The holiday season always makes 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.
People don’t usually think of Ohio as being on the Canadian border, but it is. The borderline cuts directly across the middle of Lake Erie. I grew up in Fremont, just a few miles south of there. In our house 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 over to skate, twilight would come early and on clear nights the northern lights would wave like irridescent flags in the far-off 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 and went to sock hops. My brothers and I roamed through cornfields in summer and in snowy winters crunched through what remained of the woods that had once covered the state. Growing up I never saw a teen movie or owned a record player but I have clear memories of muskrats sliding down a muddy creek bank or a weasel sitting upright like a slinky on the railroad tracks.
Fremont Ohio had been settled by Germans. My grandmother’s people had come from Alsace and had been in the state since before it was a state. My grandfather was conceived in the German corridor of Poland but was born here. Our immediate family ran to Kaisers, Kisers, Krauses and Wagners. We were never sure how we were related to the Overmyers and Kesslers (although we knew we were) – or to the Titsworths and Fangboners, for that matter – and frankly, I was always happy not to know how close I had come to being named Titsworth myself.
My brothers and I 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 kin. Unless, of course, some shirt tail relative were to show up with two heads or a tail – the kind of thing that could elicit a kid's 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 Martha Fick more than 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 Gabriel in blue jeans. Every summer she insisted that I come to live with her for a month, and at holiday dinners, she'd invariably 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 heavy Germanic 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. For four years he fought in every major battle in the western theater and during the long seige of Vicksburg was nearly captured behind Confederate lines. He escaped and lived to tell his granddaughter about it. She lived to tell me. All through 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 photograph. 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.
For many people my age, and certainly for those younger, the Civil War is a bookish subject or an old 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 labyrinth of time itself.
One summer at a large family reunion, sitting at a picnic table with some relatives I only dimly knew, I found myself adding up the ages of my grandmother, her sisters and their cousins. All of them were in their late fifties or early sixties. Suddenly I realized that if you were to lay out their lives end-to-end and string them together, it would take only eight of them to reach back to the dawn of the Renaissance; fifteen to the heart of the Middle Ages. No more than forty people only fifty years old would take you back to the time of Caesar and Christ. And with that simple calculation, the vast sea of time parted before me.
Now instead of measuring the distance to historical eras in abstract hundreds or thousands of years, I could measure time in the life spans of precise individuals, like the relatives sitting all around me eating wieners and sauerkraut. The past, always inaccessible, had become imaginable. Since then, time has never run the same for me again.
A few years after that I turned 17. That sumer 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, of course – for me, my grandmother will only die when I do – 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 of people no one can identify. The folks 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 at the county courthouse, will disappear into meaningless databases.
And yet, that's never the proper way to judge the arc of anybody’s transit. The protocols of memory transcend the vanity of our lives. The things many of us 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 new generation has to find it for itself and preserve it from abuse or else 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 beat-up 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 might hope to perpetuate about our short time on earth.
These small things are big things. I learned this years ago, on quiet afternoons in my grandmother's house.
The holiday 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 up the world to me.