I’ve spent my life trying to figure out where I’m from.  It’s annoying, really, to be asked over and over to explain where my home is.  People don’t really want to know.  No, they just want to figure out if they have the ability to like me.  It’s a form of pre-selection, a method of determining whether they should put the effort in to becoming my companion.

Where someone is “from” is a form of socially acceptable Zodiac calculation.  It’s as if one who is from place A is hardwired to accept those from places D, F, H-N, W, and Y, and incapable of loving those from the remaining letters.  With all the people in the world, I guess there has to be some litmus test in place to decide such things.  You can’t be friends with everyone you meet.

I have no real place to call home, in the sense that “home” means an area of land where the people who live thereon are common and common to each other, “from” the same place.  No, I was born in a city I cannot remember seeing.  I was then moved from town to town with my parents and I am left with a barrel of various recollections and stories that took place in each town.  Every person in my family has one of these barrels and each of us likes to sit around our particular collection and compare.  If we’re in the mood, we’ll just listen to the other person’s, but mostly we like to compare the similar tales to make sure no detail has been omitted.  It’s like finding money in your jeans if one family member has a detail no one else has.  And even though the one who has the detail feels a heightened sense of authenticity for having a monopoly on it, the rest of us smile as we question its veracity.  We seldom accept it.

I find myself craving stories and songs from people who know the answer to the question, “where are you from?”.  I love music with lyrics touting the generations who’ve always been “here” and the people who have always known everyone in the songwriter’s family.  I love storytellers who spin yarns of “old man such-and-such” who would anger easily every time this or that happened.  I love reminiscences of some stream flowing through some valley or branching from some river that signified the landscape of some town or community that cause a select few listeners’ ears to perk up because they know it exactly and have stories of their own.

I remember the first time I heard Garrison Keillor tell stories of his Minnesota hometown.  I don’t know where my Dad got the cassettes, but they were all lined up in a prepackaged row inside a small wooden case made to look like a vegetable crate.  My brother and I were riding in the captain’s chairs of silver GMC Safari van whose engine, when running correctly, sounded like a small Learjet slowly moving across the Washington County roads in Indiana. 

Garrison tells of the local Lutherans and their natural fear of those who took the Reformation too far.  He tells of local ministers and officials whose livers absorbed too much alcohol and generated both gossip and acceptance.  He’s proud of his town, his state, his history, and his ability to tell the whole world about it every week.  Whether or not his characters are real makes no difference because the endearing quality about Woebegone is that we’re all from there, we all know the characters, and we have no problem believing this or that happened.

I loved and love it.  And every time we rode in that van, we listened to him.  In retrospect, however, it all may have been an accident.  I may actually love these things because of a penicillinous, cottage cheese-ful, stale Peeps-like, and wine-ilicious mistake.  A mistake of avoidance.

The van smelled like corn, but not good corn.

My father is a man of many phases.  He’s gone through many mini epochs in which he wanted to become an aficionado of this or that.  At one point, he wanted to be an expert in remote controlled airplanes.  At another, he wanted to be carpenter.  Still at another he wanted to be the voice in commercials that narrates the strengths of some product or company.  Somewhere in the midst of all of that, he wanted to be a rodeo reporter travelling from town to town watching droves of people watching tough, young men ride bulls and rope calves. 

Gardening was one of my father’s more short-lived phases, and understandably so.  He had heard that there was a man in our small village in rural Indiana who raised the finest ears of corn in the county.  I’m not sure who ran the research to figure that out, but it was an impressive statement to say the least.  I don’t know whether or not my dad wanted to compete with the old man, but he called a friend to turn the ground on the west forty of the parsonage and the race with Mother Nature and that old man began.

I don’t remember a long string of details about that garden, I don’t think anyone does.  In fact, I don’t think there are more than three facts and one story to tell about it because my dad fell victim to the one and only danger of having a garden phase: the passing of said phase before the harvest.

Fact #1: He watered it once.  Not once a week, once a day, or once ever so often.  Once.  And never in the history of suburban agrarianism has such a deadly practice proven so productive.  In that one time, he used a product that was supposed to accelerate the growth of any vegetation on which it was used, and he used well more than the recommended dosage.  There is also a great deal of irony in the time he decided to water that garden.

Fact #2:  He watered it in the rain.  I thought that was a bit strange, but my dad didn’t because he knew what I didn’t: the rain didn’t have Miracle-Gro in it.

