19 March 2009

Senior Thesis, part 1

I wrote a Senior Thesis when I graduated from Knox. I wanted to publish it here in several parts because it's kind of long. This is who I was in May 2003:
The house my mother grew up in has been painted. A deck has been added to the front stoop, the sidewalk where my uncles pressed handprints, torn out. Now, as I stand in the snow ten years after I was last inside of the house, I need to look away to remember everything. I look away to remember how the cement stoop, painted red, peeled in July heat or how, when I was six, I woke up from a nap one afternoon to hear my brother and father coming back from fishing. 
The things that make up memory, like this place (the cabin my grandmother had at Wolf Lake, the paddle-boat, the dock), decayed, fell over, turned upside down, were left behind in the snow. The space between them is closer now and I talk outloud about how they used to be as though, if I stop talking, I will forget. 
When I come to Ely, Minnesota in December of 2002, I am looking for my past. I am looking for John Omerza, my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, a man who is only a portrait: a photograph that rests, framed, on a hutch that contains my parents wedding dishes. This picture of Omerza and his wife on the day they were married shows him as he was, fat and noble. His wife looks tired. This picture, like the memory of Omerza, has been passed down. It’s my past—my mother’s past. 
In Ely, John Omerza disappears. He is sixty years old. I find an article about him while in Chisholm, Minnesota at the Iron Range Research Center. Appearing in The Ely Miner, July 3, 1947, the headline reads: “John Omerza Still Missing; $200 Reward Offered.” The article gives only sparse facts, nothing I hadn’t already learned from the myth my mother had told me. There’s mystery surrounding his disappearance, my mother says. His body hasn’t been found, the paper reports. No one knows what happened the day he walked away though some have said he drowned in the marsh at the family’s land, that he ventured too deep into the woods and didn’t see the quick sand as he slipped. 
I come to Ely looking for Omerza theoretically because he becomes a symbol of what sleeps in Minnesota underneath the snow. I come to Ely because I am afraid of not knowing who I am anymore, afraid that too many people will die, and afraid my history, like Omerza, will disappear. I come because I want to write something down and because I believe that through writing, I’ll become a part of the myth. 
In writing about John, I distort all the facts that I can. 
I stitch his story to my grandfather’s stories, my father’s father who served in World War II and survived. 
I stitch Grandpa Howard together with my Grandpa Tony, my mother’s father who served in Korea and whose memory is encased in love letters he wrote my grandmother. I read these letters signed, “Darling, I love you always.” I evaluate his life and use what facts I want to move my stories forward. 
I write about myself more than I want to—about watching Heather sleep on my parents’ couch.
I add in all the fiction I can find about mines in Ely because I am interested in mining and my great-Grandfather Jamnick was a miner. 
I write about collapses in the mines (the metaphor is obvious, my writing instructors say). 
I write about finding myself. 
I write about killing a man. 
I write the stories my uncle tells me over the phone, and though he tells me not to write them down, I write every word. 
I write about learning to drive at my grandmother’s cabin. 
I write about watching minnows scatter in the lake, about fishing, about holding my head above water. 
I write the names I carry: Ravnikar, Omerza, Albie, Pihlaja, Jamnick. 
I write everyone I know who is dead. 
And in this mess of fact and fiction, I am afraid I will inaccurately depict my family’s history. John Omerza lived a real life, and I am afraid to venture into his real world, how he really treated those who were around him. Instead, I hide behind the fiction, my stories of Omerza going to war when, in fact, John Omerza was more than sixty years old in 1947, sitting in a bank somewhere uptown. I wrap myself in my stories because there’s nothing incriminating in fiction. It isn’t really about Omerza, I have trained myself to say. I used just his name, nothing else. This is what writers do. 
In Ely, Minnesota, fact is only what has been remembered. In the Ely-Chisholm Historical Society, only small displays narrated on audiotapes by the miners who were there are left. They only know what they remember. The curator I tour the museum with is very curt with me, but as I gain her trust, she tells me things. Together, we lean over the glass case that holds a miniature layout of the Chandler area and all the mines that have been there. 
This is where your grandfather would have worked, she says, pointing. 
I make a sketch on the back of a brochure. 
I interview Tauno Maki, an old miner and distant relative. He is Finn, like me, and he laughs when I ask him about the word Bohunk, our racial slur. 
You’ve learned that one then? he says, his eyes warm like my grandfather’s eyes. 
I walk the streets of Ely and realize that when I write about Vertin’s, this will be real. I eat there. I sit in the same booth as Omerza. 
I visit the Soudan National State Park, the only place in the Iron Range where you can still go underground and tour the stopes and drifts into the greenstone. The cage hasn’t been replaced since the mine closed in 1946. 
But fact, like fiction, is less about what has been and more about what is now. I realize this, finally, as I descend into the Soudan Mine. The rattling of this cage against the walls of the shaft is the same rattling my great-grandfather Jamnick heard. As I grip for the sides, I am gripping the same walls my grandfather did. 
And in this collapse of space, this ride down into the greenstone, I stumble upon John Omerza, disappeared in the summer of 1947, a real man. My great-great-grandfather. He did walk away, that part I did not create. And though this story I am telling is entirely fiction, it is, at the same time, more true than anything I can write.