Though she was of German ancestry, I always called my father's mom grandmere (French for grandma). This was because the family name (La Tour) is French, and my dad wanted my brother and I to keep in touch with our roots. Grandmere died ten years ago, in 2006, and her ashes still had yet to be laid to rest. And so, kind of on the spur of the moment, because my dad and his two siblings were all together in Wisconsin, they decided that it was a good time to lay grandmere to rest.
My dad grew up in a very small town called Stone Bank, in a house on Moose Lake. It was decided that grandmere's ashes would be scattered on this lake, so we borrowed a pontoon boat from a guy named "Crazy Jack" Grimm, who'd lived here since my dad was a kid, and set off onto the water.
It was a beautiful, if hot, day, and I gained a newfound appreciation for the place my dad grew up. This lake is like something out of Tom Sawyer, complete with its own little island, which my dad almost drowned trying to swim to as a boy. Beneath our boat, blue gills and perch swam in the clear, greenish water.
Before sprinkling her ashes, my cousins' kids (Maddie, Gabby, and Magne) took a swim, jumping into the water as we (the adults) ate snacks and thought about what grandmere meant to us. I wish my brother Seth was here. He was always closer to grandmere than I was because they shared a competitive streak which I lack, and they loved to battle it out in endless games of Yahtzee. My memories of grandmere are fairly specific--she made excellent crepes, pot roast, and potato salad. Every winter, when she came to visit us in California for a few weeks, she would do some project for my mom, like re-upholster our couch. On Saturdays, we would go to garage sales, and it was here that I gained a lifelong love for second-hand things--clothes, electronics, records, books.
In her final years in the nursing home outside Milwaukee, grandmere got dementia and sometimes had trouble remembering who I was. Once, she mistook me for an old boyfriend and tried to kiss me on the mouth, much to my horror. I remember, as a boy, playing with the big flap of skin on her wrinkly elbow. I remember looking for snapping turtles in the pond by her trailer park in Sullivan, Wisconsin. I remember she had a wiener dog named Little Bit who used to tear down the hallway of her trailer and scare the hell out of me. I remember she always had whole milk and cooked without recipes--they were all in her head.
Grandpere (my grandpa Cliff) died when I was three, but I have lots of memories of grandmere. I remember how she would sometimes say things that were, to my liberal California ears, racist or offensive. I remember how, even as a boy, I would call her out on this: "Grandmere, you can't say that!" She'd lived in rural Wisconsin towns, in another era of American history. Most people of my generation have at least one racist grandparent. But to her family, she was kind and loving, almost to a fault.
We all sat on "Crazy Jack's" pontoon boat thinking about grandmere. My dad read a passage from the Bible and we all went around saying our final goodbyes, saying what grandmere meant to us. My dad, uncle Dick, aunt Lyn, and cousin Jenni all broke down crying as they spoke. I'm certain that, if my brother were here, he would compose a poem and cry as well. My cousin Rachel's two daughters (Maddie, age 5, and Gabby, age 4) sang a couple of songs they'd learned in Bible camp.
And then my father carefully poured the grey ashes into the green water. I'd never seen human ashes before. They made a strange swirling pattern on the surface, before sinking into Moose Lake. I told my dad that , in certain cultures, it is believed that a person's soul cannot find rest until they are taken back to the earth. Perhaps now, finally, after ten years, grandmere's spirit can find peace in this lovely place where my father grew up.
A big part of my route 66 adventure this summer has been about encountering history--all those little towns that time forgot, those national monuments like Abraham Lincoln's house, and those natural wonders millions of years old like the petrified forest in New Mexico. But here, in Wisconsin, at the end of my journey, sitting in a coffee shop on State Street in Madison, where my parents lived as newlyweds, I encounter another kind of history--personal history, family history.
This is where my family's roots are, in places like Moose Lake, Milwaukee, UW Madison, a farm house in Mt. Horeb. Here, unlike in California, things change slowly, and sometimes not at all. Driving through the country, past cornfields, barns, and silos, some of them dating back to the 1800s, I take in this landscape which is a deep part of my heritage. History, here, is not abstract, but emotional and real. Here begins my own personal history, smack dab in the middle of America--the midwest, the heart-land. Rest in peace, grandmere.