An untended garden is the picture of chaos, one I’ve very much grown to like with flowers, but not with vegetables.  An unruly flower garden looks natural.  Americans love it so much they allowed a president’s wife to throw wild flowers along the country’s vast infrastructure.  It’s gorgeous.  A chaotic vegetable garden, however, is brown and looks a lot like a blanket of dead alfalfa sprouts on a metal pan full of cafeteria lettuce. 

Fact #3: We had a chaotic vegetable garden.  I don’t remember more than two things he planted.  All the rows of corn stood in the front half of the garden (a good choice, in retrospect, because it hid the rest of the garden from road traffic), and what seem like the back forty of beans took up about seven rows of the back half.

The day my parents decided we were going to attack what the summer convection oven had left of that garden was stifling and felt like a prison sentence for my brother and me.  I can’t remember what my dad was doing, but my brother and I were on our knees watering the soil with sweat and spit.  It worked every last racist molecule out of our bodies.  We filled what felt like thousands of grocery sacks full of brown green beans that had been picked exactly according to the instructions we had received. 

Long story shortened, after hours kneeling before the god of garden bedlam, I think we were only able to keep one bag of beans.  My anger was immediate and as soon as I discovered the boundary-line concerning the amount of complaining I would be allowed, I set up my tent at that border and didn’t break camp for several years.  In fact, as of this writing, that was almost sixteen years ago, which is apparently the amount of time it takes to get over such a blow, but not enough time to forget it.  I’ll keep you updated.

The corn itself is an altogether different story from the garden.

Maybe my brother and I didn’t pick any.  Maybe picking it was so much more traumatic than the beans that he and I have blocked it from our memory.  I don’t remember.  In either case, there was an old man in our small town who was, at the very least, a little jealous that day.  My father had planted a garden, forgotten that garden, and watered it once in the rain.  Yet somehow in the race toward the best corn in town, my father had risen victorious. 

He had a dream which involved kettles of boiling water, a flatbed trailer, music, and loads of townsfolk gathering in lawn chairs eating ear after ear of corn.  An old-fashioned corn boil.  He’d grown up going to them, and the underlying stream of genetics flowing through most of my family required him to dream big and invite a lot of people to come along.

I liked the idea, myself.  I’d gone to several corn boils over the years and despite the fact that the title combines two very painful skin conditions, it really was fun.  I loved the music.  I saw my granddad playing bass, I saw my first steel guitar, I heard live rock and roll, all at corn boils.  I loved the idea.  Maybe that was why I, despite my complaining, continued to pick beans and help Dad move forward with the garden.  If I could just keep going, I could sit at the feet of live musicians who might ask me to join them on the trailer bed.

I secretly shared in my Dad’s pride over his rows of long, victorious stalks.

The ears were collected in clothing baskets.  I don’t remember how much, but I know it was a lot.  Rows and rows of stalks were stripped of their ears and left to stand lighter, taller, and deafer.  I’m sure they were relieved and talked among themselves like old men discussing military adventures and genealogy over shortcake and coffee, with the most prominent phrase being “huh?”.

I don’t understand why, but once the collection was complete, the baskets were placed in our van.  As many as would fit were placed inside, side by side, and stacked.  And left.  Left for days.  In the same sun that twice baked his sons and his garden, my dad prematurely held a corn broil in his van.  And contrary to cartoon lore, no popcorn was produced.  Instead a flaming flume of fumes filled the cabin and baptized our nostrils in a stench that was just as hard to remove from our clothing and memories as was to remove from the van itself.  I’m sure it instantly lowered the re-sale.

Since we couldn’t just buy a new van, we just did what every Holocaust survivor recollects doing to get through her/his ordeal, we tried to think of something else, anything else.  And the closest “else” we could turn to lay in another vegetable crate on the floorboard: Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion cassette series.  We listened till our minds were in Minnesota and our nostrils were numb. 

Who knows if I would have encountered my country-lovin’, folklore cravin’, down-home, Mayberry penchants had history not filled our van with high fructose corn stench?  Who knows if I would have ever chewed on the question of where I’m “from” had I not contemplated how to get myself out of that van, if only in my mind?

No matter what, I now know that where I’m from is nowhere near as important as where I am and where I’m going.  Yes the past informs the present, but it should never enslave the future.  That’s why I plan to have my own garden again someday.  Who knows what manner of simultaneous nausea and affinity it will cause me to develop next?

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