A couple days before I left for Ohio, I worried about where I’d sleep the night I hit town. I knew I wouldn’t see Columbus until 11 or later, since I was leaving right after work from the suburbs, and I didn’t want to make my aunt and uncle wait up for me especially if I ran late due to traffic. Tuesday night I realized I could call in a favor with my high school friend Randy, who lives near OSU’s campus and who’d stayed in Chicago with me a couple weekends ago with our friend Shawn on their way across the country. He said by all means, come stay, so I crashed on his couch Thursday night.
The next morning we went to get breakfast at Tim Horton’s (!) before we separately drove down to southeastern Ohio – me to Pleasant City to see Owen and Jamie, and him to Caldwell to stay at his dad’s house for the long weekend. It felt silly for us to make the same ~90-minute drive in our own cars, but I needed mine all weekend and couldn’t leave it in Columbus.
I missed my nieces so much – I was supposed to see them over Memorial Day weekend, but I got sick a couple days before my trip and had to stay in Chicago. I ran up to their front door and my older niece gave me the biggest hug.
My dad and stepmom had brought a giant picnic lunch for us all, and I was happy to see my mom’s brother Alan had made the drive down from Cleveland to see us all. We played badminton and corn hole (because, southeastern Ohio, of course) and watched my two nieces run around in matching July Fourth-themed outfits.
My older niece insisted we have a tea party, so Jamie set out cookies and milk while my niece carefully served us. She beamed at me the entire time, and I couldn’t help but beam back.
My nieces are already so clearly different, even though they are so little. My older almost seems to speak for the younger, who seems content playing on her own quietly while staying out of trouble. They are both so smart and interesting, and I loved getting to be around them. I stayed with them that night, after giving out a summer’s worth of birthday gifts, since Owen’s was July 1 and my older niece’s was June 17. We went for a walk on a paved trail near a neighboring town and my brother talked about his plans to start running again. Everyone at the picnic was incredulous, but seemingly impressed, that I’d managed to run an 8K two weeks prior.
After the girls went to bed the three adults in the house watched the Lego movie, which I unabashedly enjoyed. I crashed on their couch and Jamie made us all breakfast Saturday morning.
I spent day two of my Ohio vacation splitting time between family and friends, leaving Owen and Jamie’s for our grandfather’s house in Dover. Grandpa had hoped to drive down on the Fourth of July to join our picnic, but he hadn’t slept well the night before and had to cancel. Talking to him in person works best, as the phone can be hard for him to hear me (I talk too fast and my laughter interrupts him). I decided to go see him Saturday for lunch.
We drove to a place he likes in the neighboring town, New Philadelphia, but it was closed. We settled on Dover’s Bob Evans and ordered right away. While we waited for our food, we talked about traveling. I love listening to him talk about all the places he’s been, in the U.S. and abroad, and I try so hard to remember the small details of the things he liked best in case I get to go see them for myself someday, so I can tell him about it.
At some point while we waited he brought up politics, which made me cringe, because it’s the one thing we can’t make the other see eye-to-eye on, and I know arguing with him will only upset him. My dad and his two brothers deal with this dissonance in a variety of ways, and mine is to smile, nod my most non-committal nod, and delicately try to change the subject.
I was just about to excuse myself for the bathroom when he changed the subject himself:
“Let me ask you,” he said. “Have you been out to see your mother’s grave lately?”
For a second, I almost wished he’d gone on more about Obama.
“No,” I said, hesitating. “I haven’t gone in a few years. I don’t get much comfort from it.”
“We’ll go after lunch,” he said. Decision made.
I hoped he’d forget and end up driving us straight home, but when we passed his street I knew there was no getting out of it.
I’d been to see my mother’s grave twice since her inurnment service in March of 2008, when family and friends, including Brittany and Adam, came to Dover that spring when the ground thawed. That was when, on what would have been her 55th birthday, her urn could be buried in the place that had marked her life and her death for the last six months.
Later that year, a Columbus friend made the long drive with me there, and after I sat at her graveside and felt nothing, we turned around and went home. Three years later, in the fall of 2011, I took Kevin there so he could see it, and I hadn’t been there since.
Grandpa pulled up the car in front of his wife’s grave, my grandmother’s, which sits five or so away from my mom’s. He stayed in the car and I could tell he was trying to give me some privacy. I stepped out of his car’s passenger side and walked to my mom’s headstone, which also bears my dad’s name – with no date of death, of course, but jarring to see all the same.
I stood there awkwardly for a moment, feeling my grandfather’s eyes on my back, and eventually sat down in the grass a few feet in front of it.
“I know you’re not here,” I said flatly. I paused, then added quietly, “I miss you.”
I didn’t know what else to do, so I took a photo of the headstone, even though it felt oddly invasive. I stood up and walked away, before stopping at my grandmother’s grave. Grandpa still sat in his car, window down.
“I always liked her epitaph,” I said to him from his own grave.
Her stone, which also has my grandfather’s name, says over hers: “My journey’s trinkets will be words.” It was a line from a poem she wrote a year or two after being diagnosed with cancer, but eight or nine years before she actually died. It was called “Epitaph Me.” She was a reporter and writer as well. I never knew her, as she died in June of 1991. It always sounded like she and I would have had a lot to talk about, the way my Uncle Brian and I always do when we see each other.
“Is it strange to see your own name on a gravestone?” I asked my grandpa as we drove away.
“A little,” he admitted. “But I’ve already got my epitaph picked out: ‘Pull my finger.’”
I told my grandfather I loved him before I left, and he didn’t say it back, but he said it to me the next day over the phone without prompting, which was possibly a first. Our family has never been big on “I love you” but I wanted him to hear it that day, even if it felt a little strange.
