Land in Sepia

Though it’s the state capital, there are almost no direct flights to Lincoln, Nebraska. I fly through Detroit and Omaha. As I walk out into the carpeted hallway in the Omaha airport, there she is, wearing the black fitted jacket we’d bought together at J.C. Penney: my mother, alone.

After she hugs me: “Want some Omaha steaks?” She’s smiling girlishly. We peruse the options at the kiosk that greets everyone arriving at the airport with a selection of frozen meats and canisters of spice rubs. We don’t buy anything, in the end.

Outside, it’s balmy — nothing like the cold rain I left in DC. As we sit outside the terminal waiting for Mom’s cousin Sara to pick us up, I take off my coat for the first time in months and watch the SUVs chug by. I decide, somewhat abruptly, my mother needs a Facebook page of her own, and that now’s the perfect time. I commandeer her phone as she frets about privacy. In a few minutes it exists: Robin Buckingham is on Facebook. I add her to the Facebook group called The Lauer Family, where all of her Nebraskan cousins post about family lore. Now she can keep in touch with them even though our branch of the family lives in New Jersey! Isn’t that cool!

Mom nods. She’s holding my hand.

“I’m really glad you could come,” she tells me.

“Me too.”

***

Ni braska—the Omaha tribe’s word for “water flat.” Land flat, sky flat, everything is flat for miles on miles. The highway cuts through the prairie. Golden-brown grass stretches in every direction. Strip malls pop up occasionally, seemingly transplanted from a future that doesn’t quite fit with the old, old scrub grass. The horizon says America like the cover of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, but as I look out the window, somehow I can also believe that I’m back in Africa, where I spent years of my childhood. Dry air, low bush, rare trees that stand dark and proud against the sides of shallow hills. For miles, the only difference is the cars: we drive in a fleet of glossy Kias and Hyundais and Hondas. You don’t find those in the Kalahari.

Sara drives us the hour to Lincoln in her big, cozy car. As she and my mother talk, I watch her soft, manicured hands on the steering wheel. I didn’t grow up around any of my mom’s family; I didn’t grow up in Nebraska. Sara has the same teeth as my mother. I find myself running my tongue around my mouth, wondering if I have those teeth too. When Sara and Mom laugh, their laughs match.

We arrive. Sara lives at the very edge of Lincoln, where the houses are far apart, each with its own pasture. Inside, the house breathes like a sleeping creature. It smells faintly of fabric, of clean linen and care. There are quilts and curlicued quotes everywhere: LOVE MAKES A FAMILY. None of the dark-wood surfaces are dusty. Family photographs cover the walls—not shiny vacation shots but old sepia photographs of seated family members looking severe or of small children with apple cheeks and shadowed dimples. In the room Sara has prepared for me, two white baby dresses hang beside the bed. Christening gowns, she tells me, rubbing the linen between her fingers. She pops back in to remind me that sadly Mike, her husband, won’t be back from work at the airfield until late.

The big back windows open onto the tufted field that cambers to the horizon. Sara’s horse stands behind the house, the shifting wind blowing at his long, uncombed mane. At the end of his pasture, the neighbor’s horses swing their heads over the fence. Their eyes are all half-closed.

I walk out to meet Mike’s horse, Freckles. He blows on my fingers and puckers at them with his fleshy horse-lips. As the light fades, I lean on the wooden fence for a while, smelling the dust and feeling far away from the world.

***

The Lauers came to Nebraska from Germany in the late 1800s. Great-Grandfather Yelken built a house out of sod for his wife and their thirteen children. When I was little, as my mother told me the story in bed at night, I would think of walls made of soil, the roots of flowers poking out beside my pillow.

