I should not have waited till now to write this entry. I should have written it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before. But I am writing it now, from gate forty-five at the Kansas City Airport, and all I can possibly think about is home. All I can think about is how devastatingly pleased I am that Karen and Hannah and Abby are going to be waiting at the Raleigh airport for me. (For me! So pleased!) But I am determined that, even as I leave the Midwest, I’m going to write to you about it.
On Sunday evening, I drove my grandpa over to Chillicothe so he could remove a catheter for an old friend. Other people bring a bottle of wine as a hostess gift, Grandpa brings his black bag and his kind hands. While he helped Lloyd, I sat in the front room with Doris, who worked for Grandpa for thirty years, and she told me about back when her daughter was “Miss Missoura” and she, herself, almost went to New York City. We stayed after to visit for a little while. Doris left her walker in the other room and my grandpa, who hunches so that he only comes to my shoulder when to retrieve it. He was delighted by how much fun it was to use, until we pointed out that he had it backward. I’m blessed to be my grandpa’s chauffeur and phone dialer, even if it’s on catheter business. When I walk into Walmart, the greeter, a little man named Stan, stops me to ask if I’m Dr. Howell’s granddaughter. When I say yes, he beams. Everywhere I go I am Doctor and Georgeanna’s granddaughter, Hope’s Alice to those in the know. The name of Howell means something in Brookfield. It means an open door, an open wallet, an open hand. For those in trouble it means a number more reliable in the sheriff’s. It means a freezer full of beef, duct-taped copies of The Hiding Place, and a whole lot of large-print Holy Bibles. For countless people, the name of Howell is all they really know of Jesus. From experience I know that it’s a pretty good sampling. It’s different here, you know? In the past two months I’ve had healthy doses of Des Moines, the Twin Cities, Duluth (especially its mall!), a few little towns in the Iron Range, and, of course, north central Missouri. Good old Brookfield. When my grandma announces that we’re going out to a nice restaurant for Sunday Dinner (eaten properly at about one p.m.) she means some place with a big buffet, metal chairs and linoleum. She cooks her vegetables with butter, and is a little baffled by my penchant for olive oil. When I am sent for errands it is not to a Harris Teeter with a sushi counter and olive bar, but a Walmart with a cheese aisle full of Velveeta, where the only salmon comes in cans. The middle-aged women who shop there do not have careful tans and silver jewelry, but sloppy ankles and tired faces. (There is a Redbox, though. Ah, there is a Redbox.) Someone’s always starting a beauty parlor and naming it something like “The Rusty Razor” or “Curl Up and Dye.” Welcome to this place where people live.
Last February I flew up to Grand Rapids, Michigan for a college visit, and here is what I wrote on the plane home:
There are no words for my loathing of the color of Midwestern asphalt in the winter. It is a mixture of the worst of brown, and the worst of grey, ending in a color which could aptly describe the worst of everything. It is the color of hell. On the other hand, when I look down on the Midwest from an airplane my heart swells, because it has its moments in a way North Carolina does not. North Carolina has its blue skies, its mountains, its beaches, its green hills, its talkers, its thinkers, its doers, its dreamers. The Midwest has few of those things. On poor days it has none, but it has plain moments of clear life which no one bothers to cover. There is a boy on my plane, not much older than me, who is going to be a U.S. Marine. His mother and his grandparents saw him off. They all hugged. His mother cried awkwardly, and his grandpa told him to “Keep his eye on the ball.” That was it. Then he left. They left. They love that he’s going, and they hate it. They love him, though, and they want him to do them proud, and come back a better man. They don’t really have those words, but that’s okay, because he knows. There are no waving signs of adoration, no groups of hysterical friends, just a boy with a short haircut who knows what he is about and what he is doing. Sometimes I think what all the North Carolinian talkers and dreamers really are striving for is something these people with their ugly streets have had since birth: grit, plain sense, and an understanding which requires no words.
In one sense I will never be a Midwesterner. I am too much enamored of elegance and education. I care too much about white tablecloths in restaurants and Renaissance poetry. But the Midwest has taught me, even just this summer, some rather important lessons. It has taught me how to use a riding mower, how to clean a pool, how to pull a sticker plant, how to pass a slow bailer on the highway, how to scour a counter, and how to be patient. I have been taught over and over again how to be patient. Patient with slow steps and oft-repeated stories, patient with people and patient with God. I am learning, slowly, to wait. I am learning to live in this in-between space. I am learning to want what Paul has in Philippians 4: 12. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”
On Wednesday evenings, when I went to pick up my grandpa from the prison in Moberly after his bible study, I usually had to sit in the parking lot for a few minutes. On my right was the prison, looking like a gargantuan middle school, wrapped round and round in yards of barbed wire that sparkled in the heat. Immediately on my left, on the other side of the drive, was the flag pole, surrounded by carefully manicured little flower gardens full of some of the most brilliant and lively colors I’ve ever seen. I sat in between, and waited. They’ve got a pretty huge sky out here.