After Our Roots Have Thirsted
Because the Los Angeles suburb I grew up in was built in the 1960s, carved out of abandoned citrus groves and dairy farms, the 1927 brick bungalow we bought in St. Louis felt more than old. It felt ancient. It was from another era. Our house’s previous owner lived and died alone. Neighbors told us he struggled with mental illness, and that he painted dragons. Once, he showed up to a neighbor’s door at 6am with his painting supplies and offered to put a dragon above their fireplace. House flippers painted over the dragons in our living room, but their single thin coat in the basement still lets one winding red creature peek through when the sun is right. While they updated the house nicely, our plaster still cracks everywhere. There are no square corners or floors that won’t slide balls to one end of the room. I turned 40 this summer and am starting to love our old house, and its similarities to my older self. The house contains our family and has weathered tornadoes and Mississippi floods and arctic freezes. While its parts wear out and need replacing, the house has never once just broken down, knock on wood.
The Midwest teaches me about age and aging. My parents bought their house from my father’s sister in 1970 because it’s what they could afford, and it cut down on overwhelming paperwork and dealing with too many Americans who spoke too fast. My mom never entirely got over that it wasn’t a brand-new house and she never bought anything second-hand again. Every morning my parents try to make themselves new again with supplements and creams that promise to regenerate and revive. I think it’s partly because, as immigrants, their very lives are defined by being new. Their severed roots still search for receiving ground, even sixty years later. They have no elders to anchor them the way the old and deep networks of St. Louis connect, hold, and identify those born here.
St. Louis feels like the most real place I have lived. Anywhere I go, the brick, the black gum and redbud trees, the fleur-de-lis, and the slightly aggressive neighborhood flags all tell me you are here. The small city I grew up in, bordering endless other small cities that make up the vast and nameless suburbia south of Los Angeles, never felt like anywhere, exactly. It’s not L.A proper, not the Inland Empire, neither of The Valleys, or any of the Beach Cities. We drove from one place to another, paying little attention to what passed between. Life was a collection of places without a sense of place. But perhaps this is what immigrant life is because the realest place has long been left behind. When I bristle against my parents’ overly manicured and curated suburb, I remember that their newer house is really the most ancient place I know, filled with ancestors and Cantonese and millenia of ritual and sacrifice.
This summer, my husband is planting a native Missouri garden of coneflowers, phlox, and blazing stars. We want to be surrounded by what was here before us, before people started changing everything with what they couldn’t bear to leave behind. What belongs and what doesn’t, what’s old or new, what’s real or not—these are all questions of people whose roots have thirsted. Who’ve come and gone, fled and settled, repainted and replanted, staking belonging long before belonging arrives.
Melody S. Gee was born in Taiwan and raised in Cerritos, California. She is the author of the poetry collections The Dead in Daylight (2016, Cooper Dillon Books) and Each Crumbling House (2010, Perugia Press). Her essays and poems have recently appeared in Commonweal Magazine, Ruminate, Lantern Review, and The Rappahannock Review. She is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, MO with her husband and daughters.
Like fellow Midwesterner and incredible essayist Sonya Huber, I loathe the harmful writing advice of “show don’t tell.” Yet, I am also a writer born and raised in the Show Me State. While Missouri is steeped in Southern front-porch storytelling, the Middle West’s characteristic pragmatism, understatement, and complicated* past and present are perpetual in our prose. We want it both ways: to show and to tell, to be Southern and Midwestern. Ultimately, there’s a certain resilience and toughness Missouri essayists must harbor because we can’t assume you, dear reader, share our points of reference or understand why we stay or live in this place, however long. Ultimately, though, describing what others do not know or have the words for makes for wilder, more inventive stories. The Missouri essayists in this project share the very Midwestern joys and terror of what it’s like to be in a state with “no particular place to go.” What constrains and releases us may surprise you.
Missourians: we'd love to have more essays riffing and rumbling on the #Midwessay! Contact me at michaella.thornton at gmail and I'll be happy to include your thoughts and insights in this project.
—Michaella A. Thornton
* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.
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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