactly what I wanted. It is a big, sweet cookie of a house, pale gray, almost ridiculously archetypal with its white picket fence, farmer's porch, and white trim swagging the windows and doors like icing. In spring, pink rose and bridal wreath bushes swell with blossoms. In the fall, I deck the yard with crimson and orange mums.
In one of those maudlin moments I only get when I am alone in the car, I almost cried the first time I drove home to our house in snow. It was evening; the lights were on; the snow heaved in fine gusts around the house, which appeared suspended in the storm like a lantern.
"Our house," I thought. "Ours."
We had barely been there a month. The next day my husband and I shoveled what at last was our own walk. We did not mind the cold or the heavy weight of the snow. Inside, we loved the white kitchen with its neat pantry shelves; the polished floors and bull's-eye molding; the clawfoot bathtub, perfectly situated next to a small radiator; and the soapstone sink in the basement.
For a good six months, more, we went stupidly from room to room, saying: I can't believe this is our house. We looked at each other, shook our heads. It was as though the previous owners, now good neighbors, had simply given it to us, after repairing, decorating, and polishing every inch; after loving the house so fiercely themselves it seemed that nothing bad could ever happen in it.
They and other neighbors told us about everyone who had lived there before: good, happy people who had treated the house with care. There was the woman who planted the spirea bushes and never got to enjoy them in their maturity. There was the reserved bookkeeper who was utterly changed by a stroke. Before the stroke, he was a formal man who always wore a hat. Every day he walked across the bridge over the train tracks to his job in the factory and back again. After the stroke he loosened up. He told jokes, forgot to shave. His wife reportedly preferred the first version. Later, and just before us, came Bill, a born scavenger who was Jeffersonian in his zeal for improvements. He had laid out brick walkways; papered every room; constructed a greenhouse for his wife. After four years, no project remained. The melancholy of completion drove them down the block to a bigger place.
So many rooms!, Andrew and I marveled. So much cupboard space. Lights wherever you imagine you might need one. And in the spring, we would soon find, lilac and mock orange.
The house was a shared love but also, for me, a deeply personal one. I had been making my way toward this house, my first, for years. The day I signed the papers, I was only a few months shy of forty. Home, to me, was a house. But I had not lived in one since leaving for college at eighteen. All this time, it seemed to me, I had wandered in the wilderness, at best camped out. And now, I believed, that time was over.
A year before we found the house, my husband and I took a trip. We drove from our apartment in Providence to my childhood home, in South Dakota. The house in which I grew up belonged to my grandmother, who had died a few years before. Now it was to be sold, but before that happened, I had permission to remove a stained-glass window from the garage.
The window was a lozenge of pale greens and burnt sienna depicting bamboo. Before I was born, it had enjoyed a prominent place in the dining room. It was banished to the garage after picture windows became what every family wanted. The stained-glass window was placed in a wall facing the neighbors, there from my earliest days until my graduation from high school. A piece of clear glass covered the corner that had been shattered by a baseball, courtesy of my brother's friend Bruce.
It was Tom Acker who dislodged the window for us; he is a farmer whose avocation is carpentry. For a few years, during junior high, I was good friends with his daughter Janet. She knew a lot of beauty tips, and when I visited their farm, she went to work on me, teaching me how to do a steam facial over the bathroom sink. It involved a lot of cold cream and an almost unendurable interval of breathing hot, moist air with a towel tented over my head.
Janet read teen magazines. She could do her hair in perfect ringlets, apply mascara with no clumps, and execute a full manicure, complete with cuticle softening and layers of polish. I was with Janet in her basement, working on toenails, when her mother flew down the stairs one day to say Robert Kennedy had died. We took in her horror and amazement, and I remembered how the Ackers were Democrats, which we were not, and so that made it worse for Janet's mom.
Who would be next? Mrs. Acker wondered. First the president, then Martin Luther King, now this. She could not think, did not know what to do with herself.
