My grandfather’s tombstone has a plane etched into the granite. Just a little east of his grave, I visited into the birthplace of Amelia Earhart. I have no idea if my grandfather had any special feelings about Amelia Earhart, who, after all, lived only a brief time in Atchison, Kansas. She was a pilot, like my grandpa, and neither of them ever settled.
Very settled, on the other end of Atchison, were my nun friends in the monastery. Ever since I moved to New York, I had been longing to be back at the only place I think I’ve ever really been able to rest. The curving little back staircase, my simple room, always a different one, always with a slider rocker, a window that looks at the chapel’s stained glass and stone, my assigned bathroom with travel lotions I sweep into my hands. Walks around the grounds to visit the February-fallow gardens, the cemetery, the beehives, the rusting farm equipment in the back field. Walks to the library to pick out another stack of books.
All the sisters are my grandmother, except the few who, closer to my age, are more like sisters. “I pray for everyone under 50,” one told me. “That they will find what they are meant to do. You have that spark, though. I know you have found it.”
“When, not if, but when you go to Florence…” another sister began. She’s in her eighties, and she’s been many times, studying or teaching.
At the monastery, I run into myself. This time I realized I don’t know who I am, or if I am coming or going, or where, if anywhere, I belong. It reminds me of the years my parents had joint custody of me and didn’t get along, when I was never totally at home anywhere, when the parts of me from each of them seemed to be natural enemies.
They weren’t, they aren’t. I have my mother’s openness and her build, my father’s sense of humor and his nose, and rebelliousness and stubbornness and love of religion from both.
During one lunch, I heard myself interrupting a chat that had previously been mostly about who knows who, about “Are you of the Topeka Kleinzes?” a topic my name had failed to get me into. I broke in, a little too loud, to say, “My great-grandpa was in that parade.”
The county fair they had been speaking of, the county fair in Effingham, Kansas. “Oh, who was your grandpa?”
“Uh, let me think,” I said. “We always called him grandpa.” My face reddened, as I knew I had jumped too quickly and loudly into conversation, even if no one else noticed, and I had no idea, suddenly, what my great-grandfather’s name was. I had not wanted to participate in the conversation, but to insert myself into it.
The father of my pilot great-grandfather was William, like Shakespeare, but called Bill, as if could forget that.
I was protesting too much, just as I have written fast and furious about being a midwesterner and What That Means To Me when I’ve gone to a writing event. We write near boats, and I write about how boats will always be exotic to me. We write at the Indian museum, and I write about hating being from a place known for its Indians.
I have spent much of my adult life in places where I don’t belong— at the synagogue, at an inner city school, at the monastery. Maybe because I can learn so much that way. Maybe because I’ve been waiting all this time for someone to tell me I don’t belong, I will never belong, I need to get out, I am not right. None of these communities cooperated with my neurosis, though. They were all perfectly welcoming, proving something to me about them, but maybe not, yet, about myself.
It eats at me that people in New York don’t know me, that is, know me little, but the most confusing part, really, is that I don’t know myself. People will get to know me, and I will get to know myself, this takes time, I know.
I kept telling sister after sister, some of whom remembered me and my story from previous visits, that I had indeed moved to New York. “I live in New York,” I said.
“I live in New York.”
“I live in New York now, in Brooklyn.”
“I teach in Manhattan, in New York. Yes, New York City.”
I started to think if I said it enough I would believe it. The last time I was at the monastery I decided to quit my Kansas City job. I wondered if I would get another one in New York, if I would find a place to live. To tell the sisters I know best, “I got a job. I got a place to live,” it sounded like a miracle. Maybe it was, is.
It felt like climbing a mountain, getting higher to where there was no oxygen, but there were some nice views.
I rang a bell, and the woman who answered asked for $5. I took a brochure and looked around Amelia Earhart’s birthplace, the room she was born in, the room that was hers as a girl. The woodwork is dark and thick. Most of the walls are crammed with photos of Earhart, paintings of her, framed telegrams and letters and such.
There is a plain pointed-arched stained glass window in the end of the upstairs hall. Most of the windows look over the Missouri River, to the bridge now named after her, the bridge I was driven across countless times, as a child on my way to my great-grandparents’ farm. When she was born there, my great-grandparents were young people, just a few miles away.
Earhart decided to become a pilot, she decided to fly all these crazy missions. She could have had such a nice life. What was she thinking? Leaving a perfectly nice husband and life to go drop out of the sky. Or into it, maybe it doesn’t matter if you fall.