My Broken Midwest Memories

My grandparents raised two kids in a cement block structure with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. They all used an outhouse, even through bitter Southern Indiana winters. When their third baby came along, my mother, they decided it was time to move.

My grandma was sitting on her “davenport” in her home when she told me this four years ago. I was there on a visit with a former boyfriend to see my family for the first time in a long while. We were gathered around grandma as she told her stories. I’d never heard that one before.

Later on, I called my mom on the phone to confirm it. She said it was true, without much interest. To me it felt like a revelation. It filled in gaps in my understanding of my mother and shined light on cracks in my own identity.

I was born a Hoosier, but it’s been more than 20 years since I lived in Indiana. We moved a lot when I was a kid. The first time we left it was for Virginia, when I was five. We came back, to Indianapolis, but left again when my dad got a job in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was eight or nine years old.

After our plans to move overseas were made public, I made up weird stories about it to my classmates. It mortified my mother when she caught wind because a parent had fallen for it. She was having her own tough time, grieving in advance for the friends, family, church, and city she would lose. This all happened in the 1990s, but she still talks about this period like it was yesterday.

We lived abroad for less than a year before we came back to the States — but not to Indiana. Under palm trees, not corn stalks, my identity formed under a blazing hot sun in the forge that is Florida.

After undergrad, I moved a lot on my own, too, to Brooklyn, San Francisco, and even to Gothenburg, Sweden. I kept my home state in the back of my mind all the while as the potential future site of my settling-down. You can buy a four-bedroom house in Indiana for $150,000—a very nice back-up plan, indeed, I thought.

It was with that naive vision of the state that I’d set out on my road trip in 2013. I booked a room in a funky inn in a historic town nearby for $60 a night. The owner wanted to speak over the phone first. He had lots of questions. Well meaning, I thought.

The last time I’d visited that particular town I was a pre-teen with my aunt and mom. I dug through bins in an antique shop while they browsed. I remember I bought a Superman comic in which he marries Lois Lane, because I thought it might increase in value.

When we arrived, the cute inn I’d booked was a little rundown. The bed dipped in the middle and the room smelled moldy. The town was nothing like I’d remembered. I’d pictured shops filled with local crafts. People outside and walking on the sidewalks. It was a ghost town. My aunt told us they’d closed an important bridge across the Wabash in 2012. It was the town’s connection point to Illinois. It’s just too hard to get to now.

After dinner and a couple of beers outside at my cousin’s place, my ex-boyfriend needed a cigarette. He’d been keeping it a secret from my family all day. I told him that around those parts it was not a good idea to stop off on a road in the middle of someone’s cornfield. It would look sketchy.

Maybe two minutes after he lit up, a pickup came down the road, a plume of dirt kicking up into the air behind it.

All through our trip so far, the people we ran into — shopkeepers, waiters, and so on — wanted to know where we were from. Over time, the phone conversation I’d had with the inn’s owner made sense. “Where are you from?” is the Midwest version of a longer sentence: “You are not one of us, we all know it, and we want you to know that we are watching.”

A man got out of the truck and asked us a few questions. He was friendly enough, but I knew what his “friendliness” meant. I gestured in the direction of my cousin’s house and told him we were visiting family. Then we got out.

There was a Whirlpool factory on the side of U.S. Highway 41, on the way to my grandma’s house. Its gleaming blue facade and the swooping motion in the big logo on its side looked so modern to me as a child. It was my landmark that told me we were getting close on car rides. A beacon of industry and things to come after miles of relative nothingness. It shut down in 2010, despite protests. Hundreds lost their jobs.

My mom had never been on board with my idealization of Indiana, and now I know why. The town she grew up in had a population of 500 at the time. Though it had a brief blossoming, after 1970 that number began to shrink. There was never anything for hardly anybody there. There’s even less today.

My secret deep longing for Indiana had more to do with people, time, and childhood than the state. Some things I missed I could probably find elsewhere. The sound of the cicadas, for example, along with their spooky shells that cling to trees in the summer. Hummingbirds at a feeder in the backyard. Cold drinks on a hot porch. I can’t recreate the wonderful feeling of eating Miracle Whip and bologna sandwiches with American cheese on white bread. Those were forbidden in my house, but OK to eat at grandma’s. There’s Canasta played at a kitchen table with my family, too. Even if we all played now, I’d no longer be the youngest trying to hold my own with the grown-ups. (Plus, we’d all have our digital distractions.) I realize I wanted to visit thosethings. But like the factory jobs and traffic flowing across the river from a neighboring state, they’re gone.