The Heart of It All + A Free Beer
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.