Part 1 in a series.
Children feel both overawed and utterly repulsed by their parents. We are children, going from literal to hidden to metaphorical to crisis childhood, careening from pillar to post across the jukebox townships that are our lives. All of us, all, spin out skeins of push and pull, memory and revision, a miserable, familiar, exquisite chrysalis of family that promises a moth that cannot emerge.
I interrogate my brain, history, my old Child Development textbooks for evidence that this is not so, or, as is true of many things I hold true, that the idea is so thoroughly midcentury, Midwestern, middle class as to be precious bullshit. But so far it stands up. It stands up, gains speed, and runs backward and forward in parabolas across geography and time, first across Polk County, then Iowa, then the US, in grand slicing arcs of nicotine, nail polish and brick, that leads now to an entire country caught under the bowl of my family, sewn up in bedclothes, smothered by my family romance. My family has you surrounded.
I’ve thought about my family prosaically: glad to not have had to eat that for Christmas dinner, grateful that, at least, that never happened, measuring and taking measure with my family as gold standard, the measure of civil and nautical twilight, but I’ve also stood the whole lot of them up against the middle of the country and the 20th century and found the century and the country wanting. My family holds it all, not the other way round.
So, I’m doing what I have so long hated in other people, in other writing: I appear to be writing memoir. When I come out the other end, it’s likely I’m mourning that which never was, or that which was for about an afternoon 60 years ago in a ten block stretch in Des Moines, assumed like the habit, armor. Had Teresa of Avila been my sister, her motto would still have been the same: Lord, let me suffer this family or let me die.
People who say “I don’t know where to start” know exactly where to start but don’t know how. This annoys uniquely. To begin at the actual beginning is impossible when a thing has always been so we begin in 1954.
In 1954, Des Moines, Iowa was a city in the way Midwestern cities were cities: 177,000 people working in manufacturing and insurance, gaining on urban renewal, its red light district breathing its last. There was a little of everything and a lot of some things, and downtown was downtown, with bars and restaurants for blocks with names like the New Nook, the Mainliner, Chicken in Flight, and Johnny’s Vets Club. You could not buy beer on Sunday in Des Moines even into my lifetime, and I remember when the beer cooler at Hinky Dinky was draped in black on Sundays until noon, while my mother busied herself at the meat counter, leaving me to run and fetch her when the veil was removed, we could get the six pack, and go home.
Des Moines is my mother, or my father, or something further removed, but every bit my family. This Des Moines spools backward at full speed from Des Moines to Pella to the port of Baltimore on one hand and from Des Moines to Council Bluffs to the Dakotas on the other, refusing to love me and refusing also to die. There will be more about her, and when we are done you will know her like you feel you know Roosevelt, or the Monroe Doctrine, or Ann Frank.
In 1954, my mother had been out of the nuthouse for about three years. That is how she described it, and she never did not describe it: I don’t remember ever not knowing that my mother had been in the nuthouse. She pretended to be well to get out of the nuthouse, though she told me she felt nuts for another good six months before she went back to American Republic Insurance and into the normal life she’d vacated a year before. In 1954 she was 25 years old and had been sane, or some version of it, for nearly three years and divorced for just under two. She had pinned her hopes for normal on an attorney named Jimmy Daily who had recently gone back to his girlfriend Lois and after a three day drunk, she was single, owned a car, and had her own apartment and a closetful of tailored suits and tasteful pumps. She went forward relentlessly.
Her extended family treated each other with varieties of concern, benign neglect, and displays of ego that nearly dazzle. She was the sixth of six children born to a father who was at best brilliant but rarely at his best, and in 1954, in three years would make the paper with a front page story as silly as it was inexorable. My grandmother had been gone for so long that my mother only had five clear memories of her, two involving lemon drops. My grandmother died two days before Thanksgiving, in 1934, when my mother was 6, after having written the last line of a feature piece for the Ladies Home Journal, “I salute you, lady with a hoe!” She then gave Roosevelt his famous last words, telling my Aunt Judy that she had a terrible headache, laid on her chaise and died in her sleep.
In 1954, my father was 21 and out of the Air Force and was working and living with his father and spending nearly every other moment drinking spectacularly. The list of things he hated puddled out and around those he didn’t, and he was looking for a fight, a break, a good time, but he was fabulously young and full of hope, a very young man with a 10th grade education, a quick temper and a quicker mind. His mother said he was a genius, counting each stair when they climbed the stairs to put him in his crib, at four, doing math problems in his sleep.
My father grew up poor and abused, but no more poor or more abused than nearly any of the inner city kids around him. The only time he remembered seeing someone play Santa Claus he gave the presents back, thinking it was a test of some kind regarding taking things from strangers. At eight, he made the Tribune, accidentally outing a bowling alley owner who had employed him as a pinsetter. The owner had told him that he only employed boys over the age of 14, and told him to “go outside and think about it.” Dad went outside, came back in and said “I’m 14!” and got the job. He was so proud of himself that he told the Tribune when it came around doing the story on the owner who employed underage workers, and my grandmother didn’t know whether to be mad or proud: he lost his job, but made the paper, and when she sent the clipping to her sister-in-law in in Oregon, she wrote in pencil under his smiling photo, “Send this back honey.”
I look at this little fat faced boy and know him in ways that are impossible and inevitable: the round face, the curly hair, the Ver Steeg eyes, the utterly pleased smile (Under his picture, the Tribune noted “Aged rapidly,”), and wonder, Why did you love her? How did you work? Is there any other place or time when I could have happened, was I inevitable, like death or shit? I walk across a bridge made of Des Moines’ past, knowing both that it never was and never will be, the bridge burns, I burn, and we’re all surrounded.
Know me, my parents; the Midwest, the heartbreaking, lost promise of Des Moines. Love your captors, mourn what you didn’t lose, keep reading, children.
Children of the City of Certainties is a serialized memoir from Jennie Ver Steeg.
Jennie earned a BS in Child Life, an MS in Child Development, and an MA in English from Iowa State University, as well as a Master’s of Library Science from the University of Iowa. The only state school Jennie has not worked or taught at in Iowa is the Vinton School for the Blind, and she’s sure it could be arranged if it came to that.
She has made a career specializing in library services for online students in proprietary schools, but has been a nanny, a composition instructor, a security guard and a test kitchen assistant at Better Homes and Gardens. She is a fifth generation Iowan living in the Chicago suburbs with three cats, all perfect, many memories, all perfect, and though time grows ever shorter, she has nothing but.
Jennie is Assistant Poetry Editor at Scholars & Rogues.
Flavor: Des Moines in the 1950s
- From the Real to the Ideal; Images of Des Moines in the Progressive Era
- Wonderful Town, Wonderful People
- Des Moines Radio Grid, early 1950s
Categories: Generations, History, Personal Narrative
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