Monday, June 28, 2021

The #Midwessay: Nancy McCabe, Tearing Down the House

Tearing Down the House

Nancy McCabe


Last month, I had my childhood home in Kansas demolished. Afterward, I Face Timed with my cousin who lives near Wichita from my current home in Pennsylvania. She gazed at me from her little square as waves of hair flowed behind her in the wind. As she turned her camera, it caught a flash of the crumbling dirt around the edges of a fist-sized clod, then panned a wide blur of treeless, houseless, snow-patched land. Still jolted by the missing things—chimney, swing set, porches, metal shed, pigeon pen, grapevines, apple tree—I returned to my computer and a Zoom meeting. I stared into the camera, my own gaping holes as invisible as the basement that had been filled in, leaving a smooth surface. 
     When people hear I’m from Kansas, they think I grew up on a farm, but I didn’t. I lived on the outskirts of a city where they made airplanes. In the 1960s and 70s, Wichita was home to four airplane plants and an air force base. The growl and hum of planes was the backdrop to my childhood. They passed low—scaring rabbits back into their burrows, urging flocks of birds into startled flight, halting lessons in classrooms, postponing intimate confessions, scrawling secret messages in contrails across the sky. 
     When people hear I’m from Kansas, they think that the deprivation of a landlocked childhood explains why I’m so riveted by the roar and movement of the ocean. But I did, after all, grow up on what eighty million years before had been an ocean floor. The primal tug of the sea has something to do with the fields around our house, of the roaring Kansas wind that tangled and snarled my hair, that knocked down blade after blade of grass and raised it back up again. That invisible wall of wind was exhausting to walk into but made me giddy when it was at my back, pushing me forward, rushing loudly as a highway of passing cars.
     I grew up with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, unaware that I was sitting on part of the ancestral home of the Osage people, the Indigenous group about whom I was reading. In 1872, when forced to relocate to a reservation in Oklahoma, the Osages sold to a farmer, for $200, the land that became my childhood neighborhood. I was more intimately familiar with the remnants of the farm that then had occupied the land for almost a hundred years. Rickety wooden footholds climbed up the side of a tree along the deepest part of the creek. Dirt clotted the hairy roots that hung above eroded banks. The old dump at the back of a field where I played among the rubble included a rusty car, a discarded toilet, and squares of old shingles. The car became a house, its underside the upstairs, with bumps and ridges for couches and chairs. Around me, the field’s high grass rippled like the mane of a powerful lion. I was a member of the Swiss Family Robinson, but instead of a treehouse, I had an upside-down car, and instead of wild berries, I had shingle-squares of toast, and instead of jungle animals, I was surrounded by a wind that roared. 
     I’d been a toddler when my parents built our house on this street where a row of new ranches and split levels sat back from the road, with long gravel driveways and no sidewalks. It wasn’t a neighborhood designed for evening strolls, dog walking, or gossiping with neighbors. Bordered on one side by a major highway, cut off at one end by the Kansas turnpike, and poised directly under the flight pattern of McConnell Air Force Base, it was still rural enough for me to play in the creek and roam through the fields. At the same time it was urban enough to walk to a department store down the street, crawl through the network of cave-like drainage tunnels under the highways, and sled, unbeknownst to parents, down the turnpike hill.
     When I was a teenager, the city of Wichita widened Highway 54, and our yard became a flood plain, water seeping into the house during every heavy rain. My little brother, who lived there for years, posted pictures on social media of his children wading tearfully through the lower level, water to their hips and shoes floating by. By then, there was a Walmart plaza across the road. The pharmacy, where I’d bought bandages for my mother after her mastectomy, stood where the old farm dump had been. 
     By last summer, most of the houses on our street were gone. There was a car dealer where the Merritt house used to be, a restaurant on the site of the Holzman house, a strip mall in place of the Cannabys’.
     In my last conversation ever with my older brother, I tried to convince him that we needed to have the house torn down. He said he couldn’t afford it yet, maybe in a few months. I said I wanted to walk through it one more time, and he said that no, I didn’t. He was right; I didn’t. I’d been picturing the living room divided from the hall by a curio shelf instead of a wall. I’d been imagining climbing the stunted split-level staircase to the corner bedroom where I daydreamed for seventeen years. I’d been imagining descending another short flight to the family room with its big fireplace and the piano I once practiced on daily. But I knew that the reality was moldy, rotted floors from water damage, filthy bathrooms with sagging shower doors, gnawed corners, and mouse droppings.
     My older brother died two weeks after this conversation. And then, a few months later, I scraped together money from his estate and my parents’ for the demolition. It took weeks for the company I hired to have the gas and plumbing disconnected. I thought of the nurses who told me, at my dad’s deathbed twenty years ago and then at my aunt’s more recently, how people die from the feet up. The heart becomes too weak to pump blood to the extremities, said my aunt’s hospice nurse, brushing shell pink polish onto the fingernails of my unconscious aunt only hours before she died. There’s a distinct line between dead and living tissue as death travels from toes to ankles to calves to knees. 
     The house also died in stages. All the utilities were shut down, and then, without me ever seeing the machinery, the house went. I never saw the dumpsters, the hardhats, the debris. One day there was just dirt and snow, nothing left. My dad, my mom, uncles and aunts, my older brother, the house—all gone.
     “I saw that they tore down the old McCabe house,” a friend of my brother’s writes on Facebook. “Do you think they’ll put in a strip mall? Or a carwash?” 
     I visualize a strip mall over the scar in the earth where the basement has been filled, that basement with its craggy walls and cement floors where Saturday afternoons my mother’s sewing machine whirred. I imagine a carwash over our old driveway, moments stilled in time between the rush and flurry of Saturday errands. I picture cars rocked by the force of the high-powered jets as brushes circle, water cascading down and sloshing around the windows. I envision couples in their cars, in their own private storms, trapped for a few moments, kissing there on the very spot where, at 17, I kissed my first love.


