Monday, August 11, 2003

Until I was ten or so, my grandparents' house in La Cygne was perched on the edge of the world. It was twenty feet or so from their front step to the gravel over asphalt road, and across the street was nothing but grass and farmland between you and the horizon. Then one year we came down for the 4th of July, and there were dirt piles in the lot across the street, a perfect setting for bottle rocket wars. By Thanksgiving, there was a house, acting as a buffer between our feasting and all that nothing, marked into five-acre squares by an endless grid of gravel roads.

I learned to drive in that grid, behind the wheel of a two-tone blue stretch Ford Econoline, hands frozen at ten and two until I almost took us into a ditch trying to turn a corner, and my father explained that it was okay to move your hands around when making a turn.

I learned to spit in the backyard, tutored by my brother and our cousin Doug, who had, I thought, an unfair advantage in the contest that followed thanks to his fondness for Skoal. As ahead of the pack as an East German weightlifter or West African distance runner, Doug took the gold in both distance and accuracy.

In the living room I learned how to watch football and act like I not only knew what was going on, but cared. In the kitchen I learned that if you ate enough jello salad (my favorite was orange jello with grated carrots), nobody nagged you about not finishing your stringy roast beef.

Between my childhood joys and the pastimes of that house was an empty space bigger than Kansas, and I was too young to try and cross it, and my grandparents too old, so I spent most of my time there in either a book or a tree. At my grandfather's funeral, my cousin's described a man they'd known their whole lives that I only saw as senility set in. He loved the harmonica his whole life, apparently, but the first time I saw him play it, I was 28 years old.

At my grandmother's funeral, just yesterday, she was described as a kind and godly woman, which matches my memory of her exactly, but no matter how deep I search my memory, I can only think of one real story that features her in a role involving more than smiling in her apron, patting my arm and saying, "Bless your heart." I saw her several times a year for my entire life, but she had virtually zero impact on the trajectory of my life. She had her passions, certainly, but I know of them mostly second-hand.

La Cygne wasn't much of a place for movies, or books, and the news of the world took quite some time to filter its way down there. But a kid could wander all day, and I quickly acquired a matter of fact comfort with cows, pigs, snakes, spiders, ticks, barbed wire, and other facts of a slow-paced rural life. At the same time, my other grandmother was introducing me to downtown Kansas City, filling my head with stories of people from Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe, while filling my mouth with their cuisine, along with good old American staples like bread, pies, jellies and jams, all made in our own kitchen, frequently with the produce of her own garden. And then there were my parents. Programmers both, intellectually curious, and insanely patient with the endless questions and protestations of youth.

I'm a man now, and all three worlds are a part of what feels like home to me. It's my kitchen producing the food now, as well as the kitchens of various local restaurants and bakeries. I spend my days surfing and building the Internet, both asking and finding answers to questions. I live in a small but vibrant town, its downtown a bustling mess of sounds and smells and colors that could not be less like La Cygne's dusty streets, while Kansas City is only a couple of hours away. And New York, Boston, even Seoul and Tokyo have turned out to be closer than I'd ever have dreamed.

There are days I think I could give myself over to the city completely, but then I get an invite out to a friend's house in the country. There will be music, food, friends, and maybe even a fire, but it's enough for me just to drive on gravel roads again and to feel my legs taking bites out of the space between here and there on ground spiked course with grass that fights being pressed beneath my boots. Sometimes it's the best thing in the world to walk with no destination, in a place where there's nothing between me and the horizon but trees and grass and gravel roads.

The last of my family in La Cygne is in the ground now, though, and I don't know when I'll be there again.

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