By Ryan Schnurr
My great-grandfather was nearly 60 years old when he dug a basement in his backyard and built part of a house on top of it. When I say dug a basement I mean he walked out his back door one day with a shovel and started digging. By the time I came around the project was long finished, and there was a garden between the house and the shed that he tended with great care. My great-grandparents lived in that house for 57 years; it is the closest thing my family has to a home-place.
This place I’m talking about is on E. Wilson St. in Oxford, Indiana. Three houses in on the right. The house is white, with a nice big porch on the front and flowers hanging in a pot on the corner. I don’t know if the flowers are still there, though. Grandpa’s big green desk with the magnifying glass hanging over top is in the spare bedroom to the right, and the kitchen smells like those small, round sausage patties and maple syrup. The upstairs attic is big and hot; Grandpa’s journals line the shelves in one corner, and there’s a foggy window that looks down through the bathroom vent from up there. Family legend has it that Dan Patch was born pretty much in the backyard. (For a long time I thought Dan Patch was a politician; it turns out he was a record-breaking racehorse at the turn of the 20th century.) There’s an agro-plant across the street, or at least there was. Last time I was there I didn’t even recognize the place: the eaves were falling down on one corner of the porch, and the backyard was a tangled mass of weeds and long grasses.
What’s funny is I can tell you how to get there, but even if you follow my directions to the letter we might not end up in the same place.What’s funny is I can tell you how to get there, but even if you follow my directions to the letter we might not end up in the same place.
“Grandpa always took good care of the place,” my mom told me last time I mentioned the house to her. It means more to her than it does to me, I think; she lived there some as a kid, and my grandparents loved her. She has a photo of them in front of the side porch of the house. It’s bright out, in the picture, and they’re squinting pretty heavily. My mom told me that this picture was taken when we went to help them pack up their stuff to move to an assisted-living facility in Fort Wayne, two and half hours northeast of their home.
Ralph and Maxine Swim are actually our great-grandparents, but my siblings and I have always just called them grandma and grandpa. Grandpa kept a daily journal for most of his life, written in pencil on your basic college-ruled notebooks. I can remember him sitting in his chair at night, recording the weather patterns and the day’s events as well as notes on the books he was reading. For a long time I thought that these had been sold off in the move to Fort Wayne. They’ve been stored away for most of my adult life. Somewhere. Nobody’s sure exactly where. In a storage facility, maybe, or some boxes in the back of a garage — family bones rotting in an unmarked grave.
* * *
The thing about being ambiguously white in America is that you’re simultaneously everything and nothing. Our legacy is forward; we hit the Eastern seaboard running and never looked back. It’s about mobility. It’s about freedom. It’s about progress and futures and 401ks. Growing up in the suburbs, you don’t learn how to look backward to find strength: you don’t have to know your history to make it. I don’t remember when I first realized this; it just sort of surfaced in the process of trying to find my roots and discovering I didn’t recognize the tree. I am not talking about immediate family. I am talking about history. I am talking about knowing where you come from, and the strength of generations.
I am a child of colonizers whose roots, I have long believed, run shallow across the face of the continent. My culture, as a function of its tendency toward domination, is largely invisible. I don’t carry on any traditions; I know little of my heritage. The closest thing I have is a childhood steeped in the evangelical church, my dad’s small furniture business, and the hole my grandfather dug behind this house in Oxford, Indiana.
* * *
I was 13 years old when my great-grandfather died — old enough to miss him, but not yet old enough to know why.
Ralph Davis Swim, to use the name on his obituary, worked for the United States Postal Service most of his life, minus a short stint in the Army, first running the mail trains through St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit, then at the post office in nearby Lafayette. At his funeral, my grandma (his daughter) told me that he saw the St. Louis Arch go up day-by-day as he rode the rails in and out of the city. My mom told me she remembers him sitting in his office memorizing the maps of these cities, and that he could pretty well draw them out from memory. Apparently he was the one who would sort the mail by street for drop-off.
I know a few other things about my great-grandfather: I know that he put the same amount of change in his pocket every morning. I know that he labeled everything with small typewritten notes on strips of paper. I know that he was fascinated by engineering — when they started building wind farms in Oxford he would go out and watch them, peppering the builders with questions and suggestions. He is the only person I’ve ever known who actually used a handkerchief, and he loved to work with his hands, building little sets of drawers and child-sized chairs for my brother and sisters and me. (One of these sets of drawers sits in the hallway of my apartment now.) There’s a video clip in the family archives of grandpa raking leaves at my parents’ house. He was always raking leaves or doing dishes or something like that at everybody’s houses. I am helping him, in the clip, though since I am about four years old I am mainly just spreading the leaves around.
* * *
This will be a history of Ralph and Maxine Swim
Written by Ralph
The document was tucked away in the back of a binder: seven sheets, one-sided, stapled together. It’s handwritten in my grandpa’s distinctive cursive scrawl; I’ve seen it a hundred times, on pieces of paper taped inside handmade cubbies and inscribed on the inside cover of books. The pages are photocopies of photocopies of (probably) photocopies. There’s no date, but context clues tell me he wrote it sometime after he retired (1981) and before they moved out of the house (1998). It is a short document, considering the fact that it encompasses something like 75 years, but it’s obvious that this isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s a short run-down of facts, names, and dates, with just a bit of commentary.
