Illinois, Illinois

“Tell me about your corner of the world,” the hairdresser says. She yanks a comb through my hair, which is thick enough and wavy enough to flummox her. She’s already asked me if it’s natural, if I put anything in it, if I dye it.

I’m not sure what she’s asking now. “Plainsboro?” I ask. I picture our tiny apartment a few miles from this salon: the city park behind the complex, the tall bushy nameless trees.

The hairdresser brandishes her scissors. “You said you were from Illinois,” she prompts. I’m surprised she doesn’t pronounce the S at the end, as so many native Mid-Atlantic speakers do, in a way that makes them sound as nasally as my compatriots back home.

It’s been close to nine years since I packed a load of things into my parents’ minivan to move to the East Coast, and nine years, except for a brief summer internship in Chicago, since I really lived there. Nine years ago, I would have (and probably did) natter on about the Rockford Peaches and Jane Addams and Abraham Lincoln and possibly even Ronald Reagan, our most native sons. For that matter, I would have told the story of Black Hawk.

But now, as the hairdresser trims the underside of my unruly hair flip, what I picture is the land (flat, endless) and the sky (wide, endless). I think about the possibilities there, and the past. I see green and blue. I see corn, of course, and soy beans.

“Are there lots of lakes?” she asks.

She is thinking of Minnesota, probably, or perhaps Wisconsin, and I doubt she knows the difference. I doubt she could discern Indiana from Illinois on a map. I say, “Sure,” but I don’t tell her about Lake Michigan, because easterners don’t understand about the Great Lakes, and I don’t tell her about the swimming holes near Oregon, Illinois, the swollen river near Starved Rock State Park. These feel like secrets. They feel like treasures meant to be shared only with those who already know how to appreciate them.

It’s not that absence has made my heart grow fonder of my home state: I go back two or three times a year, to visit family and to do research. But I do look at it now like a visitor, like a writer. I see its texture; I feel the weighty dizziness of a vast open sky and the sight of a storm coming in from a dozen miles off. I want to know the names of all of its flowers and trace the routes of all its rivers.

The hairdresser tugs at a curl then and in the mirror I see her grimace at the effort.

“It’s flat,” I say, and maybe it’s what she’s expecting. “It’s really flat.”

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Thanksgiving

The instructions say, Make sure the skillet is screamin’ hot, and I can hear those directions drawled in my mother-in-law’s East Texas accent.

A year ago now, maybe two, I stopped calling my mother-in-law every time I wanted to make her cornbread—real cornbread, she would tell you, because the recipe doesn’t call for flour. Early on in our relationship, I scrawled her cornbread recipe onto the back cover of a bread cookbook I later found annoying, not worth keeping, and tossed, along with my only copy of the simple, six-ingredient cornbread recipe my mother-in-law could, can, rattle off with a sigh that hints she might never get tired of passing this recipe along.

This week my wife and her mother and sister are converging on the family dairy in East Texas. Almost two years ago, I made a similar trek with my mother-in-law, and together we went through that house, cleaning and scrutinizing and packing and hemming and hawing. We climbed on the roof to pull down tree branches. We turned a power washer on the wasp nests that clung to the house’s mortar. We hacked at bushes and pored over photo albums and drove back and forth from the farm to town, the sky roiling with storm clouds, as tornadoes have threatened every one of my visits to Texas.

On the last day, we trooped into the western store and I bought another pair of cowboy boots because my mother-in-law told me to and they were on sale. We killed time during a rainstorm in a couple of resale shops, petting the store cat and chatting up the lady who sold me an eggbeater and a sock monkey kit. We made fried pie in the last pan in the dairy’s kitchen, the store-bought crust browning in the seasoned skillet as my mother-in-law poked the pies with a fork so they would not burn. I watched her place teaspoons of jam in each corner of pie crust, roughly torn from the package, and carefully plop the triangle of pie into hot oil that popped and sizzled to produce a basic delicacy I was only just discovering. There was no recipe this time, just brains and experience.

The last time I called my mother-in-law for the cornbread recipe I finally had the sense to write it down. The scrap paper is stuck to my refrigerator door, along with my parents’ waffle recipe, a foolproof no-yeast pizza dough recipe I finagled from a friend, and Fannie Farmer’s basic tart crust recipe. These are the standards in my kitchen, the starting points of nearly all the meals I cook. When I made cornbread most recently, a few days before my wife joined her mother and sister in Texas, I let the skillet get a little too hot and this time it was the smoke alarm that screamed until we hauled the smoking pan outside and flipped on all the ceiling fans.

Sometimes I catch sight of those scraps of paper on our fridge and hear the voices that dictated those recipes—the Wisconsin twang of my mother’s memories about growing up with the waffle iron on every Saturday morning; the Indiana lilt of my pizza-making friend’s promise that this was an easy dough to freeze; the Pennsylvania laughter of my pie aficionado friend, who receives a portion of nearly every pie I bake because I have learned church lady hospitality from her. My mother-in-law’s precise, soft Texas insistence that the skillet be screamin’ hot. The cornbread and the boots and fried pie are not part of my history, but they’re some of the scraps of stories I’ll tell whatever descendants might come, about the ancestors that nourished me, all of me, even when I couldn’t get the accent right.

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