Just outside Milwaukee, I saw the lights behind me—Wisconsin Highway Patrol—and pulled over to the shoulder.
Even before the cop tapped on the window, I started fumbling in the shoulder bag I had been lugging around since that morning, since San Francisco. I had packed in a hurry—my cell phone, a tube of lip gloss, a stack of undergrad papers to be graded, a dog-eared copy of US Weekly.
While I searched for the power window button, I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass: wrinkled clothes, grease forming at my hairline, mascara from twelve hours ago smudged under my eyes like twin bruises.
“I know, I was speeding,” I said, even before the window came to a stop. The night was cold—was it really almost winter in the Midwest? I had been living in a mild haze of seasonless fog, and this chill nipped straight through my T-shirt. It was as if I had spent years walking on a treadmill and was just now finding my real footing.
“License and registration,” said the cop, an automaton. I peered out the window at him, but his face was hidden in a pocket of darkness, only his badge winking back at me, his stiff jacket collar standing at attention. From his waist, a radio crackled.
“I just rented this car at the airport,” I said, producing the plastic pouch from Hertz, full of shiny brochures and a contract that unfolded like a fan to reveal my sleep-deprived scrawl at the bottom. It could have been anyone’s signature, really.
He scrutinized the contract with his flashlight, more carefully than I’d studied it at the airport with a line of twenty people shifting behind me. I suddenly worried that with this, like most things in my life, I hadn’t taken the time to read the small print, to look for loopholes.
“Your license?” he asked.
“Yes, my license…” I dug in my shoulder bag for my wallet, where an empty space gaped at me from behind a plastic window. Credit cards, my Berkeley ID, a Starbucks gift card with a grand balance of fifty-seven cents. I could feel the cop’s eyes on me. To speed up the search, I turned my shoulder bag upside down. A dozen pens, the wad of Kleenex I’d cried into on the plane, a Life Saver clinging to a bit of aluminum foil—but no license. I started babbling away like a psychotic on a weekend pass. “I’m so sorry, officer. I’m usually a very cautious driver. But my flight got in late, and I was anxious to get going and there’s almost no one on the road….”
In the midst of my rambling, my right hand brushed against the ID carrier still looped around my neck. “Oh! Here it is!” Thank God. I’d been about to throw myself on the mercy of the Wisconsin justice system, which had never impressed me. Instead I handed it over, the driver’s license that expired on my next birthday: my tentative smile, the vital statistics I had improved upon slightly, adding an inch, subtracting ten pounds.
“California, huh?” he said. “I bet it’s a bit colder here.”
I laughed with relief, playing along. Everyone in California lives in L.A., after all. We’re all sun-bleached blondes who load our kids into shiny SUVs and cart them off to surf camp.
“They might drive faster there, too,” he said. “I clocked you going twelve over.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, twisting the hem of my T-shirt.
He ignored me and tapped something into the keypad of the radio receiver. The license plate—to see if it would come back stolen? My name to check for warrants or a skipped court date, a charge or possession or prostitution or burglary?
My name. I stiffened, a reflex for someone who has heard her name on the news, enunciated carefully by well-coifed reporters. I worried that the cop might feel my nerves, the way a dog can sniff out the presence of a cat. In California my name didn’t matter; it didn’t ring any bells the way it might here. The officer was old enough to remember the case, the name Hammarstrom on the front page of every Wisconsin paper.
He handed back the Hertz packet with my license balanced on top. As he leaned into the window, his face was visible—pale, mustached, his forehead topped by a receding brown hairline. “So, where are you headed?”
My eyes drifted back to the road. Highway 43 would take me past Port Washington, Oostburg, Sheboygan. Before Manitowoc, I would branch off onto 151, taking the various twists and turns through the country roads that would bring me to Watankee, to Rural Route 4, to the gravel driveway and the light over the back porch.
Except it would all be different now, since he wouldn’t be there to greet me.
Suddenly I felt the pull of the place, like the insistent tug of a magnet buried deep down, beneath the asphalt. It was something I had never been able to properly explain to my Cultural Geography undergrads, maybe because I’d never been able to explain it to myself. A sense of place. I smiled at the cop, at this stranger leaning in through the crisp evening air. Somewhere deep inside, where I’d been clutching my childhood in a tight invisible fist, I felt myself slowly releasing, releasing. Let it go, Kirsten. Let it go.
“Home,” I said, swallowing hard. At that moment it felt like the only truth, the deepest possible truth of them all. “I’m going home.”
Everything you needed to know, Dad said, you could learn on a farm. He was talking about things my mind, shaped by Bible stories and the adventures of Dick and Jane, could barely comprehend—the value of hard work, self-sufficiency, the life cycle of all things. Well, the life cycle—I did understand that. Things were always being born on farms, and always dying. And as for how they came to be in the first place, that was no great mystery. “They’re mating,” Dad would explain when I worried over a bull that seemed to be attacking a helpless heifer. “It’s natural,” he said, when the pigs went at it, when the white tom from Mel Wegner’s farm visited and we ended up with litters of white kittens.
Nature wasn’t just ladybugs and fireflies—it was dirt and decay and, sometimes, death. To grow up on a farm was to know the smell of manure, to understand that the gawky calves that suckled my fingers would eventually be someone’s dinner. It was to witness the occasional birth of a half-formed calf, missing eyes or ears, like some alien-headed baby. We couldn’t drive into town without seeing the strange, bloodied remains of animals—cats, opossums and the occasional skunk who had risked it all for one final crossing. By the time we got Kennel, our retriever-collie mix, we’d had three golden Labs, each more loyal than the last, until they ran away during thunderstorms or wandered into the path of an oncoming semi headed down Rural Route 4. When Dad had spotted him at the county shelter, Kennel had a torn ear, a limp in his back left leg and ribs you could spot from a hundred yards away—the marks of an abusive owner.