Some time in September, 1939, Ralph we started working on a farm two miles south of Covington Indiana. A house was furnished to them us and that was their our first home.
It’s written in a mix of third- and first-person, though he went through and corrected dozens of pronouns after the fact in an attempt to create a uniform voice. He glosses over large sections, and goes into meticulous detail on others — there’s a particularly specific section giving an account of every car they ever owned — with shorthand names for places like “The Scott House” and “Old MacDonald’s Farm.” He recounts their first few years together, in which they bounced around from job to job, place to place, struggling to put down roots. Somewhere in there they had their first daughter, Delores, whom I know better as Grandma Dee.
The writing is simple, with little embellishment, but its simplicity brings with it occasional, devastating clarity — lines that sneak up on you and smack you in the back of the knees. One such passage is on the third page, around 1943:
It was while we were living in the Scott house that I was drafted into the army. We considered the fact that I might not come back from the war. So we shopped for a house so Maxine and Delores would have a home.
I read this section repeatedly, nine or ten times at first, unable to move past it. We considered the fact that I might not come back from the war. What a line to write — no, what a line to live. I wonder if he ever realized what grew out of such an experience — the home they purchased was the home place I know: 603 E. Wilson St., Oxford, Indiana. Here is when they put down my roots.
* * *
I can’t prove it, really, but I think my grandparents sort of gave up once they moved to the assisted living facility. Separated from the community they had lived in for decades, their church, home, and friends, there was a sort of deep and abiding greyness. The move to a nursing home is a symbolic one and my grandpa, especially, didn’t like what it was saying; people kept telling him that at 80-something he was too old to take care of his house anymore, but I don’t think he ever believed them. The assisted-living facility was called “Golden Years,” and I always felt like that was some sort of joke.
This was also about the time that they discovered frozen dinners and packaged snacks. Or rather, the time that they decided that it was okay to start using them. When I was a little kid they took great delight in having us over and gathering the family around the table for home-cooked meals, often with ingredients from their garden. But at Golden Years they would just step into the pint-sized kitchen and pop in a toaster pastry or Stouffer’s pot pie. I can’t blame them for it, of course. I’m just observing.
A few years after my grandpa died, I started going to high school a mile down the street from Golden Years. After school I would walk over and eat microwavable pot pies with my grandma, and she would tell me stories. Simple ones. Small ones. Ones about my mom; ones about grandpa; ones about the neighbors. Including obscure details yet skipping over huge sections. Like reading grandpa’s family history. On the rare occasion that I can get over myself long enough to consider my blessings, I think a lot about those afternoons.
After I went to college, grandma moved to a more intensive assisted living facility. I would travel home to see her, and she would be sitting in her chair by the window, watching the hummingbirds feed. (Grandma always had hummingbird feeders around, and they let her put one outside her window at the new place. I think when she looked out there and let her mind wander she could almost believe she was back in Oxford.) I was there when she died, with my mom and dad and a few other family members.
My culture, as a function of its tendency toward domination, is largely invisible. I don’t carry on any traditions; I know little of my heritage.The peculiar thing about people who are dying of old age is that they stop looking like themselves quite a while before the actual event. It’s a different period for everybody — I think my grandpa started about a year before, and my grandma maybe three.
My mom was sitting on the bed when grandma died. She leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. I heard a faint whisper: “thank you for loving me.” You could tell that grandma’s breaths were getting longer and more laborious, and the world felt like it was slowly getting darker.
“Ryan, I think it’s time to go get the nurse.”
I walked down the hallway toward the nurse’s station. The world was definitely dark now; I could hardly see.
“I think she’s gone,” I said when I got there. But this was just a formality — I already knew.
* * *
My wife, Anna, never met my grandma. But she got really close. I postponed our first date to go to the funeral.
* * *
We drove by the home-place after my grandma died, when we went down to bury her next to my grandpa. It was like going from one graveyard to another. The house was pretty sorry-looking; absence filled it like a weight, dragging down the eaves and the corners of its face. My mom would say that you could tell grandpa hadn’t been there in a while, but as I looked out the back window of the car I thought that I saw him moving slowly through the garden, hunched over and wearing his big, brown rubber rain boots. And then I saw grandma standing on the porch, wiping her hands on her apron and waving us in. And this is the funny thing about places; you could show up there and see a dumpy old house across from an agro plant, but I can’t help but visit my family.
I don’t carry on any traditions. I know little of my heritage. But my family bones fill these holes in the ground in Oxford, Indiana.
Ryan Schnurr is a writer and photographer based in Chicago, though he originally hails from Fort Wayne, Indiana. His work has also appeared in Spaces Quarterly and Frost Illustrated, among others.
Photos courtesy of Lora Schnurr.