I’ve always had a thing for technology. Sometimes it’s a love/hate thing, but a “thing” nonetheless. I used to dream of the day I’d fit a computer in my pocket, but thought I’d be much older and much grayer when it happened. It took spending some time in my hometown a few months ago to realize that “being connected” doesn’t always include WiFi.
Sheldon, Wisconsin, is not what one would call a metropolis. When I was a kid, it was a little more bustling than now, but not much. We had a corner store, actually called “The Corner Store,” and a bar. When my parents and I moved there when I was 8, I assumed the kids in my class wouldn’t know what a computer even was, let alone be smarter than me. Yes, I was a snob. Coming from the “big” city of St. Paul, Minnesota, I didn’t know that life existed anywhere else. It was really a marvel to me that my classmates even knew what Sears was. I got that same feeling on my last trip there.
My father was not tech savvy. My sister went so far as to get him a newish computer a few years ago. He never turned it on. Then it’s no surprise he didn’t have an Internet connection at his house that I would be stuck in for about a week. When you work virtually, as I do, lack of a reliable WiFi connection is not necessarily the end of the world, but when you factor in that I couldn’t even get cell phone reception there, it’s a bit of a problem.
The reason for my last trip was to clean out my childhood home. Instead of beginning the grieving process (my father died on Halloween), I did nothing but bitch about how I couldn’t get any work done. My clients were aware that I was out of commission for awhile, but work gave me an excuse to get away from my siblings for five minutes. We all need that. You can probably imagine that no coffee shops with WiFi exist in little Sheldon. The closest place I found was a McDonald’s in Ladysmith, roughly a half hour drive away. Since we needed RV antifreeze (don’t ask), I used it as an excuse to get out and said I had to do some work that required Internet. Plus, it would probably be the last time I drove that route I had driven hundreds of times during adolescence.
I took the “back way.” Really, every way is the “back way” when you live in the sticks, but I took what was the less beaten path from when I was young. The road was paved now– nice. The old junk yard was still there. It was actually a house with piles of junk in the yard, but my Dad had always called it “The Junk Place” or “The Sty.” The old cheese factory was now a car dealership– weird transition? And then the memories came flooding back.
I ran over a dead skunk, yes dead, in front of the cheese factory, not long after getting my driver’s license. I was laughing with Jill so I didn’t notice it. After I ran over it, we laughed even harder. Fortunately, it didn’t smell up my car. Then there was the ditch I spun into and took out a row of corn.
Again, not long after I got my license, I was driving home from cheerleading practice when my windows fogged up. It was one of those muggy late-summer days and I didn’t know that air conditioning could fog up windows. Instead of pulling over to let it clear, I decided to look through the bottom of the windshield. Doing so caused me to drift to the right side of the road. Realizing it, I over corrected, spun around across the other lane of traffic and landed in the cornfield. The farmer who owned the field pulled my car out with his tractor. Only a tiny piece of plastic from the front bumper broke off in the ordeal, which my dad noticed a couple of days later. If he knew what happened, he never said anything. Then, for some reason, I remembered when he gave me a lecture about my future.
Being an auto mechanic, my Dad never understood why I wanted to be a writer. He thought I should be a lawyer or engineer, or work with computers.
“You’ve been using computers since kinniegarten,” he said. “You’re going to be one of the smartest people in the world because of that. Do something with it.”
He always worried about my writing career. When people asked him what I did for a living, he said, “She works on computers.” Technically true, but he didn’t know that “working on computers” meant something different than “writing.” The people at his church would ask about my work, realizing that my dad was proud of me for “working on computers.”
“I’m a writer,” I’d reply, and then explain that I wrote about business, technology and other things. They’d smile. They knew the 21st Century was lost on my Dad.
Pulling into the McDonald’s, I saw people wearing their barn boots. Yep, nothing had changed. It was a big deal when that McDonald’s opened when I was in high school. Many of the kids in my class got jobs there. When I knew they were working the drive-thru, I’d go there just to torture them, making it sound like the speaker was breaking up and other things, like trying to order Chinese food. I wanted to work there too, but Dad didn’t want me to waste money on gas.
Walking in, however, the place was not the same. It had counters that were conducive to people with laptops, complete with outlets. It seemed smaller, somehow. I ordered breakfast to feel less guilty about using the WiFi.
People stared. I clearly looked like I didn’t belong there in my oversized beanie, Macbook and Uggs. Wait, that wasn’t it. I looked like a dirty transient who hadn’t showered in days. And while I could have worked, I just sat there, staring at my screen, and I burst into tears. In that moment, I realized that I was an orphan, as much as one can be in their mid-30s.
I’d kept it together for as long as I could. The drive and the memories that resurfaced were too much. While I had many good memories, I had plenty of bad. And I knew that I’d never be in Ladysmith or Sheldon, ever again. Nothing was left there for me. Once the house was cleaned out, that was it. I was losing my childhood.
When I got back to the house, it was buzzing with people I’d never seen before. I didn’t see one family member and suddenly felt panicked. When I finally found my aunt, she told me the people were from my Dad’s church. It made me feel a little better, but it still felt like they were ransacking the place. My brother kept himself busy in the garage.
“What the hell is all this?” I asked him. He shrugged and kind of rolled his eyes, and went back to going through his newly inherited tools. Clearly, our sister had set this up and didn’t tell either one of us.
Going back into the house, people kept asking me where my sister was. When I asked what they needed, as I was perfectly capable of making decisions, I was met with, “Oh, we better make sure that’s ok with your sister.” OK. I wasn’t needed. I went into the backyard.
The house sat on five acres of land. A river ran through it and we had a basketball court. I was the only one of my siblings to grow up there. In that moment, I realized how lucky I’d been and that I actually cared about Sheldon.
When I walked down the first hill to the basketball court, I looked out over the rest of the property and the river. We used to play football there. Over there, Dad showed me how to shoot a gun. Trish and I walked back there to sneakily smoke cigarettes. More tears started flowing.
I walked down the second hill to the river and wailed. The river was always a calming place for me. It’s where I sat nearly 20 years earlier when my Mother was dying. But this day, I think the river knew I needed to cry. It was the only one who understood.
I pulled out my phone, knowing it was a brick. I didn’t want to call anyone, but felt the uncontrollable need to take as many pictures of this place as I could. Dad was fascinated that I had a computer that fit into my pocket.
“So this thing is a camera?” he once asked.
“Sort of, it’s a phone with a built-in camera. It’s just easier than carrying two things around,” I said.
“I’ll be, in my lifetime. Do you work on that thing? I always knew you’d be good with computers.” And on the conversation would go.
In that moment by the river, I felt thankful. I’d never felt thankful for Sheldon. I always blamed it for holding me back, but it made me who I am. The people there made me who I am, for better or worse. And those people were in my old house, cleaning out my Dad’s bedroom because I couldn’t bear to do it. Being connected suddenly meant something different.
Photography by Mar Andras