Broad Lawns, Narrow Minds

By Madeline Johnson

Recently the death of my mother took me from Milan, where I have lived for fifteen years, back to my native Rockford, Illinois, where my sister, brother and I had to dismantle our childhood home.

Rockford was a truly small city while I was growing up; one whose topography and social structure were closely entwined. It had a downtown with hospitals, cinemas, banks, department stores and churches. It had a nearby residential area and the people who lived there went to the same schools, churches and clubs as each other. It had its rites: Thursday evening was roast beef at the University Club or fried chicken at the Country Club; Saturday morning was D.J. Stewart’s department store downtown; Sunday morning was the Smith Oil station for lawnmower fuel and the Auburn Street Hardware for grass seed.

It is the kind of place that might evoke the words of another Illinois expatriate, Ernest Hemingway, who called his native Oak Park a town of “broad lawns and narrow minds.” Over two decades I have lived in several of those places to which people flee from provincial childhoods–New York, Paris and Rome—and I know that provincialism is not a question of place but of attitude. Anywhere you go only a small percentage of the population is open minded and curious. Rockford is no exception.

But like all except the very largest of America’s metropolises, Rockford’s two percent could not stave off the transformation from “Pocket City” into a dispersive Edge City. When I left for college in Massachusetts in 1978, the momentum of Rockford’s transformation was unstoppable. Things fell apart; the center could not hold.

Like our Midwestern tornadoes, the centrifugal forces of cheap land, limitless parking and outside-city-limits zoning anarchy uprooted the social and economic cohesion, flinging its bits onto the farmland between the town and I-90.

Out in Edge City, surviving venerable downtown businesses jostle with chain box-stores. There is no street grid and cars struggle along a tangle of frontage roads and parking lots whose self-consciously bucolic names suggest nothing but real-estate developers’ total lack of self irony. My brother, sister and I spent three days lost in the town where we grew up.

Almost as disorienting were the things that had not changed at all, including my own bedroom with its yellowed newspaper clippings from high school on the bulletin board. It felt odd to be an adult in childhood settings. The smell of the University Club awoke a desire to hide in the ladies’ cloak room and pet all the grown-ups’ fur coats. While walking down a nearby street, I felt as though I was five, ten or fifteen-years-old and on my way to school. For each house I passed, I knew a name and interesting detail about the inhabitants. I can not do this in Milan where I live now.

As we filled bags for the Salvation Army, my brother, sister and I shared an epiphany. Returning to a familiar house, one bigger and nicer than is available or affordable where we each live now, had new appeal. An easily maneuvered city, where your family had a history and a social network only added to the appeal. If we were to return, the two percent of interesting Rockfordians would happily take us back I’m sure.

But then one day my brother and I set out for gas, the hardware store and lunch at the Maid Rite restaurant, which were all concentrated in a small shopping area near our house. The Maid Rite had hosted my first independent meals out; in fourth grade when my mother had Garden Club. Its eponymous sandwich (ground beef loose on a bun) and a Coke cost $1.47. But now weeds grew out of the gas station. “Out of business” signs curled in the Auburn Street Hardware windows. The Maid Rite’s windows were boarded up, but a sign informed us that it was still trading out in Edge City.

Lost again, we were about to give up on another memory. But then my brother recognized the Maid Rite logo in a strip mall. We had our sandwiches and Cokes. Hemingway would have said “…and it was good.”

During our struggle to leave the tangle of frontage roads and parking lots to reach home, the un-Proustian taste of ground beef and onions faded from my palate. It seemed to be all that remained of a world that had once been the whole world for me. The words of another great American expatriate were there for me now, Gertrude Stein’s epitaph for her native Oakland, “there is no there there.”

Reproduced with permission of The American | In Italia.