I left my grandfather’s house and headed to Caldwell, my hometown but no longer my home base, since my dad sold the house I grew up in last fall and moved to the town where my stepmom owns a home. Most of it looked more or less than same as it did at Christmas, as it did last year, as it did when I was in college and in high school.
That said, parts of it really have changed, especially during the workweek. The oil and gas industry took off two or three years ago in that area. A third hotel is in talks for the small, formerly one-motel town, and a brand-new Days Inn opened just this past spring, on State Route 821 by the old, now-shuttered DANA plant.
I’m told parking on the town square, which centers around the Noble County Courthouse, is much harder to come by these days, with developers and oil and gas reps staking out property claims in county records each day. Growing up, the biggest employers in the county were the plant and the prison, the latter of which was built in the 90s and brought state jobs to a rural area. When the prison came, so did a handful of chain fast food places, including the Arby’s, where I got my first job in high school, and where Brittany worked while putting herself through her first college degree.
Now everyone is trying to get in on the oil and gas boom, before it busts. The third hotel in question is a point of outrage for locals, as it will sit within feet of one of Noble County’s two elementary schools. Brittany and Adam’s daughter will start kindergarten there in the fall.
Randy drove me out to see the Days Inn, all shiny and new. He told me he’d heard several TVs had been walked right out of the place before it opened, to my surprise. It stands out, next to the ages-old armory and the old plant.
I stopped by the local grocery store to get something for a picnic out at Wolf Run. I went in to get berries, but saw a meat and cheese tray that had a $3.99 sign above it. I laughed to myself because the same Hormel tray would be at least $9.99 at a Jewel in Chicago, so I grabbed it instead. At the check out I was surprised to learn it was actually $13.99, a large mark-up instead of a discount. I felt foolish for thinking that everything was cheaper in southeastern Ohio and paid it anyway, writing it off as an idiot tax.
Randy offered to drive me to the picnic since he was going too, and I separated the cheeses, ham, and pepperoni from their plastic bags and lined them up in sections next to the Ritz crackers out of their plastic sleeves. I forgot I’d done so later in the car and tilted the whole thing sideways, mixing it all together anyway.
“I hope this doesn’t offend the many vegetarians who I’m sure will be there,” I joked to Randy.
Randy, my one-time high school boyfriend, drives a new car he just got, and I laughed when I realized it was a standard car and not an automatic. He’d driven a standard all through high school and I kind of loved that a decade later that small detail hadn’t changed. He offered to let me drive, which I waved off.
“You tried to teach me in high school, remember?” I said. “We fish-tailed all over a gravel back road.”
We went to the wrong spot at first for the picnic, so I let him talk me into driving the less-than-a-mile journey to the right place. I stalled his car seven times and swore the entire time, as he laughed and somehow remained calm in the passenger seat, just as he had ten years earlier.
We didn’t stay more than a couple of hours because I needed to get to Brittany and Adam’s, so I rushed us back to town. From the passenger seat I realized I’d left the meat and cheese tray, which had barely been touched in favor of homemade burgers and potato salad.
“We can go back,” Randy offered, but I declined.
“Brittany wouldn’t eat it anyway, since she actually is a vegetarian,” I said.
Brittany decided to become a vegetarian at age 19 after PETA visited her Intro to Ethics class. All through high school I’d joked that she was a vegetarian in denial, since she never ate meat and swore she didn’t like it, so her decision years later was one that made sense to me.
I spent that night with Brittany and Adam and our friend Cindy, talking until 1 a.m. before realizing we were old and tired. We got breakfast in Cambridge in the morning and I headed back to Columbus from there.
I can never spend as much time as I want in every place I want to in Ohio whenever I go home, so one aspect of my Ohio life always ends up getting neglected. This time, it was Columbus. I got to town around 2:30 Sunday afternoon and went to see my aunt and uncle’s new home for the first time. They’d sold their Clintonville house, the one I’d always known as their house, the first day it was on the market, for above-asking price. They scooped up a smaller, but big enough, house in a neighborhood closer to where I’d first lived when I moved to Columbus.
I visited with my uncle for a while, and then my aunt, and then drove to the ‘burbs to get dinner with a couple I know from college who’d graciously agreed to meet up with me on short notice. I felt tired after, as if the last three days of running around had suddenly caught up with me, so I went back to my family’s house. I got in a short video chat session with Sarah and Stef, as we’ve tried to do on Sunday nights since Sarah moved, and listened my middle cousin Brett talk about music with his 20-something friends. After they left, Brett played “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” in its entirety for my aunt and uncle, who’d just purchased tickets for all three of my cousins to go see Neutral Milk Hotel in Columbus later this month.
I left Monday morning for home. I stopped at the deli that is by the old apartment I shared with Doug and Chandra, for the first four months that I lived in Columbus. I got the same breakfast sandwich I would treat myself to back when I was a broke reporter, one who was just feeling the thrill of living in a city for the first time, and the simple pleasure of even having a neighborhood deli to walk to in the morning. It was my Columbus version of Beans and Bagels, I guess, the coffee shop in my current neighborhood, where I still sometimes go on weekend mornings to get a variation of that same breakfast sandwich.
I drove home. When I stopped for gas somewhere in Indiana, I saw my brother had posted a copy of “Epitaph Me,” my grandmother’s poem, to my Facebook wall.
Even though I made good use of my time in Ohio, I didn’t see everyone I wanted to, or even get to let everyone I should have know that I’d be there. Sorry for that. I do hope to see you next time.