In the quiet Sunday morning kitchen of my family’s sleeping house, I repacked my saddlebags for the ride from Des Moines back to Chicago.
I found myself making a list.
Perhaps trying to justify all the calculated social-distancing compromises the family had made, and maybe anticipating the group guilt that would arise if anyone got sick as a result of this pre-vaccine family gathering, I made an inventory of what had been achieved.
I think that list might serve as part of the answer to Grandpa, despairing for the America he sees on CNN and the Internet, from afar.
This week we counseled one family member about an operation she’s about to have on her neck. We supported her decision, we heard her concerns, we shared our thoughts on how to make the best of it. We did not all counsel her, as we would have had to on the Sunday family Zoom call we each at some level dread. We each counseled her, in our own moments, in our own way, when the mood was right. Each of these conversations had the same whispered theme: We love you, Grandma. We hope you will be okay.
By asking quietly and by watching furtively, a few of us checked up on how each other’s marriages seem to be holding up during this siege. (Pretty well, actually.)
We talked some politics, but we mixed it with drinks and games and jokes. One afternoon I rode over to look at an old electric train set one of our family members has built in his garage. This uncle, a relentless progressive given to dwelling on the coming oligarchic capitalism-caused environmental apocalypse, looked like a nine-year-old boy, showing me his trains. And so I adored him like a nine-year-old boy, too. And then over a beer in the driveway, he talked about how “optimistic” the Covid crisis and the ensuing George Floyd earthquake have made him feel lately about the possibility for real change in America. “Optimistic” is not a word I’ve ever heard him say.
One of us got furloughed during the week, then put back on. She had us, during that saga, to bounce her feelings off—and to distract her from her worries, too.
One night my 16-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old niece sat on the patio with their parents and traded experiences and advice about school and bullies and friends until everyone looked up and it was 12:45 a.m.
I played golf with my sister-in-law and a dear family friend Matt Campbell, a superior family man, raconteur and athlete who is 81 now and is only now beginning to lose to the likes of me. Matt’s life is a book, not a blog post, but suffice it to say, see Matt on the far left, with Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph, in 1960.
Over a drink after the round, I asked Matt how he’s taking in Black Lives Matter and everything that’s happening in the wake of George Floyd. Matt, who was pulled over for driving while black for the first time in the late 1950s and who escaped major mistreatment that night only because he thought to mention his father’s lawyer, and the officers were familiar with the name. Matt, who believes his matriculation up the management ranks of the production department at the Des Moines Register over four decades was slowed by at least one decade because he was married to a white woman. And Matt, who once got invited with a Black friend to play at Des Moines’ fancy Wakonda Club only to hear another member tell his white sponsor, “I see you brought your caddies along with you today.”
I wanted to know how someone who has been dealing with bullshit like that over nearly a century of American history (while serving as the patriarch of a huge family and becoming one of the most recognized non-public officials in Des Moines) can process a sudden American wokeness about racism after the videotaped police killing of one black man in Minneapolis. Did Matt really believe this moment could make a real change? He shrugged. “I sure hope so,” he said.
And Matt was also with us on an impossibly long afternoon watching the niece’s softball tournament. “At least there’s a breeze,” we all said, a hundred times.
At the tournament, between her at-bats:
Social distancing was laughable in parts of the complex, with parents and children crammed sweaty cheek to ketchup-smeared jowl in lines at snack bars and port-o-potties and on paths between bleachers comically taped off to prevent crowding. The only masks I saw were worn by the catchers.
Near where we were sitting, two male coaches who had brought a team from Oklahoma sat the crying young girls in a gangway between a bathroom and a shed and berated them for more than 30 minutes about their lack of passion, their lack of skill, their lack of courage, and their lack of commitment, especially since the coaches had volunteered their time and spent their own money on the trip! I was angry at the time; now, I am actually ashamed that I did not go completely out of line and interrupt this verbal beating, inform the girls that they were under the supervision of fucking assholes, and offer to rent a bus and drive the girls back to Oklahoma myself.
Also from these same lawn chairs, we saw a family of children riding a little bike, chasing each other and wrestling joyfully around a panting St. Bernard puppy. The picture would have embarrassed Norman Rockwell. I tried to imagine what those shrieking, laughing kids must have done to the house and to their parents during the Covid lockdown—or what they will do during another.
Quiet conversations. Wordless watching. Late night talks. Teasing. Old stories. Long summer afternoons. Games, and the people who play them (never mind the assholes who frequently coach them).
That is America. That is human life.
And sometimes, I fear I’m losing my knack for it. I took a bag lunch to the Lions Club Park in Waterman, Ill. to eat it on a park bench. I noticed a small-gauge kiddie railroad track running around the perimeter, and when the crossing signals went off, I got up to film the little train going by. When the old man who was riding on top of it saw me filming and called me over, I was startled. I assumed he had x-ray vision and could see that it was an oil can of Foster’s Lager in my brown bag, and was going to bust me for it. “If you’ll wait for a bit,” he shouted over the clattering motor, “I’ll get the other locomotive out and take you for a ride!” Utterly unprepared for such an offer, I thanked him and told him I was in a hurry to get home. And I then I kicked myself the rest of the way back to Chicago.
I had thought to stop in Marshalltown, though, where Grandpa grew up. I wanted to take a picture of the grand county courthouse there, to remind the old man that no matter what he’s seeing on CNN—and no matter what true horrors we are all seeing in America, through our TVs and through our windows—some good things in America haven’t changed after all.
Or, at least, are in some ugly and tenuous stage of repair, by Americans wise enough to know what, in the middle of everything that ought to be torn town, ought to be preserved, reclaimed and held dear …
… even as we try to carefully and communally and surely imperfectly weigh the risks and the rewards without ever forgetting the purpose of life itself.