My great-grandmother was the eldest of the thirteen Yelkens. She had five of her own: Harvey, Walt, Dick, John, Mary Ann. Five sturdy American children; unlike their parents, they spoke no German. The boys served in the war, married, became insurance salesmen like their father. Mary Ann, my grandmother, married a University of Nebraska ROTC student named Dean, who graduated from college, married my grandmother, and registered with the Navy all on the same day. (It made the papers.) Their wedding album is thick and heavy, with soft black-and-white prints of Mary Ann in her white lace wedding dress, her dark hair brushed back like one of the women on the fake-1950s paper napkins my mom likes, the ones that read, “I child-proofed the house, but they still get in!” or “I made my favorite thing for dinner: A reservation!” On one of the album’s first pages there’s a shot of my grandmother and Mana, her mother; Mana adjusts her bridal veil. It was taken before both of Mana’s legs were amputated from the diabetes.

My grandparents moved out of Nebraska during Dean’s navy service. They had two boys and a girl, Robin Ann, my mother. They bought a prefabricated ranch house in Kingston, New Jersey. The plush brown wall-to-wall carpeting always smelled freshly vacuumed, rich and faintly clean like a newly folded dishtowel or a smooth pan in which dough has risen under a wet cloth.

When I comment on Sara’s house and how it smells like Grandma Mimi’s, my mother laughs.

“We’re close to the source,” she says.

We joke that Mimi’s house was a tiny Nebraskan colony on the East Coast: filled with the cut-glass fruit cups she would serve before meals, the swallowing armchairs, the way she made things like meatloaf without a recipe. Hers was the kind of house where your hands would be clean enough to scoop ice out of the freezer. I reach into Sara’s icebox and hold an ice cube. It sticks to my fingers, cold and raw and familiar.

I’d been to Nebraska only once before, when I was six. We went to a family reunion in North Platte. I don’t remember much except that we wore matching yellow T-shirts and my second cousins had ostriches on their farm. I felt very small. There was just more of everyone, the way they filled armchairs and laughed with their entire stomachs. My second cousin Joy and I crawled through the big house for hide-and-seek, and in a lull, I curiously pushed my bony wrist against her round one, wondering if I was too much a skeleton. When I asked my mother about it later, she said it was rude to compare people’s bodies.

I hadn’t been back since. Even after we came back from Africa, I stayed on the East Coast in the Democratic New Jersey bubble of my father’s family. The only Nebraskan thing in my house was a poster advertising the publication of Willa Cather’s collected letters. My mom hung it above my bed one day, and I just didn’t take it down.

***

That night at dinner, Sara opens a bottle of wine. I have recently turned 21, which Sara and Mom find cute and exciting. They let me pick the wine, which we drink with the chicken-pasta dish that Sara whips up without a recipe. She sprinkles salt and hums. Her kitchen is clean and full of round-bodied glass dishes; she holds the spatula like it’s a baby’s hand. Mostly I watch Sara’s lips, the way they’re flat and hold lipstick in the same elegant moist crevices that Mimi’s did, the way certain words are slightly curled around a smile: girl, Rahbin, eat up.

Eventually they start talking about my dad, which is when I excuse myself and go outside to lean on the fence again.

***

A few days later I dye my hair. “It’s for a play I’m in at school,” I explain to the student stylist at the College of Hair Design in downtown Lincoln. “I need to look Middle Eastern.” (This is true.) They do a test strand. I sit in the chair waiting for the dye to take, thinking how funny it is that here, in the heartland of America, surrounded by earth and grass and generations past, I’m sitting in a chemical dye parlor trying to change my ethnicity.

Within a few minutes, though, it becomes clear that this salon is part of a heartland too. I’m surrounded by women with foil covering their scalps. “They come in every two weeks,” my stylist, Kelly, tells me. “Don’t want the roots to show.” She’s surprised that my mother doesn’t dye her hair.

Kelly has short blue hair, a septum piercing, and large ear gauges. Her slight lisp hints at some kind of internal mouth piercing as well, but I don’t ask. Instead I ask about her life. Over the next three and a half hours, as my hair slowly turns black under ten pieces of foil, I learn that Kelly is 19 and in her third semester of beauty school. She dyed her hair blue a few hours ago. She has four dogs. She lives with her fiancé and his mom at the edge of town, but they’re hoping to get their own place when they get married in November. I never tell Kelly how old I am.

