The last column I wrote for The Iowa Source appeared in December 2003 (“Now There is a Miracle”). I’ve written a piece now and again since, but returning to these pages on a regular basis after eight years, I feel as though I owe readers—or somebody—an accounting of myself. How have I been spending my time, if not on reporting to you from the heart of the country? What’s been going on? Well, plenty. Here’s the breakdown, year by year.
In 2004, shortly after my first novel was published, my husband and I bought the farm—I mean, the House, a former stagecoach inn built, according to Irving Weber, in 1856. Ours, we learned, was the only offer. Most people, or, as our children would say, sane people were probably scared off by the historic limestone foundation, a foot thick in some places, and in others, so thin that water features tended to spring from basement walls when it rained. We closed the deal in late September. By October, the two-story frame house sat in midair, it seemed, supported by the wooden pillars they call house jacks, looking for all the world like a ship in dry dock. To keep costs down, we did the interior demolition ourselves, with the help of our sane but generous children. I got to be pretty good with a Sawzall and even better with a giant crowbar.
In June 2005, we moved into the House. In 2006, we invited the neighborhood to a big 150-year birthday party at the House. In 2007, during the first and possibly last sabbatical of my late-blooming university career, I finally got a chance to live in the House year round.
In 2008—Year of the Wedding and of the Flood—we sandbagged the House, or at least the basement-level walkout, where, in years gone by, the stagecoach stopped. Suddenly owners of riverfront property, we watched the waves reflected on the ceiling of our second-story porch and got up every morning to see what had gone under overnight. The green mailbox at the bottom of our driveway disappeared to the tip of its little red flag before the river finally crested 14 inches below the House.
Luckily, the wedding came before the flood. Snowflakes falling outside the arched windows of Old Brick on March 22nd didn’t stop anyone, including relatives who drove through a blizzard to get there, from having the most fun they ever had at a wedding.
I’m not kidding. I wish I could show you three pictures: our daughter Liz in her strapless gown and Van in his tuxedo on the front steps of Old Brick, bride and groom, looking as if they are tickled, rather than freezing, to death; and Lauren, our youngest, the maid-of-honor, dancing in her green satin dress and the white running shoes she has to wear due to nerve injuries she sustained on her college ballroom-dance team; and finally, my mother and my son Jeff, the two of them striding arm in arm down the aisle with their best foot forward and exactly the same stern expression on their faces, looking as alike as an 82-year-old woman and her 32-year-old grandson could possibly look. If Robocop ever marched down an aisle with his grandmother, we would see the same long stride and seriousness of purpose.
In 2009 I got a chance to teach a summer writing course at Trinity College in Dublin. I’d never been to Ireland before. Yeats and Joyce vied with well-preserved bog people and megalithic passage tombs for my attention. I emailed the “final” draft of my second novel to my editor from Sligo, deep in Yeats country. You can’t get any more literary than that.
In August, I went to Fiera di Primiero, Italy, for a festival commemorating the World War I experiences of the locals, which happened to be very similar to those of Uncle Marko in my first novel. Some people working on the history exhibit had read The Turk and My Mother in Italian, and they invited me to be part of the program. Local volunteers read from the novel, a violinist provided musical intervals—playing “Hungarian Dance No. 5” at just the right place, when the blind Gypsy is teaching Uncle Marko to play it—and I answered questions with the help of a translator. All of this in a 15th-century palazzo in the mountains north of Venice! Plus, I got a chance to say, with feeling, in response to a tricky question about the war in my novel, “La guerra non e bella.” The audience applauded. What a trip!
In October 2009, I watched every game of the World Series—a first for me—on a wall-hung television in the Neurological ICU. Another first for me. I did not need to have a hole made in my head, I’m happy to say, although they stick you everywhere else with so many needles that you could put the punctures together to make a hole of considerable size.
In 2010, on August 25th, my daughter Liz called me at 5:32 p.m. to report the birth of our first grandchild, a 9-pound, 13-ounce boy named David—“but he’s more like Goliath!” she said. Less than a month later, my second novel was released. Who says a woman can’t have both the (grand)baby and the book?
In 2011, I went to Milwaukee to live with my mother for a few months while she worked on recovering from a stroke. We did a lot of Skyping with the new grandson in Omaha (my mother’s great-grand, of course). She loved to watch David on the computer screen, but only for a few minutes, after which she tended to wander away, on the grounds that she had “seen this one before. It’s cute.” David watched us on a big screen TV at his house. He’s 14 months old now and even when I’m in Omaha, if my daughter says, “Baka’s coming!” David looks, with excitement, at the TV. Who wouldn’t be excited about having a TV star for a grandmother?
Some things in my life haven’t changed. Last week, for example, my daughter Liz and I went to a They Might Be Giants concert in Omaha—our sixth or seventh, I believe. Her husband Van stayed home with the baby. If you happen to have your March 1999 issue of The Source handy, you can read about a legendary TMBG concert the Stefaniaks attended at the Iowa Memorial Union in 1994. Back then, we hopped non-stop through every song.
I still drive the roundtrip between Omaha and Iowa City almost weekly— when I don’t take the train or the Megabus—and I still look for my favorite oak grove near Avoca. (When a phalanx of windmills rises from the cornfields south of I-80, I know I’m almost there.) I still write things down in my little notebook—or on whatever scrap of paper I can find in the pocket of the driver’s side door—but don’t worry. I never text while driving. At the Henry Wallace rest stop near Adair, where tiers of low-till farmland fall away from the parking area, and the horizon appears to be within reach of my arm, I noted this:
A black cow walking across my field of vision, nothing but blue sky behind her, balancing right on the line we used to draw when we were kids to separate the green-brown earth from the sky. Then she turns away and steps over the line, disappearing (head first, hips last) below the horizon, a cow setting like the sun.
Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, winner of the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.