On Grail Quests and My Hometown

Mittrione's Italian Market

Mittrione’s Italian Market


What I’m noticing on this trip back to Indiana is the astonishing number of buzzards. They scope out their dinner options, catch currents and circle over cornfields, often in clusters of three. It’s eerie. When I was a kid, I might occasionally see a lone vulture feasting on some road kill, but now the sheer number of these things is otherworldly, as if they are trying to tell us something. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.


As I drive through this town of my youth, I think about the recent spate of shootings and burglaries and drug busts, the derelict properties, the businesses that have closed. My outlook on this trip is grim, though I have no real reason for it other than summer is coming and heat always makes me think the world is about to end. May has not always been the kindest month to me, but I haven’t been obsessing about the diagnoses, the deaths, the goodbyes, or last summer’s broken toe, so that’s no answer either.


The buzzards circle and I see one more thing that doesn’t look the way it did in 1978, and my eye twitches.


These particular creatures are reminding me a little too much of the second half of Excalibur when King Arthur is wasting away, his kingdom crumbling around him, because he’s just found out that Lancelot and Guinevere have betrayed him, and the external landscape matches his mood: grapes wither on the vine, pastures turn brown, and the corpses of knights who have failed at the grail quest line the roads of mythic England. This is my least favorite part of the movie (and that is saying a lot considering the rape, incest, sorcery, grisly battle scenes, and truly horrible Irish accents with the exception of Liam Neeson’s). More than once, I have hit the fast forward button to skip these depressing scenes in order to get to the part where Perceval discovers that the grail is not a thing after all, but is, instead, an idea: the king and the land are one. He rides through the countryside, a sort of Medieval Paul Revere, shouting his discovery, Arthur gets the message, perks up, and, and voilà, the crops start growing and everything greens up. (If you like your stories to end on a happy note, I recommend that you quit watching as soon as the land begins to blossom.)


I don’t like looking at my hometown with this lens.


I’ve been living in Seattle for four years come August, and because I’m gone for four or five months at a time, when I come back, I notice subtle differences and I have strong, internal reactions to these changes. It can be anything from a closed business, bulldozed 19th century mansion, or a stoplight that is now set permanently on blink. I have this irrational sense that Richmond should have written and asked my permission before proceeding with the alterations.


I also bristle at changes that my people make themselves. I will never get used to Leibovitz’s kitchen remodel. It’s lovely, but I miss the now-dated, fruity wallpaper border that I watched her hang one night before her daughters were born—daughters who refuse to remain in footy pajamas and are, instead, teenagers now, one of whom will insist on driving.


Two days ago Mom and I were at the post office mailing a package and she addressed a box with the city on a single line and the state on another, and I found myself spluttering, an action that heretofore I’d only seen in comic strips and had no idea I was capable of. This is the woman who taught me how to address things properly, and now, suddenly, she’s putting Indiana on it’s own line, like she’s unilaterally decided it is its a country. I demanded that she tell me why she’d done this, and she gave me a brief history of the different ways packages have been officially addressed in the course of her lifetime, but no real explanation as to why she’s made this change. She said something like, “This is how I’ve always done it,” and I was shaking my head because I know it is not how she’s “always” done it. I pursed my lips in disapproval. I didn’t mean to, but I could feel them pursing and once they start pursing, I can’t stop them. Mom has always been a rule follower and now suddenly she’s going against USPS addressing guidelines to put her own flourish on packages? All the way out to the car I had to give myself a talking to about how I need to be more malleable, that I can’t expect things to stay exactly as they were when I left in 2010. Businesses close. Traffic patterns change. Mom is a free agent and can address a package as creatively as she wants and as long as that zip code is on there, chances are the package will get delivered.


