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The Heart of It All + A Free Beer

February 21, 2017

This winter marks the 25th I’ve spent in Ohio, and either I’m finally getting the hang of it or the winters are getting milder; perhaps a bit of both. One of the survival techniques I’ve learned to cope with winter here is that I now own more than one coat, and the other is that I’ve learned I need to travel–especially during the coldest months, November to April—to remind myself that there are places where the sun still shines.

I still don’t think of myself as “from” here, though. I’ve spent parts of my life in Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Florida, South Carolina, and Maryland. I’ve never willingly identified myself as an “Ohioan” (especially because of the association of the name with the obtuse and cheerful northerners in Walker Percy novels). And yet here I am.

Both my children were born and raised in Ohio. We’ve owned a house here for more than two decades, repairing and patching and improving parts of it at will since there are no codes, and paying to have our trash hauled away once a week while our cars, which never have to be safety inspected or emissions tested, sit in the garage. For fourteen years we volunteered to do our part shoring up various pieces of the local public school system. Now every Saturday I take a sign–addressed to my representative in congress–to the public square and join my neighbors in standing up to be counted in favor of issues like universal health coverage and continuing EPA regulations, while a guy with a bullhorn harasses us about his religion from across the street and the driver of one out of every fifteen cars makes a rude hand sign or shouts something out his car window. We’ve slowly gotten used to most of the local customs and watched others (like referring to green peppers on pizza as “mangoes”) disappear.

And I’ve finally started to understand the mix of exasperation and fondness in poems about Ohio, like this one by Allison Davis:

The Heart of It All + A Free Beer

There are too many things set
in Ohio. There is even a river. For a while
all we had were couches and tongue rings.
Now, it’s over. All married. Each time you turned around
to face the Torah I hoped you were looking
at my ass. You weren’t, and your brother wasn’t looking
at my sister. We’ve recovered. She married.
In Youngstown when you marry there’s a cookie table.
Back home, having a long last name
is like having a big dick, is like having a nice
cookie table. My five aunts made hundreds
of Greek cookies for my sister’s wedding.
My mother would make them for school, at Christmas,
and I’d bring them in with her motherly note:
“Take out the clove! xo” After my sister’s wedding,
my mother packed up a box of cookies
and said “Don’t share them with anyone
who won’t appreciate them.” My mother’s nightmare
is someone eating Greek food without having
an experience. Baklava is something she has left
of one experience. My cousin
cries about a guy, and I say, “Good, no one likes him
anyway.” No, I don’t. I say, “Find someone
who’ll treat it like an experience.” And if you do
and if he doesn’t, forget about the clove.
He’ll ask, “Was I supposed to swallow that?”
Answer, “That’s what she said.” My cousin
rolls her eyes, says I don’t
understand. The time spent convincing the heartbroken
you’ve been heartbroken. The last time I saw him
was in a Columbus library. We’d both left town,
yet there we were; the back of his neck
in Literature, D-F. “I could not speak, and my eyes failed,
I was neither living nor dead” are Waste Land lines
Pound wasn’t allowed to cut. A hallucination?
I emailed: it was him, he asked why I didn’t say
Hello. Because it’s possible to stay too long
At the fair. Because aisles over in L
was the Lorca
I once watched a guy from Madrid
angrily re-translate in red ink. Even now, it’s there—
written and written
over. Even now, a Great Lake
and a river. Things are set in Ohio
because you’re allowed to stay too long
and call it love. Because there are no
regulations. My mother waits up
for my father who works at a motel
that never closes, that gives customers
the heart of whatever they’ve come for
plus a free beer with every room.

It’s mostly true that “there are no/regulations” around here, and I appreciate the whimsical ending of the poem, the sometimes-tawdry joy of getting a little more than you bargained for and recognizing that this is a place where little things count. Where else can you get so used to funny hybrid names that you eventually forget to laugh at the name of a restaurant in a Columbus strip mall called “Buckeye Pho,” referring to it completely without humor as simply a possible place to meet?

Although my children are Ohioans, the irony is that from here on out they will live elsewhere, and I will probably still be here, thinking of Homer Price every time we drive past the public library in Centerville and cursing our luck whenever it snows and we miss our flight out.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2017 8:30 am

    I love the post, most of all because it was hard to tell where Davis’ poem ended and yours began.

  2. February 21, 2017 10:42 am

    This is a lovely post. I’ve lived in the US twice – in Northern Va for 2 years and in SoCal for 3, but I know very little about the mid-west. I think Ohio is the setting for some of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing for safety? Isn’t it? I’m pretty sure it’s the setting for a book that I really loved though is probably not the sort of book I’d usually read, And the ladies of the club? The social history in that book was just wonderful.

    And, good on you for getting out there with your placards.

    As for kids, yep, both our kids have moved on – will we eventually follow this is the question? Perhaps, but only when we are in our dotage.

    • February 21, 2017 11:01 am

      Crossing for Safety is set in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was born (while my father was in grad school and my mother had me because when she showed up with a changed last name since she was awarded a fellowship, the head of her department revoked it, saying she would “just get pregnant.”)
      James Wright is an Ohio poet, with a Kenyon connection.
      …And Ladies of the Club is another example of what I think of as the exasperated but fond characterization of Ohio in literature.

      • February 21, 2017 3:49 pm

        Yes, it definitely starts in Madison Wisconsin, but the wealthy couple come from elsewhere and it ends there… Maybe it’s further east now I think about it.

        But haha yes, I can see Ladies fitting into that categorisation of yours.

  3. February 22, 2017 11:39 am

    I have never been to Ohio but there was a running joke last year on Zwift, the online cycling “game” I use. On busy weekend days people would login in and text all users “Hello from XYZ!” There were so many people from Ohio that everyone began to joke about it and some particularly snarky days everyone would start texting “Hello from Ohio!”

    As a transplant to the midwest, it took me about 15 years to feel comfortable saying I am from Minnesota, as thought there is a required residency period before you can say you are from a place. We do have lots of laws and regulations here. The big news currently is that the state law banning liquor sales on Sunday is finally about to be overturned. I don’t drink and don’t care either way, but goodness, has it ever been a hot issue for several years!

    • February 22, 2017 12:01 pm

      Whenever we go somewhere, especially the barrier islands in South Carolina, there are a lot of other Ohioans there. I think it’s because there are so many colleges in Ohio, and people who work in higher education have the inclination, plus the money and the time, to travel a lot.
      It’s an interesting question, where an American feels she is “from.” I most often feel that Arkansas or Missouri is my best answer–it explains many of the attitudes, and the lingering accent.

      • February 22, 2017 3:12 pm

        It is an interesting question, where we are from. I certainly don’t feel like I am from California any longer. Sometimes I tell people I am from Minnesota by way of California but not often because then everyone wants to know why I was crazy enough to leave CA and then even crazier to stay away! The people who want to know have usually never been to CA or if they have only on vacation where they lounged on the beach.

        • February 22, 2017 4:29 pm

          (Covers smile with hand) I wondered that too (why you left CA) when I first learned you grew up there, but you write frequently about how much you love where you live.
          I remember being young and optimistic enough to believe that people had more of a hand in choosing where they end up.

  4. February 23, 2017 12:45 pm

    and then there is the question, “but where will I go?”

  5. March 1, 2017 9:37 am

    I’m in northcentral Pennsylvania and I hear you about the winters. Today, it’s raining here…I love poems about Ohio too. This is one of my favorites: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47735

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