In my album of baby photos, there is a photograph of my granddaddy taken sometime in the 1950s. He’s standing inside a rustic cabin, holding up a fish that’s about two feet long, and wearing a plaid flannel shirt underneath a canvas jacket. The jacket was probably lined with more flannel. Flannel played a leading role in Granddaddy’s wardrobe.
Granddaddy was an auto mechanic. He and my grandmother had a series of springer spaniels, all of which (I’m pretty sure) were named Spike. In the thirties, he raced cars at a track in Alexandria, Indiana. Later, he drove a bulbous green pickup truck, and had his own repair shop two towns over, in Tipton. He called lunch ‘dinner’, and in the evenings sat in a green Naugahyde™ recliner in the living room. He liked to smoke cigars.
Grandpa, my father’s father, drove a big old panel truck – maybe a Dodge or an International Harvester – and used it to deliver furniture for Leeson’s Department Store to the upwardly mobile in Elwood, Indiana. He had a garage out back full of old signs, a collection of license plates, odd tools, old family photos, bikes and other rusted stuff. He always gave us uncirculated silver dollars at Christmastime.
The Midwest was my original world, and the one that first claimed me. When I realized there was a more exotic world out there, I began to resent those roots. I wished I were Italian or Irish, at the very least. All the tribes I belonged to were, well, boring. Turkey-sandwich-on-white-bread-with-mayonnaise boring. No onion or tomato, and certainly no poblano peppers.
Here are the two things I credit with saving me from a career as a discount store clerk in a small mid-western town: 1) my mom believed in art museums and musical theater; and 2) my dad was in the Army. (Growing up in the military makes you a member of another kind of tribe altogether, but that’s another story.)
A couple of years ago, I unearthed my first passport, the photo of a fat-cheeked baby in a frilly dress. I was five months old on my first overseas flight. Trans World Airlines carried Mom and me across the Atlantic Ocean and Africa to Asmara (in Eritrea, then claimed by Ethiopia, now in Eritrea again), and Kagnew Station where my father was stationed. My mother carried disposable diapers, bottled water and me. The bottled water spilled onto the disposable diapers, so then there was just me.
In Asmara, we lived in a house with a fountain, a fenced yard and a refrigerator. Our housekeeper used to sit in front of the refrigerator with the door open, trying to stay cool. My grandmother sent red and green felt Christmas outfits for me to wear, apparently oblivious to our near-equatorial location.
Amid my baby photos from back then is one of Haile Selassie, then emperor of Ethiopia, and now revered as messiah by the Rastafarians. In the photo is a dark-skinned, bearded man in a light-colored uniform, wearing a flat-topped, brimmed military officers hat, carrying (I am not making this up) a bowling ball. Emperor Selassie’s visit to Kagnew Station included a stop at the post bowling alley.
After Asmara, we moved to Washington, D.C., then back to Tipton while my dad did a tour in Vietnam. Eventually, we ended up in Belgium, where I attended high school, learning to speak French and travel on trains. One year my French class went on a field trip to help harvest a potato crop, where we were apparently supposed to learn French more effectively than in the classroom.
I am the connection between all those odd relations, the flannel Granddaddy and the bowling messiah and the French potato-diggers. My life has been polychromatic, and not always pleasingly so. But I’m finally coming around to it, to accept that my tribe is the one I’ve conjured up.
In the end, self (yours and mine) is outlined by an inescapable collection of memories. They describe us perfectly, but seem a bit awkward, the way a blind contour drawing (where you look only at the thing you’re drawing and not at your hand/pen/paper) describes an object perfectly, as long as you’re the one making the drawing. We all live our lives blind, and if we’re lucky and don’t try too hard, it unfolds exactly as it should.