The holiday season always make me think of my childhood in Ohio, where winters were winters and we were related to so many people we didn’t know most of them.
You don’t usually think of Ohio being on the Canadian border, but it is. The line's drawn across the middle of Lake Erie. I grew up just a few miles south of it. We could rarely get Cleveland on our old vacuum tube radio, but Ontario came in clear from across the water. In winter the Canadian winds would whip in from across the water too, the creek behind our barn would freeze, neighborhood kids would come out to skate, twilight would come early and on clear nights the northern lights would wave like irridescent flags in the arctic sky.
We grew up on the edge of town and on the edge of a culture that had already nearly vanished from the mainstream. My friends in town grew up with records, cars and movies. My brothers and I roamed through tasseled cornfields in summer and crunched through silent woods in winter. I never saw a teen movie or owned a record player but I have clear memories of muskrats sliding down the muddy creek bank or a weasel sitting upright like a slinky in the snow.
Fremont Ohio had been settled by Germans. My grandmother’s people had come from Alsace. They'd been in Ohio since the state was founded. My grandfather was conceived in the old country and born here. Our immediate family ran to Kaisers, Kisers, Overmyers and Wagners. We were never sure how we were related to the Krauses and Kesslers (although we knew we were) – or to the Titsworths and Fangboners, for that matter – and frankly, we were happy not to know how close we had come to being named Titsworth or Fangboner ourselves. We gave up trying to make any Talmudic distinctions between third cousins twice removed and second cousins thrice removed. We just assumed we were related to everybody in town, but only had to acknowledge first cousins as true relations – unless, of course, some shirt tail relative were to show up with two heads or a tail to elicit admiration.
All my relatives were dear to me, but my grandmother and I shared a bond that transcended family ties. I may have forgotten things that happened to me last week or a year ago, but I can recall with the clarity of a vision the afternoons I spent with her half a century ago.
Whenever I'd show up at her door, covered with grass stains in summer, wrapped up like a mummy in winter, splattered with mud in the spring, or with my pockets stuffed full of buckeyes in the fall, my grandmother would always greet me as if I were the angel Gabriel heralding the Second Coming. Every summer she insisted that I visit her for a month. At holiday dinners, she'd seat me next to her, at the head of the table.
At the heart of our bond were the stories she used to read to me. She read me stories until I could read them to her, and when I started to write my own, she listened to them too. The stories we favored were old world myths and fables, and folk legends as dark and solid as the furniture in her home. But not all the stories were mythological. In the ritual of reading and being read to, my grandmother had opened a small low door for me into her family's past. Inside, I found the spirits of relatives who were long dead, but who, alive again in my grandmother's telling, had became as real to me as the characters of fiction.
As a child, my grandmother had been her grandfather's favorite. He had read to her, as she now read to me. He told her stories, as she told stories to me. Among them were stories of his service in the Civil War.
Christian Kiser had enlisted in the Union infantry at 19. He fought for four years and was nearly captured at Vicksburg. He escaped and lived to tell his granddaughter about it. She lived to tell me. Throughout the war, he carried a small blue camphor bottle. He gave it to her. She gave it to me. In his later life, the local newspaper profiled him and published his photo. He gave her the wood block it was printed from. She gave it to me. I still have it, a vague, scratched red and black image, engraved in steel and tacked to a tiny block of wood. I value it more than anything I've ever bought.
For many people my age, and certainly for those younger, the Civil War is a bookish subject or a series on Public TV. But for me it was a twice-told tale, passed on directly – with only one bounce – from the battlefields of Shiloh, Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain. The small low door that my grandmother had opened into her family's past had become my entry into the past itself. Since then, time has never run the same for me.
When I was 17, I caught a bus for Chicago and began working there as an artist. The next year, back in Ohio, my grandmother died. She and so many others I loved are all gone now, except in memories so clear to me that it often feels that if I’d only go home, they’d all still be there. In some sense they are – they're alive in memory – but I've never been one to take refuge in sentimentality.
With each year that passes, their memory becomes more remote and will grow dimmer with each generation. In time, to others, they'll be little more than a name here, a story or two there, or a scratched photo that no one can identify. The people who were so familiar to me will become Titsworths and Fangboners to another generation uncertain of how they're related and in time, even their names, now buried in dusty ledgers, will disappear into meaningless databases.
And yet, that's not the last word. It never is. The protocols of memory transcend the vanity of our lives. The things we care about most – a commitment to truth and beauty, the nerve to act on our commitments, the premise of civilization itself is never guaranteed. Each generation has to find it and preserve it from abuse or reclaim it from the junkyard. And this would never be possible without the scratched photos and blue camphor bottles, the pictures and stories we inherit and pass on, or the ones we create ourselves and leave behind.
These momentos of the past, or of the present which will soon be past, are the carriers of memory, the DNA of our culture. Some fragments of what we preserve or create will continue to exist, often dog-eared and dimmed by age, often a mere ghost of our intentions, often misunderstood or mischaracterized, or even unattributed to us, but vital to the persistence of everything we hope to perpetuate about our short time on earth. These small things are big things. I learned this years ago, on still afternoons in my grandmother's house.
The winter season always make me think of my childhood in Ohio, where the cold winds came down from Canada and the warmth of my family's love opened the world to me.