There are those curiosities in life that prompt us to do things we ought not to do, but do anyway, and come out on the other side often bewildered at how idiotic we were in the first place, or completely and utterly in awe of some new discovery. Of course, it’s never known at the time of decision-making which it’ll be, idiocy or enlightenment, but such is the way of people who need to know. Or, rather, people who need to try.
I drove from Minneapolis to the windswept plains of western Minnesota day after Christmas, five years ago, to find out anything I could about my great-grandfather, a rumored drifter. My grandmother, born out of wedlock in the 1920s, claimed never to have known him, never to have seen a picture. At the time of my journey west, she’d been deceased for a few years, and my lack of inquiring while she was alive is what prompted me to venture out in sub-zero temperatures and horizontal snow, driving my Honda sedan on two-lane highways tucked neatly between agricultural fields buried under three-feet of drift. Mary Margaret, my grandmother’s aunt (although about the same age), was the only living relative left who grew up with her.
Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, a tribute to John Prine, had been released in the summer of that year, and I’d been listening to the album regularly ever since, with the following artists covering Prine’s work: Bon Iver, Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earl, The Avett Bros, etc. I put the CD in at the start of my drive and it never came out during that five hour roundtrip. The one that really got me: Deer Tick’s rendition of “Unwed Fathers.”
From a teenage lover to an unwed mother
kept undercover like some bad dream
While unwed fathers, they can’t be bothered
they run like water from a mountain stream
I arrived at Mary Margaret’s just before noon. She offered me coffee. I accepted, but declined cream or sugar. I looked out the living room window at an ice-covered lake while she searched for a photo album. Snow devils kicked up over the lake. It had stopped snowing. Late morning sun filtered through large, cold gray clouds. I was hoping she’d have some new, revelatory information.
As I waited, I noticed a stack of books on the end-table near the window. The one on top was about dementia, Alzheimer’s.
“I gave copies to everyone for Christmas,” Mary Margaret said, slow-stepping back into the living room. She was thin with white hair. I set the book down. She informed me, without my inquiring, that she wanted her family to know what was happening to her.
Over the next few hours, Mary Margaret stammered through conversation, mostly confirming what I already knew: that my grandmother had been raised by a collection of relatives, mostly grandparents and aunts, and only getting to know her mother after she was able to travel on her own (my grandmother’s mother eventually got married to a widower who had four kids – they lived in Minneapolis).
In this way, some of Mary Margaret’s stories piqued my interest. Sure, the mystery of this nonexistent great-grandfather remained. But for me, after that day, I became intrigued with my great-grandmother’s story, a person about whom I knew very little, and a woman who, according to Mary Margaret, abandoned my grandmother out of shame and selfishness.
Goodbye brother, tell Ma I love her
tell all the others that I’ll write someday.
As I drove home that afternoon, I imagined my great-grandmother riding the Great Northern Railway west from Minneapolis to Morris, mid-January, holding a well-swaddled baby girl, my grandmother, poised to give her away to relatives.
She bows her head down, humming lullabies
Your Daddy never meant to hurt you ever
He just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.
Of course, the difference between Prine’s song and my grandmother’s situation is that she was abandoned by both parents. And yet (here’s that moment I was referring to at the beginning): I found myself then, and now, sympathizing with my great-grandmother. I imagine it was a decision that haunted her throughout life, and thinking of her that late afternoon while I drove home to my own kids, with “Unwed Fathers” playing on repeat, and sheets of snow getting windswept across the road, I thought of her heartache, those torturous, timid first steps onto the train without her baby, the tears shed while riding the railways from Morris back to Minneapolis, alone. And while I can’t imagine, even for a minute, what that would be like, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, someone’s children, out having children, in a gray-stone building, all alone, and for almost the entire drive home, by myself, with hot air being forced out of vents, and the western-range growing dim, I felt something for my great-grandmother, a woman I never knew, and I wept.
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the museum published Keith Lesmeister‘s fiction in Issue Five.
To read “Under the Cottonwood Tree,” click here.