Seven Days in the States
A road trip, a reminiscence, and a reminder
All the flags hung at half-mast when I arrived in the U.S. the first week of December. Wondering what I had missed in transit, I checked the news. Oh.
Another school shooting, in Michigan this time. More young people needlessly murdered by yet another white teenage terrorist with a grudge and a gun.
Welcome to the USA.
I don’t know that every car dealership and pizza place in town lowered their Stars & Stripes because of the Oxford massacre. It could be that the mayor died.*
School shootings—gun violence of any kind, really—have become so commonplace in the United States that it registers as expected. Instead of shock, the reaction is more like: “Where did it happen this time?”
Indeed, when I told my 11-year-old about it she said, “I mean, it’s not surprising.” And added, “Actually, the whole time you were gone I was worried that you’d be grocery shopping and there would be a shooting in the store.”
I did find myself scoping out exits and making sure I sat facing the door in every restaurant I dined in. It’s reflexive at this point, a deeply ingrained prey instinct that’s become the norm in American life.
On the day I write this, there have been 31 school shootings in the U.S. so far in 2021, with 65 people killed or injured in those shootings. This year is the worst year for gun violence in decades. Since January 1st, there have been 42,166 people killed by guns, and 657 of those incidents were mass shootings.** No wonder my daughter was worried about me getting shot while I shopped for groceries. No wonder the Surgeon General warns of a growing youth mental health crisis across the country. There is just so much to that weighs so heavily.
I didn’t return to the U.S. to remind myself of all the reasons I left (although that’s probably going to be an unavoidable side effect from now on). I went back to check in on my parents, who live in rural Illinois, and to take my mom on a road trip.
For months, my 79-year-old mother has been talking about Dugger, Indiana. It’s a small town (population 920) at the southern end of the state. For a time when she was small, it was my mom’s home. She lived there with her grandparents while her mother, who was newly divorced, went up north to carve out a career.
The memories of her years in Dugger have been shining brightly for my mom lately. And that’s kind of a big deal, because more and more of her memories have been lost to the steady erosion of dementia. So I seized the chance to take her to see the place while she still remembered it—and to give my dad, her caretaker, a short break.
We drove four hours through Midwest farm fields, taking turns pointing out our favorite barns. My mom kept commenting on the cars who passed us by, asking “Why do they make new cars so shiny and bright these days? Who would want to drive an orange car?! No thank you!”
We spent the night at my cousin’s place near Purdue University, and then the next day the three of us continued on, two more hours south to Dugger. We found my Granny’s church first, a red brick building on the corner just two blocks from the yellow house where my mom grew up.
The house is still standing, but just barely. It’s derelict and full of debris, but the wallpaper my mom remembers from the 50s still clings to the living room walls, and if she closes her eyes she can remember exactly where the furniture sat.
We followed the train tracks west to the edge of town. Here, my mom told us, she spent hours at her grandfather’s railroad depot. “I would pretend that I was a customer, buying a ticket to ride the train,” she said. The depot isn’t there anymore so she posed by the tracks instead, and we snapped a picture so she could remember this day, later.
It wasn’t far then, to visit the local cemetery and walk by the graves of my great-grandfather, who died when my mother was 18; and my great-grandmother Tillie, who died when I was 14. Tillie’s parents are buried nearby, and so is my mother’s uncle; and, a few rows further up the hill, her father. So much family history is stashed in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it corner of Indiana.
In the car, my mother was quiet as we left the town behind. I was worried that the missing depot and the falling-down house had upset her. “Are you glad we came?” I asked.
She brightened. “Oh yes! Yes, I’m glad,” she said. “I needed closure. I saw the house all falling down, and Grandpa’s depot was gone and I knew I just need to let them go, the ones who are gone. I had a very happy childhood there. But it’s over, and I need to just focus on the ones I love who are still with me. I’m glad we went. And I never need to go back.”
My cousin met my eyes in the rearview mirror and we shared a raised eyebrow and a moment of profound sadness. When we stopped for lunch she pulled me aside and said, “It’s like she’s preparing to go. She’s preparing herself.”
Later, on the long drive back to Illinois, my mother got confused in the dark and began reading off road signs with increasing agitation. “LaSalle? Why would we go to LaSalle?” and “Chicago! We’re going to Chicago?”
“No, mom,” I said. “We’re not going to Chicago. We’re going home to the farm.”
“But I don’t know where we are,” she said. “We need a map.”
“It’s ok,” I told her. “I’ve got a map. I know where we’re going.”
She was quiet for awhile and then said, “I’m glad I got to see all the relatives, standing there on the porch of that house in Dugger.”
I blinked hard at the freeway in front of me, flitting past in stripes of night and electric light.
There were no relatives standing on the porch. Did she see something I couldn’t see, or is she just remembering it wrong? Remembering it differently?
“Have you ever been to Dugger?” she asked.
It took me a beat to respond. “Yes, once,” I said.
“I went there with you.”
If my mom is glad she visited Dugger, I’m glad to have been there with her. Now I have memories of my own to tuck away and keep safe for when I need them, later.
This visit wasn’t all culture shock and drives down memory lane. I also got my COVID booster while I was Stateside. I took advantage of local postage and mailed off Christmas presents to my nieces and nephew. I did farm chores with my dad and cleaned the attic for my mom. I ate several salads with iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. I got re-acquainted with the bitter cold of a Midwest winter, and squeezed in dinner with an old friend on the way to O’hare.
It was a hard trip in many ways. Visiting my parents isn’t the carefree farm vacation it used to be. Now it’s doctor appointments and blood pressure medication and measuring, in my mind, just how much my mother has faded from the last time I saw her.
Returning to the States is wrenching, not just for the personal reasons but for the larger picture, as well. This used to be my homeland. Now, it is the place I was born.
As my plane descended over the red tile rooftops of Lisbon yesterday, I found myself filled with a profound relief. It’s almost like I’m afraid that once I leave, I’ll find out it wasn’t real. The wardrobe will be just a wardrobe and I won’t be able to get back in.
But that’s not the case, of course. Portugal is real, and they do let me come back (provided I have a negative COVID test in my pocket). This time, my third arrival by air, I recognized more than just tourist landmarks. I had much more of a sense of place. A sense of coming home.
* Turns out those flags were flying low to honor former US Senator Bob Dole, who died on December 5th. I guess if flags were lowered to honor the victims of gun violence in America, they’d never see the top of a flagpole again.
**In contrast to the States, Portugal had just 93 homicides in 2020—and not all of those were perpetrated with guns. When it comes to violent crime involving a gun, Portugal ranks 69th in the world. The U.S. ranks #1. Granted, the country is much smaller—but there is also much more gun regulation here. Only a licensed gun owner can lawfully acquire, possess, or transfer a firearm or ammunition. Should you wish to apply for gun owner’s license, first you must be at least 18, and then you must be able to establish a genuine reason to possess a firearm, such as hunting, target shooting, personal protection, or security. You are also required to pass a background check, which considers both your criminal and mental health records. (If you’re interested in this topic, you can read more about Portugal’s gun laws at gunpolicy.org.)