Nancy McCabe is a Wichita native and the author of six books, most recently the linked essays Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir (Missouri 2020). Her essays have received a Pushcart and notable recognitions eight times from Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Newsweek, Los Angeles Review of Books, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, and others. She directs the writing program for the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and teaches in the low residency program at Spalding University's School of Creative and Professional Writing.

Fire season in Kansas begins in late winter, when frozen ground thaws and its dampness retards the pace of a creeping fire line. Ranchers set fire to pasture’s dry grasses and seedlings on the most calm day possible. Winds are a threat, sweeping from the Colorado Rockies across foothills, through the high plains, and across—and downward from—the high country. The scent of fired grasses blows east to the more populated towns, the sweet smell of grasses burning, an incense. This process, learned from Indigenous friends and relatives (before they were sold out to railroad companies and real estate brokers), sustains the pastureland for bison, cattle, horses, and deer who sometimes graze with cattle herds.
     In this season no person, writer or not, cannot help but be moved by the epic scale of the landscape. I am reminded of this as the season turns to this mode, particular to the grasslands. Once I drove through the Flint Hills after dark when fires still burned, snaking under a full moon, and then a spring snowstorm began. The gleam of blue moonlight on snow streaked with dendritic fire rivulets stunned me. How could I ever imagine my small life as central to the cosmos?
     All the writers’ works that represent Kansas essays in this collection live with this simple fact—the seasons and its weather will overwhelm any human enterprise, and even egos. Many of these writers’ work is new to me, and without question, I know there will be an underlying humility, even from those not born and raised in the Sunflower State. Survive a few ice storms, snow, high winds, and burning heat—and you are a member of the Kansas club. August and September are the months when fields of “weeds” are yellow with wild and a few cultivated sunflower crops. That is another marker of seasons that proceeds outside of people’s management.
     Other factors encourage the Kansas writers. A slower pace leaves time for reflection, reading, book clubs (High Plains Radio’s ambitious series, for example) and literary communities. I would guess there are more writers per capita than most places. Isolation leaves time for individuals to write, without distractions or traffic-filled commutes.
     No, the state is not all flat, nor all black-and-white as in The Wizard of Oz. But what if it were? Even more occasion for a good story. Denise LowKansas Coordinator.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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