Her anguish seemed to me like a puzzle to figure out, a kind of math problem. For some reason, people in the world beyond our state were not behaving. Where I lived, everyone acted normal; beyond, they did not. Robert Kennedy had been killed, it sounded like, in a kitchen by a busboy. And yet it did not change the fact that our job that summer was skin care, that we needed to know about and idolize the long-haired boys in the teen magazines. They were pop music and TV stars. They sang "Hey, little woman!" and related lyrics about getting girls to cross over from childhood. It was vaguely menacing: These teen idols meant us no good. But Janet embraced the whole thing. She could not wait to be a woman and get off the farm. By the time I came home to get the stained-glass window, Janet had long ago packed up her beauty secrets and moved far away.
Andrew and I wrapped the window in a blanket and put it in the back seat. We took it through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan. It sat waiting while some smiling French Canadians took our picture in front of Niagara Falls. It rode with us past Buffalo and Albany and Worcester to Rhode Island, where it sat in the basement of our apartment building until we found the house we knew, within minutes, we would buy.
When we moved in, we identified one or two places where the window could conceivably go. But I delayed. For weeks my fragment of home sat propped against a wall in the dining room. One day I lay on the living room couch, staring into the dining room at the window. Why could I not make the decision to install it? Several morose minutes passed before an unwanted thought came, almost as though filtering, after some trouble, through the window's pale green surface: Perhaps my yearning for a house had all along been a wish not to be home but to go home, back to the prairie, to live.
I could not have been more stunned if a messenger had come to the door to say I was adopted. This was the conclusion of my search? The whole point of the stained-glass window was that it was a delightful disguise. In my book, the fake exoticism of faux bamboo existed expressly to soften the most severe yet ravishing and unadorned landscape on earth. Bereft of that function, it became merely a pretty object in need, still, of a minor repair to its corner.
I had tried to transplant home. And I had failed. I thought of the years of saving money; of all the houses we had seen and rejected; of the effort and fear that had gone into inspections and financing; of the physical toil of yet another move. What was missing from my new home was a view of vacant land spreading for miles beyond my backyard, a view of fields and lordly skies. I lay there and was quiet for a long time. Soon after, I moved the window to the basement.
Plainville, South Dakota, was an ordinary prairie town of about thirty- five hundred people. The train station was at one end of Main Street, and the county courthouse (something our forebears fought hard to get) stood at the other. In front of the courthouse was a monument of a Civil War soldier. Like anyone who grows up in a small Midwestern town and then leaves, I can in any place and at any time close my eyes and picture the exact configuration of Main Street: on one side, the Chateau theater, Dakota State Bank, JC Penney's, the Lakota Café, the shoe store, Stemsrud's dime store. Then came Schott's bakery, with its thick sweet-greasy air; Rose Jewelry, where Grandma studied the china patterns for new brides; the Sears mail-order store.
At the end of the line, just before the train station, stood the Firestone store, redolent of virgin rubber. Along with tires, it had a baffling inventory of things I associated with men. Most of the year I took little interest. But just before Christmas the Firestone store was full of toys and open, of all rare things, into the evening. After much begging from me and my older brother, Charlie, Dad would take us downtown one night to see. We gazed at displays of model trains, at tables and shelves loaded with dolls, farm sets, army men, stuffed animals, and games. Snow melted from our boots as we moved like solemn pilgrims up and down every aisle. Our wool scarves were damp where they had covered our mouths. We turned rosy in the warmth of the store, went nuts with desire. My yearning blended with the smell of new rubber. Today I cannot ever smell new rubber without feeling a surge of well-being and pleasure. It is the pleasure of anticipating but also the pleasure of profound orientation: I have gotten my bearings. I know, somehow, where I am, in a deep sense unrelated to geography.
Charlie and I were fortunate children. We had indulgent parents and an even more indulgent grandmother. We got what we wanted for Christmas. Perhaps as a result, my idea of God expanded in unsound ways. I came to believe that prayers were generally answered and that goodness brought tangible rewards. At the same time I was taught that it was bad to want the things of the world. In the long run they would fail to satisfy. Very young, I learned to play games with my desire. I would send it out through a little gate, then wad my spirit into a ball of self-abnegation. Once I was convinced I was beyond wanting, I would open the gate again. Getting and not getting were all the same to me.
Excerpted from Portable Prairie by M. J. Andersen. Copyright © 2005 M. J. Andersen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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