I live in the Midwest but I’m not from here at all. I’m an East Coast baby, a move-around-a-lot baby. I lived abroad as a child, and before I was a teenager, the only place I really put feelers into the soil was the little town of Lenoir, North Carolina. And then once I was a teenager–well, teenagers are by their very nature rootless. But anyway, we moved to Chicago.
I’m not a Midwesterner, though occasionally I catch the ghost of a Chicago twang in my a’s (Shi-cahh-go). I’ve lived in Chicago for years now and I have yet to feel any sense of home in this city. But then I take I-80 West and the fields start streaming by.
See, my family is from Midwestern farmland and they’re from here deep.
I always forget that ancestry means something. It means a lot. I always think of my identity as me: small Tori, skipping through states and countries in her missionary-child girlhood. But I’ve been helping my grandma with a book of our genealogy lately and it’s really moving to hear about the people that run in your blood. Me isn’t just me. Everything is a composite, even the things we thought were pure, like my secret vampire teeth or when I was twelve I drew a picture of two people kissing.
The things we can catalog besides my childhood portraits: the German immigrant. The mysterious death of the brother. The sod house in Nebraska. Two boys walking home, staring down the wolves. The died-in-childbirth. The year they thought they weren’t going to make it. The year they built the little white farm house, the farmhouse that’s still standing, the farmhouse that I’m sitting in right now, wrapped in blankets on a narrow vintage bed.
At night I hear footsteps in the room above me and I whisper come down and see me.
I wish those people knew me. You know: my ancestors. I want to run up to them and be like, hey, you made me, whatcha think? I want them to be proud of their own boundless potential, proud of filling up this huge country with tall children. Still, I feel like I’m not of them at all. Actually don’t come down. Actually I’m scared. I’m this other person, this rootless girl. Not a speck of DNA in this body. I didn’t grow up anywhere; some days I feel like a mannequin with a small girl ghost inside it. But other days, to keep my feet on real dirt, to shake myself into some sense of existence, I walk around these empty fields repeating, this is what I am. This is what I am. And the fields might respond, if I could just take my stubborn legs and kneel.