BORN IN A MIDWESTERN CITY piled in red brick and green bluffs around a river bend, and the announcement in the paper names her Sara Louise. Parents divorced back when no one was divorced, sent just west to an Indiana sundown town to live with her grandmother. The foundry and basketball gymnasium are dusty with wheat, everything covered in film, except for the famous tree that bursts from the courthouse tower.
At ten, she makes the Daily News for winning a school prize. The print calls her Sally Lou.
No one knows where the tree in the courthouse came from. A bigtooth aspen, fast growing, caring little for beauty. When first spotted by residents, the sprig was thought to be a freak of nature. Soon the tower sprouted a grove, 110 feet above the ground.
The Midwest loves a weed, because it comes back without asking.
The local paper runs the headline “Mrs. Chas. Zoller Claimed by Death.” The article explains that a popular townswoman suffered “a nervous breakdown six months ago,” which then “caused her to take her own life.” Miss Sally Lou, fourteen, is listed as the woman’s only step-granddaughter.
The Midwest doesn’t name its storms. Its winds, its hail. The long seasons when the rain doesn’t show. The closest we come reads like a biblical almanac: the tornado of ’13, the fire of ’49, the great flood of ’93, the pestilence and plagues between. The Midwest doesn’t infantilize destruction with a human name. When people bring their own destruction, we don’t try to explain. We don’t speak of it at all.
At nineteen, Sara’s name and picture appear on the Tri Delt page of a college yearbook. She has a boyfriend from the Indiana town, but she didn’t tell him she’d wait for him. After all, she’s in college, and he’s on the ocean at war.
The Midwest doesn’t expect you to know where we’re from. To find us on a map, to have the faintest notion. We don’t need you to know everything. We might prefer you didn’t.
In the seventies, in another Indiana city on another river, Mrs. J.K.M. appears in the Tribune: wife of university vice president, of hospital board president; committee leader of the women’s auxiliary; patron of the Bach Christmas Oratorio, the Billy Morrow Jackson exhibition; hostess of the country club, the symphony luncheon. Mother of three grooms, two brides.
The Midwest attends the Presbyterian church on Christmas and Easter. The Midwest mothers the child who most loudly cries for mothering. In company, the Midwest does not say God, does not say love.
When her husband dies, she greets the crowd. Her elegant black is expensive but not showy. Back at the family house, she tells a stranger to leave. She is not sorry and does not say so. When her daughter cries, she leaves it to the sons. A granddaughter hands her a necklace of sweet gumballs, brittle and spiked, lighter than lace.
When the air shifts green, the Midwest is not surprised.
Later, her name is listed first or almost first in three obituaries, one for each of her sons. They are marked by a row of stones in that same old Indiana town, with a view of the tree in the tower. Her tall middle son dies first. She does not cry. She tells his teenage daughter: I can still feel his hands on my shoulders. Her granddaughter wonders if she regrets.
Midwestern reticence is respect for the unspeakable, the unknowable. What we do and what is done, to each other, to ourselves. What do you say to the flood, the tower, the burning bush?
The Midwest is full of all that our generations never said to each other. The trees in the tower have been cut down by steeplejacks, split by lightning, stilted with iron. There is nothing virtuous about survival.
When her granddaughter digs out photo albums, asks for names and dates, she never mentions a step-grandmother, a breakdown, a suicide. But she tells her about the unmarried aunt who brought her the black lace gown from Vienna. She recounts her widows’ trip to Rome, when her friend, Mrs. Erickson, retired librarian and president of the Wabash Valley Audubon Society, fell forward on the first step of the Coliseum. Ruth’s luck, she laughs, remembering, stumping through the ruins, the cast logged with rain.
In the garage, the granddaughter uncovers a cedar chest and a small cane rocker. They came west downriver by flatboat in the 1830s, she says. You may take them, if you like. The granddaughter loads the chest, the chair, the photograph into her car and carries them over highways and mountains.
The granddaughter believes asking the right questions is a way of knowing. She believes in saying too much just in case that’s what someone needs. To stay, to return.
Once, the leaves showing their undersides through the sliding glass, she listens as the granddaughter recites Larkin. Her own mother studied a summer with Frost, but she doesn’t mention it. The granddaughter declaims “The Trees”—coming into leaf / Like something almost being said…. Their greenness is a kind of grief.
In the brief silence, the granddaughter repeats the ending—afresh, afresh, afresh—insecure, to make sure they all hear it, like trees themselves thrashing—shh, shh, shh—until she must wave her hands in the air to make the girl pipe down. For goodness’ sake, she says, don’t suffocate it.
The Midwest doesn’t love a show-off. The Midwest takes the burning bush at its word. It’s not only impolite but foolish to look the universe full in the face, to pretend we know the right questions. We don’t even know what to call ourselves.
At one hundred years old, she writes her granddaughter a letter. She writes of her “wander-lust.” The paper is dated, but its sentences drift between decades and centuries, the living and the lost. She signs it, Love, Gram M. She moves back to the midwestern city piled onto a river bend, into a house with her oldest daughter.
At 101, she goes to the emergency room. She spells her maiden name for the nurses. Insists it’s the one she means. She goes home with her daughter. Later, from the pamphlet handed to me in the cemetery, I learn she was not born in the city on the river. She was born in that same town circling the tree in the tower.
At eighty-six, Sally makes the paper again. At the county’s veteran council ceremony, she stands in a khaki trench under light rain. It’s Memorial Day; there’s a band, a silence. A reporter approaches, asks if she feels proud. Her husband in World War II, father in World War I, great-grandfather in the Civil War.
If you live long enough and hang around, she says, we always have a war going on. She opens an umbrella. Holds it over Ruth beside her. And I am very sorry about that.
Katie Moulton is the author of Dead Dad Club: On Grief & Tom Petty (Audible). A MacDowell fellow, her writing appears in New England Review, The Believer, Sewanee Review, Salon, and Electric Literature. She teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the Newport MFA.