Clearly the problem is not with Richmond or my people, but instead, a problem with my perspective. Sure, the crime and the economy, but there are good things happening here too. If nothing else (and there is plenty “else”), Richmond should win major awards for the awesome historical murals that dot the downtown and illustrate its glorious past and contributions to American culture. It’s much more colorful than it was in my youth. The roads are uncongested. People spend a lot more time and energy on lawn care here than they do in the Pacific Northwest, so there is plenty of lovely. People are friendly. Nobody questions my food choices here and insists I must eat quinoa instead of mashed potatoes. Nobody forces me to hear all the reasons I should do a little hiking on the side of a live volcano in Indiana. (In fact, “lack of live volcanoes” should be put on the tourist brochures as a selling point for this place.) Richmond has changed, yes, but it is just like other towns–and people–around the country trying to find its place in world.


If Arthur had adapted more graciously instead of moping when the loyalty of those closest to him shifted, Camelot would have stayed paradise. If I’d adapt to the notion that nothing is static, I wouldn’t have to write frantic blog posts about how my own sense of history is disappearing before my eyes or how my people have gone right on living their lives in my absence.


When Jane’s husband graduated from our alma mater our junior year, he said mournfully, “I want them to laminate this place after I’m gone.” At the time, I thought he was joking, but now, I think maybe that’s all any of us want, including King Arthur: lamination of all the places and people we love, exactly when we loved them most.


For me, I’d choose the period of time before the buzzards were circling Wayne County so frequently.

6 responses »

  1. Excellent! I feel much the same whenever I go to S-ville. My returns are more closely spaced but my expectations and responses to “what is” as opposed to “what was” always tend to throw me for a loop. Still, I must keep in mind that.the “good old days” for me surely felt like the beginning of loss of “all things good” to my parents and grandparents. All that being said, I still find myself saddened by how Richmond has changed since I moved here in 1973. Wish I would have thought to laminate it then (minus new husband and addng you and your mom, of course) 😊.

    • I can still remember Aunt Clara in her later years lamenting how much Richmond had changed. Then, she cited the Second National Bank’s name change and the removal of the monkeys from the park.

      And how lucky we’re we that you arrived in 1973?

  2. Too bad they can’t replace the buzzards with the monkeys! (Did they really have them in the park at one time??)

    I didn’t remember the “lamination” quote, but sometimes when I go back to AU I wish I could peer into the past and see it the way it was when we left it.

    Just watched “Grosse Pointe Blank” again today and it seems appropriate to quote John Cusack here: “You can’t go home again. But I guess you can shop there.”

    • Richmond’s Glen Miller Park had one of the twenty worst “zoos” in the U.S. clear up until the late 80s. The monkeys were inbred and disturbing to watch, the lions broke my heart, pacing in their tiny cage with nothing but a bowling ball to push around, and don’t even get me started on the bear. I’m no fan of zoos in general, but this place was like the Tower of London for animals (and not the part where they keep the crown jewels).

      Dave did say that. We were sitting on the green across from Co-Ed. It was hard for us to imagine AU without him and I don’t think we would have minded being laminated.

  3. My goodness! My last viewing of Excalibur was before either Helen Mirren as Morgan le Fay or Liam Neeson as Gawain would have registered with me. Great movie, though.

    One good thing about Austin’s being both Austin and part of Texas is that one can order either quinoa or mashed potatoes without causing the bat of an eye (or the eye of a bat, for that matter). I think I’ve told you about the Austin friend recalling Hoosier cuisine with the question, “Why do they serve chicken and dumplings with mashed potatoes AND a dinner roll? Correct answer (which she arrived at immediately): “Because they’re good!” When I saw Big Night (another great movie), I wanted to scream, “Just serve her the side of pasta with the risotto! There’s nothing wrong with ordering that!”

    The last time I was in Richmond, the only places I felt at peace were on the Earlham campus or the grounds of the cemetery. Maybe I can’t cope just yet with how much our town has changed. The recent photos of the derelict Reid Memorial Hospital were too much for me.

    • I fear if you saw Earlham right now it wouldn’t please you either, John. Mom, Mac, and I walked around kvetching about all the green space that has been demolished for new buildings and the banners advertising Earlham (as if those there aren’t already sold). Our criticism was constant and relentless, and then we started laughing because we realized we are not alumni nor faculty, and we were only there to let our borrowed dog relieve himself so perhaps should keep our opinions to ourselves.

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