By Kristin Ohlson
I finally bought a cell phone so that I’d never get stranded or desperately lonely when I drove with my dog from Cleveland to California and back last year. It worked only intermittently and certainly never in the places where I was afraid I would run out of gas, blow a tire, hit an antelope, or be forced off the road by a psychopath. The cell phone came to life when I zoomed by major cities, nearly startling me into collision with its electronic yelps signaling that I had messages. It was always my husband and there were always about five messages in a crescendo of annoyance and concern, wanting to know why I hadn’t called. By the time I’d break free of the traffic and try to call him back, the signal was gone again, gone, gone, gone, the phone emitting only the occasional chirp of analog roam.
All this is to underline the nearly cosmic weirdness of my cell phone’s performance when I stopped in Wadsworth, Nevada, on my way back home to Cleveland—270 miles to the east of my parents’ house in Santa Rosa and 2200 miles to the west of my own—to look for my grandmother Dorothy’s grave. Wadsworth is in pretty desolate country—more desolate, I thought, than many of the towns I had cruised through hoping to find a signal. It seemed I had been driving through many miles of nowhere, not sure whether I should take the time to stop, then passed a sign saying, “Warning! Hot springs on public land! Keep out and keep alive!” I wondered if I was approaching the signs I’d seen in Nevada while heading west a month earlier —the ones that said “Report shooting from the highway” and “Prison Area: No Hitchhiking.” I’d come to savor the signs along America’s big empty highways on this trip and Nevada’s were deliciously ominous. Then I saw the sign for Wadsworth—one little sign, then nothing else—followed by an unmarked exit. I pulled off the highway, turned down a narrow pitted road, and headed north. When I saw the Indian smoke shop—my cousin’s husband had told me that I’d be on the right road if I saw the Indian smoke shop—I continued the drive into my mother’s past.
Dorothy died nearly twenty years before I was born, after my two oldest siblings were born but before the next two made their appearance. While Dorothy was on her deathbed, my mother promised her that she wouldn’t have any more children, even though she already knew she was pregnant with another. Dorothy’s life was short—she died of colon cancer, in 1938, when she was only 44. A vivacious redhead from Reno (she had hair to die for, my mother says, long thick hair that she could sit on until she committed the outrageous act of bobbing it), her parents had been eager for her to marry John Bolte, a railway telegrapher who was the son of moderately prosperous merchants in Snyder, Nebraska. Dorothy married and moved to Snyder when she was seventeen years old. She and John produced my aunt and my mother, but it was otherwise a disastrous match. My mother always said that Dorothy’s high spirits jolted the stolid Boltes into a fierce Teutonic contempt, and that Dorothy was not always wise, taunting and teasing her husband into rages. Once he knocked her out cold and my mother and aunt had to drag her upstairs to hide her from visitors; he even made the children answer the door and tell the visitors that she had a sick headache. My cousin says my aunt told her that John hit Dorothy because he caught her in the back yard kissing the milk man, but my aunt denies this and says that my cousin enjoys scandalous stories so much that she’ll make one up if need be. My mother also shrugs off this story—she’ll acknowledge some of her mother’s wildness, but not that much. But Dorothy was spirited, she likes to tell me. Once Dorothy and two friends—the unmarried Peltzer girls—put an addled old woman in a child’s red wagon and pulled her up and down the street. The old woman cackled and waved her arms gleefully, but this didn’t win Dorothy points with the Boltes or, for that matter, with anyone else in Snyder. Except perhaps the Peltzer girls, but since they were unmarried their opinions probably didn’t count.
Dorothy finally moved back to Wadsworth with my aunt and my mother, who was always sick in those days—the day they arrived in town, she still had a towel pinned around her waist to hold her appendectomy together. At first, John was supposed to follow. My mother remembers their 1920 departure from Snyder as a festive time: all their possessions spread under the trees for auction, all the townspeople coming to inspect the heavy divan and retired kitchen curtains and wish the family well. Once Dorothy and the girls were back in Wadsworth, though, she wrote John and told him not to come. She had her three brothers and one sister around her again—and they had their beloved Nutty Buttonshoes, as they called her. My mother thinks they encouraged her to divorce him. It was Nevada, after all.
