My daughters grew up in Iowa and Michigan. Recently my older daughter, who continues to live in Michigan, had someone ask her where she was from. She thought about it and finally responded: “I’ve never lived there, but I think I’m from Minnesota.” I’ve been thinking about my daughter’s response to the question: “Where are you from?” What is involved in our answer to that simple question?
In Chinese culture, many people celebrate the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day. This is the holiday where people go “home” and clean off the tombs of their ancestors. And ancestral villages, tied to clans, where families can trace their lineage back hundreds of years, are important touch points. But how long must a family inhabit a space and place before it takes on this sacred meaning?
Like my daughter, I would also probably say that I’m from Minnesota, if asked. But then, I have lived there. As a first grader my family went “home” and lived with my grandmother while my father was in-between jobs. My grandmother (father’s mother) was good friends with my mother’s aunt. We lived two blocks from my great aunt and uncle on my father’s side and would go there for Aunt Myrtle’s homemade donuts. And I remember going with my mother and other family members to help clean out Opa’s house (her grandfather) after he died. I was fascinated as I opened a trunk and found a German family Bible. And I can still picture the round pedestal oak kitchen table. My mother took off the top and turned it into a coffee table that was always in our house as I was growing up. Now it is in my daughter’s house—Opa to his granddaughter, and from my mother to her granddaughter. Ties that span five generations all tied to a place in Minnesota.
Later, when I returned to live in Minnesota in my 20s, and made the trip from the Twin Cities back to southwest Minnesota to attend the burial of my great uncle Bud, I walked through the Delft cemetery seeing many of the names from the German side of my family dominated by the surname Smith. Opa was there. My mother’s great grandma Brinkman, who hung herself on a door, suffering from depression, was close by. Jenny Marie, my grandmother’s younger sister, who died as a child with whom I shared a birthday and a similar name was present.
After my first grade year, my family moved to Illinois. A year later we got the call during Sunday morning church that my grandmother had died. I can still see my mother coming into my Sunday school class to get me. We made the journey back to Minnesota and when we walked into the house, I remember seeing the cookie jar full of sugar cookies and thinking that this was evidence that my grandmother must have known that I was coming. I got to choose one item of my own to take with me from Minnesota that time. It is my grandmother’s glass swan which has gotten chipped in one of the many moves I’ve made over my lifetime, but still sits in my glass cupboard.
My grandmother was buried in Windom in the town cemetery next to a grandfather I never knew. Always pragmatic and realistic, my grandfather had bought 6 plots to be used for he and my grandmother and for my father and his sister and their spouses, in spite of my father anticipating living in the Belgium Congo and my aunt ending up living as far away as California.
The next time I came back to this cemetery was when I traveled from Louisiana when my aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister, died. This was Ivan’s Ruth. I had just recently graduated from the college where Ruth taught. We had gotten to know one another during my time there. In my family we also had Fred’s Ruth and Ernest’s Ruth which helped us differentiate. Ernest’s Ruth, though an aunt by marriage to my mother, was also related to my father somehow. Ruth’s service was in the Twin Cities and then the family made the pilgrimage home to southwest Minnesota, traveling through the Minnesota River Valley with its enormous Jolly Green Giant sign that marked the passage through the vegetable production region.
By the time my grandmother on my mother’s side died at the age of 101, I was living in Michigan and had two daughters. We drove to Illinois to pick up my parents and made the long drive in Minnesota. One of the last Harry Potter books had just come out on tape—22 hours long—and it kept us patient on the long journey both ways. Grandma Oma was buried by my grandfather, her first husband, in the Jeffers cemetery. He had died in 1939 from injuries from a car accident and the tombstone that had then been put in place had both their names but the final year left blank for my grandmother (19–). Alas, my grandmother made it to 2002 so the front of the stone had to be cut off and redone. In this graveyard we also walked among the Courts family graves, the family of my Grandma Oma’s second husband and his first wife and extended family. My Grandma Oma would always refer to people like this who were somehow connected to me, but not always very closely or directly, as shirttail relations.
My father far outlived both of his parent. By the time he died, both he and my mother had moved to Michigan to be near me. Several months after he died, the family gathered in the Twin Cities, and again made the pilgrimage down through the Minnesota River Valley to Windom to bury his ashes. We picked up various family members along the route and then were joined by others at the cemetery for the service. One small man was among the crowd, standing out among the tall crowd. My daughters asked me who he was, seeing that he didn’t seem to fit in. He was my mother’s step-brother who had been adopted into her step-father’s family. He had left home as soon as he could and joined the navy and this was the first time in more than 50 years that he had returned to Minnesota. By this time, other names had been added to the names in the town cemetery—My uncle Bob had taken his place in one of the Curry plots. My father’s extended family—my aunt Myrtle Berry and cousin Ferg Croft were among the names that I recognized.
This past summer we repeated this journey as we went to bury my mother. This time I came from Massachusetts to Minnesota. And this next summer I will experience yet one more pilgrimage to southwest Minnesota to do our family’s version of tomb sweeping. Ruth’s Ivan will be added to the names and memories. And someone will probably bring a bucket of water, soap, and sponges to clean the headstones that have been there for some time as we add one more to the mix.
Curry, Groves, McBirnie, Courts, Berry, Croft, Schaefer, Sherman, Ludeman, Ewen, Carlblom, Grant, Brinkman, Smith, Groves, Rippie. Two parents. Two grandfathers I didn’t know. Two grandmothers I did know and love. Aunts and uncles. Great aunts and uncles. Cousins once-removed. Shirttail relations. In-laws. Family friends.
This is what happens when a family inhabits a place for a length of time. There becomes a place where you can walk through space and see all the names that are all tied to who you are. And sometime others will join you on this walk.
When I lived in Minnesota in my 20s, I once had a shirt that said: If you live a good life and say your prayers, when you die you will go to Minnesota. May it be so.