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by Gaynell Gavin
 

I live to go home, although I don't know exactly what that means, only that it's true. When I was in law school, everyday I lived for that moment on my drive from St. Louis to Alton when I came to the bridge that had been there all my life, the Lewis and Clark, two old narrow lanes where I crossed the Mississippi from Missouri to Illinois. I lived to see the bridge and the water and the bluffs on the Illinois side of the river. Some people were afraid of that narrow bridge, but I loved it.

It was named for men who started their famous Pacific Northwest journey nearby, men who lived to leave home, I guess. Even now, when I drive or fly over that stretch of the Mississippi, that place where the river bends and changes direction, flowing west to east, the knots inside of me start to untie so that I can breathe. St. Louis has my favorite airport because of those moments just before we land when I see that bend, that stretch of water from the sky.

I don't know why they named the new bridge just for Clark and left Lewis out—perhaps because of his descent into depression, possible madness, probable suicide. I didn't want a new bridge. I have an aversion to displacement, scars, irrevocable changes in a familiar landscape.

Here is what I do know of the new bridge. Design for it began in 1985, the year after I finished law school and moved to Colorado. Construction started in 1990. While the new bridge was being built, I used the old one for visits home and intermittently witnessed construction of the new which opened at the beginning of 1994 with four regular traffic lanes and two for bikes and pedestrians. Today it would be legal for my father to walk across the Mississippi. As a boy, he and his brothers, sons of a widow who raised ten children during the Depression, walked across the railroad bridge to hitchhike to a St. Louis Cardinals game. When they reached Missouri, a policeman made them turn around and walk back.

The new bridge cost $118 million dollars. It took 8,100 tons of steel, 44,100 cubic yards of concrete, and over 160 miles of cable. Where the Mississippi is 40 feet deep, the bridge's pilings go into bedrock 140 feet beneath the water's surface. It is built to endure. It has two sets of cables covered in yellow, rising pyramid-like from and far above the bridge. It may be the most incredibly beautiful humanly-made object I have ever seen. The best thing about it was thinking I wouldn't like it and being wrong.

Where I'm from is a Civil War place with houses that were part of the Underground Railroad, houses with secret spaces. My cousin Dan, his brother, and two sisters grew up on a brick street that had one of those houses. Downtown, less than a mile away, was the location of seventh and last of the Lincoln-Douglas slavery debates. Living in north Alton as a child, I played in the Confederate cemetery, both tree-shaded and open, green and lovely, with a granite obelisk monument to the dead.

Southern sympathizers had a strong presence in Alton before, during, and after the war. Daughters of the Confederacy succeeded in having a government monument raised shortly after the turn of the twentieth century and gave money for the cemeterygates. Now when I go back, I read the multitude of names on the monument's base and wonder about their lives. Did they really want to fight for secession? How many, if any, of them could even afford to own slaves?

Near the Lincoln-Douglas debate site, downtown Alton had the first penitentiary in the state of Illinois, a stone prison with 256 cells. During the war, it was used first to garrison Union troops and then to imprison up to 2,000 Confederate soldiers. Smallpox swept through the prison. Over 1,300 soldiers died there. Now it is a parking lot where only a few stones from one of the walls of that terrible place remain.

Photo by B. Graul, courtesy  Alton Convention and Visitors Bureau

East of downtown, at the top of a hill in Alton City Cemetery, is the Lovejoy monument, well over twice the height of the 40-foot Confederate obelisk and visible from the bridge as you drive into Alton.

Elijah P. Lovejoy was a minister, editor of the Observer, a Presbyterian newspaper, and founder of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. In St. Louis and St. Charles, Missouri, he was repeatedly assaulted by pro-slavery mobs and his printing presses destroyed. He was married to a woman who loved him fiercely and protectively enough to face one of the mobs which had come for him. A lawyer's daughter, she had been married to him for less than three years and was pregnant with their second child when he was killed in Alton defending a new, fourth press. After someone shot Lovejoy five times with a double-barrel shotgun, a mob threw his press into the Mississippi. Lovejoy, who became known as this country's first martyr to freedom of the press, was buried in an unmarked grave on his thirty-fifth birthday, November 9, 1837, and his widow left Alton for her parents' home in St. Charles. That is all I know of her except, I suppose, that she raised their two children, a son and a daughter, and that her name was Celia.

The hospital where I, like my siblings and many of our cousins, was born stands a block away in the shadow of the Lovejoy monument. One of my aunts, who was a nurse there, recalls the hospital's history of racial segregation which confined African American patients to a basement ward until the mid-1960s while at the downtown movie theater which my uncle managed a few blocks away, African Americans were relegated to the balcony. By the time of my interracial marriage in 1971, however, my former husband and I would not have had to wonder if we'd be sent to the balcony, and if my son's 1973 birth had occurred at the hospital where I was born, by then I would have been spared the need to wonder if we'd be sent to the basement.

But the legacy is there, and while the river draws me home, the legacy of race in a city which spawned and gave safe harbor to Lovejoy's murderers became an undertow dragging me away.

Meanwhile, the 1960s also brought James Earl Ray from East Alton, a smaller community, predictably, just east of Alton. I used to know a skinny, retired East Alton police officer who told me that Ray could not have acted alone in killing Martin Luther King.

"He was just too stupid to plan it all himself. He was mean and hateful and racist and criminal enough to do it, but not smart enough to plan it alone. I should know. I knew him and the rest of his family well from arresting them. Often. I'm not saying he didn't do it. I'm just saying I know he didn't do it alone."

While my mother was growing up a half-hour drive northwest of Alton in a Jerseyville family fighting to keep its farm during the Depression, my father, unknown to her, was growing up in Alton and East Alton, fighting far worse poverty.

