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Breaking the ice

December 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

My maternal grandmother, Edna Johansen Wistrom, was the child of Danish immigrants. She didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten.

She grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, on the cold flat prairie. She had farm chores, and she told me once that she would rush to get her chores done so that she could go back inside to finish whatever book she was reading. A woman after my own heart.

After high school she attended nursing school, met my grandfather in her mid-20s, and got married.

Grandma Edna held strong opinions, could be stubborn, but was very compassionate to those around her who were needy. She and my grandfather hosted a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 70s. By hosted, I mean the family lived with them until they could get on their feet. I now realize what a huge commitment that was. She read voraciously, had a knack for decorating her house with an elegant and sophisticated flair, and traveled to the Holy Lands when she retired.

She was a good grandma. She taught me how to embroider dishtowels. She took me shopping for my birthday. We spent many holidays at her house, which always smelled of coffee.

But there are so many things I don’t know about her.

She was a typical stoic Midwesterner of northern European descent who didn’t talk much about herself. It probably didn’t help that my grandfather was often verbally abusive and demeaning. That had to have affected her over the years….made her feel that she didn’t have a voice.

Shortly before she died, I took a tape recorder to her small apartment to document her life stories. Time was running out, I realized, and I wanted to know more about her before those stories would be lost forever.

By this time, my grandfather had died, and she lived in a retirement village. She remained independent, but the shroud of death was hanging in the air. Friends she knew from around the village, blue-haired women she played cards with or went to church with, would die and she would never speak of them again. She and the other survivors would pragmatically move on. They wouldn’t even attend the funerals. After a while, so many of her cohorts had died that she seemed so alone.

The day I took my tape recorder to her house, I had high hopes. I was finally going to learn all about my grandmother. I imagined an afternoon spent talking about her childhood, learning stories that would fill all of the gaps of my understanding this important woman in my life. It would be an afternoon of connecting with my grandmother, learning more about her and maybe understanding more about myself.

I am a trained journalist – so I know how to ask questions to coax answers out of the most difficult interviewee. But my journalistic skills were no match for my grandmother. She shyly answered my questions, but barely. I would ask questions, and she gave me short, one-sentence answers.

I wanted stories, history, deep understanding. But she was as closed off and hard as the cold flat prairie where she was raised.

When I asked her “What was the most important day of your life?” She answered, “Oh, when my children were born, I suppose.”

But that was it.

At first I was frustrated, exasperated, and a little embarrassed. I realized my afternoon of listening to my grandmother’s stories would actually only take about 15 minutes due to her one-word or one-sentence answers.

I tried asking the questions in different ways, coming at it from different angles. Nothing.

Slowly, it dawned on me that she felt that her story didn’t matter. That she didn’t have anything worth telling. That she didn’t matter.

After awhile, I gave up, turned off the tape recorder, and we ate coffee cake and talked about my cousins and her flower planters on her patio…skating along the icy hard surface of shallow conversation. Grandma was more comfortable there.

My grandmother died a few years later, at age 89.

The tape of our conversation that day is in my desk drawer. I haven’t listened to it since that day.  But sometimes I want to listen to it just to hear her voice again.

Lately, I’ve felt myself frozen too….just skating on the surface. I wrote a book and it was published, and now I wonder if I’ve run out of stories to tell. I sit down to write and can barely eek out one sentence. I feel that my stories don’t matter. That everyone else has more to say. That I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve to have my voice heard.

But then I think of my grandmother. I remember that day, sitting on the floor at her feet, as she sat in a gold, velour chair. I sat by her feet like Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, craving wisdom and grace and love.

That is why I will sit down every morning and write – even if it’s that one sentence that I can barely eek out  –  to find the stories of my family that my grandmother, and my mother, and probably scores of my ancestors believed weren’t worth telling. I will hack at the frozen surface and chop through the ice until I can dip my fingers into the rich, flowing water below.


I grew up in “fly over country,” the flat land in the middle of the country that helps people in New York and LA feel superior and gives them something to fly over.

Iowa is one of the “vowel states.” you know, Ohio, Iowa, Idaho…one of the states everyone mixes up like they’re interchangeable. “Oh, you grew up in Iowa? Isn’t that where they grow potatoes?” “No, that’s Idaho.”

Iowa has corn. And hills. If you don’t believe me, just go there. You won’t find a potato field anywhere.

I left Iowa to go to college in another vowel state (Ohio), and then moved back to Iowa for grad school. At 25 I moved to Chicago, the biggest city in the Midwest, but in another vowel state. I guess I just can’t get enough of fly over country. I even moved to a consonant state once. Colorado was beautiful, with mountains and lots of sun. I lasted 8 months before moving back to Illinois. I think consonant states are way too obvious.

David and I drove to Iowa Friday afternoon to visit my family, and then took a few days to celebrate our 2nd anniversary in a little town a few hours from Des Moines — Elkader, Iowa. Yes. Elkader. It was one of the best tiny vacations I’ve had in a long time.

When I was a young adult, I just wanted to get out of Iowa. And it seems like everyone my age was feeling the same way. “Brain Drain”, the Des Moines Register called it. I moved to the big city and stopped in the middle of the street and threw my hat up like Mary Tyler More and sang “I’m gonna make it after all!” Okay, not really. But I did get a buzz out of living in the big city. The El, the faster pace, the sophistication, the diversity, the Mies van der Rhoe buildings. I shopped in thrift stores and went to plays in 30-seat theaters and dated a guy who worked in a cigar shop and gave me a book of Noel Coward plays. I started sipping wine occassionally and went to poetry readings and dark smokey bars that had transvestite patrons. My friends were film makers and poets and actors and writers.