Dorothy and the girls lived with my Uncle Fred and Aunt Stelle, and everyone doubled up for the newcomers, everyone shared rooms. There was one indoor bathroom and a privy outside and they used slop jars during the night. For as long as I’ve known my mother, she’s been highly particular about her toilette and wouldn’t think of going to Costco or Trader Joe’s or any of her favorite haunts without her travel kit of toilet-seat covers. Still, she thinks of those days as among the happiest of her life. They hiked along the Truckee River and played paper dolls with clothes clipped from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Uncle Fred owned a tavern called Crosby House, where the children amused themselves with the player piano and pool table. And back at the house, the formal living room had a regular piano and the whole family would gather to sing songs at night while Dorothy played. My mother taught me these songs years ago and I taught my daughter and she’ll probably teach hers, although it’s an odd legacy. Most of them are dreadfully sad, either having to do with a dead baby or a dead mother or a child—who will soon be dead—to whom other children are cruel. My mother and I sang these songs as we drove along in her Thunderbird when I was young, after all my brothers and sisters had left home for college, and we’d both cry. We still cry when we sing them. There were also a few songs that sentimentalized the West—“The West, A Nest and You” and “Long, Long Trail A Winding.” These make me weepy too, because I live so far away from California and because I’m admittedly sentimental about this dying flicker of the West—this mythology of campfires and paths between the pines and white stars piercing the black sky that must have sustained my parents when they lived in ramshackle logging towns at the edge of California’s forests, even though they worked so hard and so late that they probably never thought to walk out into the night and look up at the stars.
My mother tells me she thinks about Dorothy every day. It’s hard to imagine loving someone that much—at least, I’m not sure if there’s anyone I think about every day—but I guess it’s different when someone you love dies. I think more now about my sister Dorothy, who died last year, than I ever did when she was alive. For my mother, missing the first Dorothy is still an open wound. She misses her so much that when I pestered her with questions about Dorothy after I returned from my cross-country trip, she sent me an email one night to say that she had to go to bed and cry because my questions made her so sad. The sad parts of Dorothy’s life included two more unhappy marriages and her early painful death, when my mother was only twenty-four. A few years ago, my mother muttered darkly that I had inherited her mother’s bad luck with men: too many husbands and not a decent one among them. This was at a time when my mother was mad at my first husband and hadn’t yet met the man who would become my second but had terrible misgivings because he was from the south. She is now very fond of him and is relieved that multiple failed marriages don’t seem to be a family curse.
I’ve tried to summon Dorothy at different times in my life. I wanted to feel a strong female ancestor hovering over my shoulder—like Billy Burke as Glenda the Good in her all-seeing bubble—or sense her bright presence in my own blood and muscle and nerves. I wanted to believe she was silently guiding me along some wise path she’d had to figure out in her own life or maybe in her afterlife. I was never able to imagine Dorothy out of her picture frame, though—the picture that has always been on my mother’s bureau, no matter where she and my father live. In this picture, Dorothy’s hair is lush and waves along her cheeks, her eyes are dark with only a touch of reflected light, and her lips come together in a soft, wistful line. She didn’t look like that, my mother always says when I pick up the picture—the photograph was taken in her cancer year when she knew she was going to die. She said this again the last time I was home, then peered closely at me. “You look like her!” she said. I had already noticed this myself: a new haircut has my hair framing my face in just that way and the realignment makes all the other Dorothy features leap out: the cheekbones, the arc of the eyelids, the roundness at the tip of the nose.
While I was in California, my cousin, who lives in Reno, mentioned that Dorothy was buried in Wadsworth, not far from the stretch of Highway 80 that had carried me on my last miles into the west. I was excited and startled, not only because I’d never heard my mother mention Dorothy’s grave but also because it seemed too terribly corporeal for her. You expect something momentous when you drive for the first time to the town where your grandmother fled her dismal life, where long-dead cousins and aunts and uncles crowded around a piano to sing and cry, where your mother stood in her heels and best dress and held her sister’s hands as they watched their mother buried, both of them young and pregnant, both of them mama’s girls. I followed my cousin’s husband’s directions with great expectations, taking the road to the town, then driving over the bridge by the river, then turning left and clattering over cattle grates—it’s open range there—and following the river until I reached the cemetery.