So that is some of what I can piece together about the place I'm from, but how can you ever really tell what you know, all you know of a place?

The Lovejoy monument. Photo courtesy Alton Convention and Visitors Bureau When I walk into a roomful of people, knowing that they are connected to me, that they are almost all related to me, sometimes for a little while at least, I feel slightly less crazy in the world. I doubt that I express this well to them, if at all. Maybe what I feel for a short time approximates happiness or peace. It is why I have come to a 75th birthday party for my aunt, the retired nurse, at the Knights of Columbus Hall. It is why I have driven east to come home.

My cousin, Rachel, is making me laugh, telling me about sneaking into her mom's home to steal family photos so that they could be enlarged for this occasion. "Damn," she says, "afraid to be caught sneaking out at fourteen, afraid to be caught sneaking in at forty."

Her sister, Rose, has a sick child and has not been able to come home as planned. I don't get to see her often, and I miss her. I want my brother and sister and son, who live and work far away, to be here also.

My cousin, Dan, is dragging me to look at photos covering the K.C. walls. There are my maternal grandparents on the farm, standing under a tree in 1953, the year of my birth. There were a lot of us already. I find my mother's face, young, lovely, framed by thick, dark hair. I look up from the picture to see my mother now, talking adamantly with people across the room. My mother's hair, like all her sisters', is white. I can bet she is talking about how we better overthrow the goddamn patriarchy. I do not necessarily disagree with her premise, but I do not share her notion that people will do what she says just because she says it.

I tell Dan she reminds me of Samuel Beckett. "One of Beckett's biographers said that, 'goaded by a killing Irish rectitude, he was never more Irish than when in exile from Ireland.' Goaded by a killing Irish rectitude, my mother was never more culturally Irish Catholic than when in exile from the Irish Catholic church."

Dan laughs, agrees, points to a boy in the 1953 picture, squinting into the camera. "Me. I was about nine." He points to a girl, slightly taller, then to the baby in her arms. "You." I look at the baby he's saying is me, an infantile dot in a sea of cousinly humanity, on a farm I can't remember.

Photo-narrator Dan moves on briskly. "Look at my dad, spiffed up in jodhpurs, ready to ride that bay mare he loved. That was one beautiful horse. I got big enough to ride her before she died. Our grandfather knew his horses.

"Look at this picture. 1971." Dan was in his late twenties. He stands with our mothers and my father, laughing, drinks in one hand, cigarettes in the other, the women's hair fashionably lightened, the backdrop—his mother's kitchen door in the two-story white frame house where she raised her children. I am not in the picture. In 1971, after I left home, my parents received news of my ill-fated teen marriage with considerable dismay, some of that dismay undoubtedly about race but more about my age.

Dan throws an arm around my shoulders. He calls his brother, who is taking pictures, to take ours. He stands between Rachel and me. I will put the picture on a bulletin board in my office. I will look at it again and again and see that Dan's hair is grayer than mine, that we both have lines around our eyes, that my eyes in the picture are blue as my mother's, my sister's, my brother's while my son's are brown, very dark with honey-gold flecks that shine in certain light when you look closely.

Dan suggests some fresh air, and we step into October sunlight. He is telling me what a sociopath he was in his youth. I am telling him, although I have to agree he was pretty bad, he was not a sociopath.

"Oh," he says, "how would you know?"

"Because before your wife was your wife, when she was just a girl in trouble, you could have walked away. There were no blood tests then. You could have gotten away with it. So why didn't you?"

It is warm; leaves drift and scatter on the brick street. We step off the sidewalk into the K.C. parking lot. "Okay," he says, "fair question. I didn't walk away because I love her."

"And I rest my case. A sociopath can't really love anyone."

From the parking lot, I look out over the hills of Alton to the river. I see the new bridge and the spot where the old bridge was and the old railroad bridge and beneath the bridges, always, the river.

Dan is talking to me, telling me that it is not good for me to live far away, and I tell him he's right. I have not coped well with the Diaspora of my family including my own moves which have left me depleted. He is asking me if I am making myself get up and teach everyday, and I tell him, yes, I do it but sometimes only because he or my sister calls to tell me I have to get up and go do it. He tells me he's trying to look after me, and he wants a promise. His gaze follows mine.

"It's a beautiful bridge, isn't it?"

I repeat his words back to him. "It is a beautiful bridge."

"Promise me that if you ever feel really desperate, like you can't go on, promise that you won't do anything without calling me. Promise that you'll call me."

"Dan, I'm exhausted, but I'm not going to hurt myself." I'm telling him the truth, and I try to make him laugh by adding that I'm too much of a coward, but he doesn't laugh.

"Promise me anyway."

I look from the river to his eyes. They are not as green as his mother's, brother's or his sister's. They are blue-green. I look in his eyes. I promise him. Then, in the small moment before we walk back inside, I tell him there are so many reasons I'd never do it. I tell him he is one of them.

  

Gaynell Gavin, after practicing law for several years, is currently completing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she also teaches and is an editorial assistant at Prairie Schooner. Her work has appeared in The Comstock Review, Kansas Quarterly, Christian Science Monitor, and Tulane Review.
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References.
 
 

All Around Alton. Alton: Greater Alton/Twin Rivers Convention and Visitors
Bureau, (undated).

Madson, John. "River Rat's Mississippi." The Arizona Daily Star, 5 June 1994, 1H.

Stetson, Charlotte. The Best of Alton. St. Louis: G. Bradley Publishing, 1999.

Stetson, Charlotte. Alton, Illinois: A Pictorial History. St. Louis: G. Bradley Publishing, 1986.
 

 
     
    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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