Chicago turned out to be a good combination of Midwest and Big City. I could drive to see my family in the other vowel states of Iowa and Ohio, but then return to Illinois and the city. Driving back from Iowa on Interstate 88, I still catch my breath when I see the Chicago skyline. But it doesn’t hold the same excitement as it used to. I love Chicago, but it’s never quite felt like home even though I’ve lived here for 18 years.

Iowa still feels like home. I can’t shake the feeling. It comes over me as soon as I cross the Mississippi River. My tense shoulders relax, I let out a sigh. I see the green rolling hills and the tractors plowing the fields and the hawks perched on the fence posts. I see the deer grazing in the fields and the red barns and white farm houses with the perfectly manicured lawns. In Chicago, I miss just “running into” people. In Iowa last weekend I bumped into the following: 1) Donna, the mother of my youth group friend, Shirley. Shirley and I attended etiquette school together when we were about 12. We learned which one is the salad fork. 2) My cousin Julie and her husband Kurt at the City Market (a store like Whole Foods only a whole lot better).They were eating omelettes. 3) I ran into Twila at Target and we stood in the shoe aisle and talked about her brother, who’s getting a PhD. in Philosophy, 4) At the same Target I saw my 2nd cousins Geri and Julie. Geri is a year older than me and never let me forget it. She used to hold me under the water when we went swimming at the Altoona public swimming pool. Who knew she’d grow up to be a member of the Iowa legislature?

In Chicago I don’t bump into people I know very often. It’s too big and everyone’s too busy and we just don’t have time because we’re commuting and working hard to pay for our expensive housing.

After spending a few days with my family, David and I took off to wander around Northeastern Iowa. Apparently, the glacier that flattened the Midwest thousands of years ago missed an egg-shaped part of Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. So there are hills….lots of rolling hills with farms and emerald green fields with black and white dairy cows lazily munching on grass. We drove through Grinnell Iowa and toured a bank designed by Louis Sullivan (see photos), and then drove up through Cedar Rapids and bought a vintage poster of an Art in America magazine cover designed by Alexander Calder at an antique store. Then we drove further north to Elkader Iowa and stayed at a B&B for the night. We sat on a porch swing and then walked down by the river. Kids played in the streets — jumping rope, riding bikes and scooters.

“Let’s just stay here and buy a house” I suggested. We saw beautiful Victorian houses for sale posted on the Realtor’s office window for under $100,000. Surprisingly, David seemed open to the idea.

“But would we get bored?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said. “But people here are nice. And there’s no traffic or smog.”

“Yea, I think we’d make lots of friends and we could invite them over for dinner. Or we could just sit on our front porch swing and say ‘hi’ to everyone as they walk by.”
I’m longing for less smog, traffic, and a lower mortgage. But I also think I’m longing for community and peace, simplicity and home. Which probably means I’m longing for God. Isn’t that where all of our yearnings lead us?

If we move to Elkader, we’d probably find that the mailman was having an affair with the English teacher, and that the old Victorian house had a leaky roof, and we’d have nothing to do after we got tired of sitting on the porch swing.

On the way back to Chicago David and I listened to a Tim Keller sermon ironically titled “The Longing for Home”. This world is not our home, he reminds us. Parents die. People I bump into at Target will die. The house I grew up in is smaller and less grand than I remember. Our longing for home and community is really a longing for God. We were made for something far better, and we’re crazy to try to fill that longing with things that won’t last.

It’s probably not a coincidence that on the drive we saw gorgeous church steeples rising into the blue sky. God’s reminder to us, I think, that our home is in him.

What we cling to.

July 28, 2005 — Leave a comment

I find myself being clingy these days. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, and the older you get the more you realize that things go away. Friends move away or get cancer. Parents die. Buildings get demolished. I think if I just hang on tight enough, everything will stay the same.

David and I went to Iowa in June for the last wedding hurrah. My sister hosted a reception at her sprawling mansion and lots of relatives and old family friends showed up to wish us well and nibble champagne cakes and tour my sister’s house. I suspect they were more interested in the latter than in chatting with us. But still it was nice to know that childhood family friends were still around. In Iowa, roots run deep. When I moved to Chicago 15 years ago I was startled at how transient it felt. Young people (Like I was at the time) moved to the big city for jobs, then a few years later got married and moved away. In Iowa, people seem to plop down in one spot and stay there for generations.

My dad still owns the plot of land my ancestors bought when they emigrated from Scotland 150 years ago. It’s 80 acres of hilly land with a stream and view of the Des Moines River valley. A few years ago my dad planted the whole parcel with native prairie grass. David and I went there and sat at the top of the hill, feeling the hot Midwestern sun on our cheeks and listening to the crackling of the grass in the wind. New houses are sprouting up all around, and I’m hopeful that this 80 acres of prairie will stay the same forever. But I doubt it will.

I want the things and people around me to make me feel secure. I want to hang onto something solid and unchanging. That’s why I get frightened when it all seems so slippery. But when I feel things sliding through my fingers like water from the bathroom fawcett, I am reminded to trust. And have faith in the one who never changes.