I actually found two cemeteries side by side. There seemed to be a funeral going on in one of them—there were several cars and a group of people—so I picked the empty one to wander through. The land in every direction was desolate. The town itself seemed little more than a collection of mismatched boards, which I could see through the trees on the other side of the river. The trees were a November yellow, the ground was sandy and gray and tufted with sagebrush, and the mountains crimped away in the distance, stained different shades by something—maybe mineral deposits or tiny plants. The cemetery, the one I walked through first, bristled with color. It had brightly painted wooden crosses with garlands draped over them. There were flowers in ceramic pots and statues and pictures and necklaces and painted stones and handwritten notes. It looked as if all the gaudy remnants of each dead person’s life had been used to adorn their grave. It looked as if there had been a party—a wonderful party— each time people gathered to lay someone into the ground. I would want to be buried there.
I walked up and down the rows of graves with my dog, but I didn’t see my grandmother’s name. Then I went back to my car for my cell phone and walked down to the river. I called my cousin’s husband and shouted over the wind and water that I couldn’t find Dorothy’s grave.
“Can you see the railroad?” he asked, then thought a second. “That’s right—the railroad’s gone.”
“There are two cemeteries.”
“The one by the trees is the Indian cemetery,” he told me. “She’s in the one with the big metal fence.”
“They’re having a funeral in that one,” I said, then realized that they weren’t. “No, they’re throwing rocks at something.”
I watched as one of the men in the iron-scrolled cemetery aimed a flame-thrower at a small shrub. It burned for a few minutes, then the wind blew the flames out. Cell phone still at my ear, I walked into the cemetery as my cousin’s husband tried to remember where the grave was located—not that it was a big cemetery, but it was cold out and I still had forty hours of driving ahead of me and I was afraid my dog might pee on someone’s grave—I wanted to hurry up and find it. The people in the cemetery seemed to be fulfilling a civic obligation—they were picking up bottles, neatening the stones along paths, and torching sagebrush. Some of them were teenagers and they were trying to see how far they could throw the smaller rocks—over the iron fence and across the road into the river, or even to the other side of the river. They dropped their arms when a solitary truck drove along the road. I asked them if they knew where any of the Crosbys were buried, if Crosby House was still standing somewhere around Wadsworth, but they shook their heads. They looked amused at the sight of the cell phone and the dog, but left in a few minutes.
Then I finally found it: Dorothy buried between her parents, Jenny and James. I had expected a grander memorial for someone with two daughters who loved her so much, but remembered how poor they had been when she died. There was a purplish-gray tombstone with the name Dorothy Crosby Bolte—she’d gone to her grave with John’s name, after all—then the brief inscription, “Beloved mother and sister.” Below the tombstone, a mattress-shaped slab of concrete painted green covered the three graves. It might have looked at home in the Indian cemetery, but here it was merely garish. A few stones rested on the tombstone, left, I was sure, by my cousin. I thought I had a pretty stone from the Sierra Nevadas in my pocket, but there were only a dog biscuit and a quarter. I gave the biscuit to my dog and put the quarter on the tombstone, thinking it would have been worth something back in 1938. Then I called my mother.
“Guess what?” I said. “Guess where I am?”
It pleased her that I had stopped to pay my respects, if that’s what it was. As I brushed the dirt off the slab, I tried to work some emotion or connection into the moment. I tried to feel Dorothy—part of my DNA, after all—under the ground. I tried to feel the lasting tremor of my mother’s feet at the side of the grave, tried to feel the lingering quiver of the baby in her womb who would become my brother Dan. But there was nothing, only the whisper of the dust and dead leaves and the faint smell of burning.
Kristin Ohlson is the author of Stalking the Divine, an award-winning memoir. She is a freelance writer published in The New York Times, Salon, Utne, Discover, New Scientist, Ms, Oprah, Brain-Child, and more. Kristin lives in Cleveland, OH.
Kristin's novel excerpt Boom also is available at VerbSap.
Photo "Roadtrip 1" courtesy of Dieter Laskowski, Rochester, NY.
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