Even humans couldn’t avoid their fates. Sipping lemonade from a paper cup after the Sunday morning service, I weaved between adult conversations, catching little snatches as I went. A tractor had tipped over, trapping the farmer underneath. Cows kicked, and workers were hurt. Pregnant women, miles from any hospital, went into early labor. Machines were always backfiring, shirtsleeves getting caught in their mechanisms. This was to say nothing of lightning strikes, icy roads and snowdrifts, or flash floods and heat waves. This was to say nothing of all the things that could go wrong inside a person.
So we were used to death in our stoic, farm-bred way. It was part of the natural order of things: something was born, lived its life and died—and then something else replaced it. I knew without anyone telling me that it was this way with people, too.
Take my family, for example—the Hammarstroms. My great-great-grandpa had settled our land and passed on the dairy to his son, who passed it to Grandpa, who passed it on to Dad, who would pass it on to Johnny. Dad and Mom had gotten married and had Johnny right after Dad graduated from high school, leaving Mom to get her degree later on, after Emilie and I were born. I’d always thought it was extremely cool that our parents were so much younger than everyone else’s parents, until Emilie spelled out for me that it was something of a scandal. Anyway, when Johnny had been born, Grandpa and Grandma had moved to the in-law house next door, where Dad and Mom would someday move, when it was time for Johnny and his wife to inherit the big house. This was simply the expected order of things, as natural as the corn being sown, thinned, watered, fertilized and harvested. Everything that was born would die one day. I knew this, because death was all around me.
There was Grandma, for one. I was too young to have any concrete memories of her death, although I’d pieced together the facts from whispered conversations. She’d been standing in her kitchen, peeling apple after apple, when it happened. A pulmonary embolism, whatever that was. A freak thing. I couldn’t walk into Grandpa’s kitchen without thinking: Was it here? Was this the spot? But life had gone on without her. Grandpa stood at that sink every morning, drinking a cup of coffee and staring out the window.
The first funeral I remember attending was for our neighbor, Karl Warczak, who’d collapsed in his manure pit, overwhelmed by the fumes. An ambulance had rushed past on Rural Route 4, and Dad and Mom had followed—Mom because she had just completed her training as a nurse, Dad because he and Karl Warczak had worked together over the years, helping with each other’s animals, planting, harvesting, tinkering with stubborn machinery. By the time they’d pulled in behind the ambulance, Dad had said later, it had already been too late—sometimes, he’d explained, the oxygen just got sucked out of those pits.
Mom had laid out my clothes the night before the funeral—a hand-me-down navy wool jumper that seemed to itch its way right through my turtleneck, thick white tights and a pair of too-big Mary Janes with a tissue wadded into the toes. She’d always been optimistic that I would grow into things soon. During the service I’d sat sandwiched between Mom and Emilie, willing myself not to look directly at the coffin. The whole ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust thing made me feel a little sick to my stomach once I really thought about it, and so did Mom’s whisper that the funeral home had done “such a good job” with Mr. Warczak. It was incredible that he was really dead, that he had been here one minute and was gone the next, that he would never again pat me on the head with his dirt-encrusted fingers. There had been such a solemn strangeness to the whole affair, with the organ music and the fussy bouquets of flowers, the men in their dark suits and the women in navy dresses, their nude pantyhose swishing importantly against their long slips.
“It is not for us to question God’s perfect timing,” Pastor Ziegler had intoned from the pulpit, but I remember thinking that the timing wasn’t so great—not if you were Mr. Warczak, who thought he could fix the problem with the manure pump and then head inside for lunch, and not for his son, Jerry, who had been about to graduate from Lincoln High School and head off to a veterinary training program. The rumor had been that Mrs. Warczak’s cancer was back, too, and this time it was inoperable. “That boy’s going to need our help,” Dad had told us when we were back in the car, riding with the windows open. “It’s a damn shame.”
“Why did it happen?” I’d asked from my perch on top of a stack of old phone books in the backseat. I could just see out the window from that height—the miles of plowed and planted and fenced land that I would know blindfolded. “Why did he die?”
“It was an accident. Just a tragic accident,” Mom had said, blotting her eyes with a wad of tissue. She’d been up all morning, helping in the church kitchen with the ham and cheese sandwiches that were somehow a salve for grief. When we’d parked in our driveway, she’d gathered up a handful of soggy tissues and shut the door behind her.
“Oh, pumpkin,” Dad had said as he sighed when I’d lingered in the backseat, arms folded across my jumper, waiting for a better answer. He’d promised to head over to the Warczaks’ house later, to help Jerry out. “It’s just how things go. It’s the way things are.” He’d reached over, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze in his no-nonsense, farmer-knows-best way.
Somehow, despite all the years that passed, I never forgot this conversation, the way Dad’s eyes had glanced directly into mine, the way his mustache had ridden gently on top of his lips as he’d delivered the message. He couldn’t have known the tragedies that were even then growing in our soil, waiting to come to harvest.
All he could do was tell me to prepare myself, to buck up, to be ready—because the way the world worked, you never could see what was coming.
The Mourning Hours