Posts Tagged ‘dead children’

I have been rereading Michael Lesy’s remarkable Wisconsin Death Trip. I admire this work, a collage of historical photos, news clippings, and excerpted fiction, as much as any literature I’ve ever read.

Lately I have been writing ‘fiction’ about my boyhood in Wisconsin. It has been nearly eight years since I left that state.  The distance has been good.

I open now to a random page in Death Trip, to the year 1891, and I read, “The boy of an unknown man was found hanging from a tree in Rochester” while in 1897, “A man registered at the La Crosse European Hotel as Edward Folsom, Grand Meadow, committed suicide by taking morphine. He was crippled, old, and out of work.”

There are times I miss my father. And I regret not returning to see him before he died. There are times I remember my father. It has been eight years since I last saw him, in the flesh anyhow, and over a year now since he passed.

Rather than type words, or think words, I gaze now at the Wisconsin Historical Society Flickr photostream clicking through the 144 of the photographs taken by Charles Van Shaick that Lesy collected and sometimes manipulated for his book. Images of men and women, of dead infants, of horses, of fields, of general stores.

When I was seven or eight my father found me washing dishes. He touched his hand to the water and shook his head. He turned the faucet until the water steamed, and my hands reddened until I could no longer dip them into the sink. My father held my hands beneath the surface. “Your detergent does not kill the microbes,” he explained. “Only the scalding water does.”

Set within Lesy’s collage, surrounded as they are by the news clippings of turn of the century diphtheria outbreaks, suicides, hauntings, murderous tramps, even the photograph of a young woman in a white dress and hat takes on the appearance of something disturbed. Out of context, as the stand alone images the Wisconsin Historical Society will charge you $15.50 for, they often seem the carefree images of long dead people at play.

More than once my father forced me to wash my hands with gasoline. He took great care in dipping rags into the substance so as not to waste any of the expensive fluid. He told me to rub deeply with this course soaked material. “Nothing else will kill what is growing there,” he would say. Very soon the raw redness while, a few feet away, my father stood smoking a cigarette.

The images of recently deceased children in their coffins are frequent in Wisconsin Death Trip as they were frequent at the turn of the century. Very often these are the images a new reader of Death Trip will fixate on. How bizarre, we think. We forget, then, the mortality rates and the bodies of children in coffins arranged in front rooms for viewing. We forget then how often our grandparents knew their siblings for a day or a month or a year before they became a name chiseled. We forget how often men and women and children lived openly in the midst of death and frequent, sweeping epidemic.

The fathers in my fiction often scrub their sons with scouring pads. They pinken the bathwater with the blood of their sons.

Michael Lesy seems like a very decent person. I recently wrote him a note reading “________________” and Dr. Lesy graciously responded by writing “_____________________” and “_________________.”

After my father started drinking again he slow burned the fields near our house. He burned wide stretches of our lawn, the lawn before the gravestone of a kitten he loved and named “Snoopy.” In the afternoons and through the evenings my father smoked cigarettes and shook canisters of fuel oil onto sheets of fire. He beat back the flames, stamped them down, and when I asked him about this my father said, “This grass was all dead.” Another time he told me, “This is very pagan.”

From 1892: “In an interview, Chief Foley of the fire department made the unqualified statement that all the recent fires in Milwaukee were of incendiary origin.”

The fathers in my stories are always burning fields, burning lawns. They are always setting fires to houses to devastate the contamination within. There are days when I attempt to write a story not about a father, not about a father burning a lawn or a house, and my vision almost blurs. Even typing out an idea of promise becomes arduous, debilitating, until I return to images of fathers and scorched lawns, to canisters of gasoline and ashes.

From 1898: “At Cameron a child was born in a family named Dunn. The father, in celebration of the event, is reported to have become intoxicated, seized the babe and dashed out its brains. He was on the point of strangling his wife when neighbors intervened.”

I do most of my reading during my commute. Lately, these mornings on the train, I would rather gaze at the sun collected glass, these evenings I would rather gaze unto the black waters, moon lit and star lit. When I open my book the words seem arranged like dead fishes. They seem like smears of dirt. I rub my eyes and slowly again they will read: “___________” or “__________.”

1897: “Tramps are supposed to have set fire tothe barns on the James S. Banfield farm, 3 miles east of Janesville.”

The last I saw my father was in a photograph taken at my brother’s funeral. My father was just over sixty in this photograph but he looked nearer to 80.  This was some months after the stroke and heart attack I for some while believed had killed him.

A few years back I saw a therapist who wanted to “discuss some of these issues with [my] father.” I said, “I’m not willing to do that.” What I meant was, “I don’t want to be cured of those things.”

At a Q & A session I was asked that most common of questions, “where do ideas come from?” I had read that evening from my novel-in-progress, pages about the sudden death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, pages about a father obsessed with infection, with burning lawns, with the tombstones of his beloved boy and of his wife. I said all I understand of this racket which is the old line, “Write what you know.” Everyone laughed. I don’t believe I was joking.

We have all been to places we would rather not have been. These are the best places to return to, even if we insist we cannot. I believe it is our duty to speak of these matters.

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