Camp Grandma convened this summer at Grandma’s new house in Illinois, just one state over from Indiana, where she used to live. You would be forgiven if you got confused between which state is which, if you were driving on one of the many small farm roads that criss-cross these states: lots of corn and soybeans, the occasional picturesque silo, a cow or two. I grew up in Illinois and consider my mother’s time in Indiana a minor aberration; in family lore we credit her doorbell ringing and phone-banking with why Indy went blue for Obama in ’08; it went for Romney in ’12, as mom was getting ready to move out of state.
These states are flyover country, as those on the coasts like to call it, or sometimes “the heartland,” usually by a politician trolling for votes or a CEO announcing more manufacturing plant closures. Why this part of the country is still called “the heartland” I’m not sure. Does America like to pretend it’s still an agrarian country, even though according to the 2010 census, more than 80% of the population lives in cities? Does it mean that this flown-over swath of land is somehow the pulse of the country? If so, that means the pulse of the country–my mother’s efforts notwithstanding–beats red: the heartland went mostly Republican in 2012 (although Iowa and Illinois went for Obama).
And I guess the election maps don’t lie: the heartland is home to a host of people who seem hell-bent on out-TeaPartying each other: consider Michelle Bachman, although don’t think too hard about her or your head will explode; or Ohio’s John Kasich, who just signed some of the most restrictive reproductive rights laws in the country; or John Thune from Nebraska, who says that the family is the most basic unit of government (and is against gay marriage, natch). The heart of the country, it seems, beats red with fear of People Who Are Different.
“Different” in this context of course means “people who aren’t exactly like I am and thus must be weird and dangerous and somehow controlled, patrolled, quarantined.”
Sometimes, then, it’s a grim exercise to read the local newspaper out here (although let’s face it, reading any newspaper anywhere these days feels like a pretty grim exercise). Almost daily I think that the world is going to hell in a handbag–and not even a designer handbag, but a cheap handbag, some faux-leather knockoff.
But visiting my mom this time, I’ve seen a tiny glimmer of hope, in a rather unexpected place.
The other day, out here in Americana-ville, where the trees are big and green and fluffy, and the hiss of the sprinklers competes only with the sounds of birds, my kids dragged a plastic wagon filled with water balloons out to the front yard. My stepfather, an African American (who voted for Hilary, god love him, in the 2008 primary), orchestrated a massive water balloon battle with my two kids, who call my stepfather Grandpa (and whose biological grandparents come from Chicago…and Karachi and Manila) and the two boys next door, whose gay fathers adopted them from Guatamala, and the six-year old girl across the street whose hair is so short that Caleb spent the entire afternoon thinking that she was a boy.
They played for hours, these kids, moving to hoses and water guns when the water balloon supply ran out; they played without thinking about who had what kind of parent or whose skin was dark brown or light brown or white with freckles; they screamed and laughed and slipped on the wet grass, and they were at home in the heartland.