My mom needs my help to make her first-ever Facebook post. We decide on photos of Freckles—the caption: Visiting Nebraska with Lucy! Hello Freckles! She frets about her privacy settings, and I assure her that no one will really see anything. It was high time she got her own Facebook page, I remind her. She’s been surreptitiously browsing my dad’s for years.

That night, Sara shows me the family photos that hang in my room. My great-grandfather Lauer and all his sons; two young women on bicycles in flapper dresses; the babies who wore the white dresses that hang by my bed. One is her wedding photo. She smiles at it. I think of The Lauer Family Facebook group, where she posted a few months ago:

We will celebrate 41 years of marriage tomorrow. Gee where has that time gone? My sweetie and I will go out to eat somewhere Very Cool temperature wise!! It was hot 41 yrs ago and it was a football game for Nebraska to boot. Many of you were there and some that are gone from our sight were there.

Sara looks a lot like Mimi in the photo, a lot like my mom. She was 23.

***

Sara’s excited to take us to her Stampin’ Up™ party. Apparently this is similar to a Tupperware party, but for rubber stamps and crafting. Sara’s friend Bonnie is the demonstrator. “We all make some cards, like Bonnie shows us, and then we can look at the catalog,” Sara explains as we drive over. Something tells me that this is one of the situations when it’s definitely catalog and not catalogue. I can’t explain why.

We meet Bonnie in the community room of a church. Sara has baked cookies for the occasion. The other women—all women, no men—hug Sara and, chatting, take their places at the card tables Bonnie has set up. Mom and I are introduced—“This is my cousin, Robin, visiting from New Jersey, and this is her daughter, Lucy. She goes to Yale.” Oohs. Ahhs.

We all receive a cut square of purple cardstock. On this, Bonnie explains, we will be making our first card. She holds up the demo: the card reads YOUR KINDNESS KNOWS NO END, with a purple flower. It turns out the flower is actually three different stamps, which you can combine in layers to create a watercolor effect. We all pass around the stamps—purple for the flower and the quote, green for the stem—and consult with Bonnie about placement. Everyone wants her card to look exactly like the demo.

I decide that the demo card is boring and surreptitiously stamp extra green stems all over the edges to make a lacy pattern. This is radical. The ladies ooh and ahh again. They joke that their husbands won’t know where their newfound creativity came from. The catalog has new farm animal stamps, aren’t they so cute! What is the minimum order for getting one of the free packages in the extra catalog insert? I watch them as I make the second card. Mom and I browse the catalog; she’s going to order a lot. We giggle quietly, though, that the entire Stampin’ Up™ enterprise is perfectly designed for housewives who don’t have anything else to do. Yet these women seem to be having a blast. We’re having fun, too.

The ladies are talking about their husbands again. Their retirement plans. At a certain point Mom stares into space for a bit. It’s one of those moments when we both remember, silently, that my dad has moved out, and that is why we are in Nebraska, close to the source, spending time away from the world.

That night I sleep in my mother’s bed. I hold her as she cries.

***

On the day I leave Nebraska, I buy a red baseball cap in the airport. It’s a little too big for my head. Sara and Mike and my mom have all come to drop me off in Omaha; Mom will stay a week longer. I wear the Nebraska hat on the plane. As we take off, I watch the squares of land beneath us, wondering which ones were made into sod.

There is no one at my house when I arrive, late that night. I’m alone. I sleep in my old room. On the wall hang two silhouette profiles, framed individually: on the left, Mary Ann, her hair brushed back in a ’50s pouffe; on the right, my mother. She calls me the next morning to check I got home okay. She’s quiet on the phone. Now that I’ve left, she’s started to think about what it will mean when she comes home. She can’t stay in Nebraska forever.

I stay in my hometown for only twelve hours. There is nothing for me here. The trees are too close together.

On the train back to school, I start reading Willa Cather.

I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America

 

Lucy Fleming is a a backwards-hat-loving person and from the East Coast. Send her an email at lucy.fleming@yale.edu.

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