Behind My Writing

Grandfather Steve and writer Sam

To magnify…illuminate…inspire…find meaning…engage deep mysteries…and to enable one to feel again.  These represent some of my aspirations for the personal essays I write.  They are mostly the results of my exploration of what it has meant, and means, to have grown up in Indiana—or as writer Abigail Thomas[1] put it, this is “the story of how I got here from there.”  In my essays, I consider how ‘there and then’ has helped to define the me who is ‘here and now.’

There are three central questions that have informed my explorations and are common to us all:

Who am I?

How did I become who I am?

Who am I becoming?

Writer Vivian Gornick[2] cautions that one should not expect to find complete answers to such questions, but should seek to attain a “depth of inquiry.”  During my career at the university, I learned that inquiry usually results in more questions being created than answered.  That has also been my experience in writing essays.  But this chasing of my tail through inquiry, of generating more questions than I have answered, has not discouraged me.  It has, in fact, been one of the most rewarding and renewing endeavors I have ever undertaken.

So who am I?  I am a native Hoosier, and although I haven’t lived in Indiana for more than forty years now, I think of it almost every day and draw inspiration from my recollections of the place and the people I knew there.  My passion has grown in recent years to explore, in writing, the story of my connection to this “native ground”—the place I knew before I had words for such knowledge.  But why write about this now?  Some amazing circumstances have nudged me along the path, such as the miraculous discovery of a journal that my grandmother kept during her trip to Europe in 1911.  I have also found some treasured family photographs that I had never seen before, each of which has fueled this quest.  But fundamentally, this exploration for me has been mostly about a desire to, as memoirist Patricia Hampl has phrased it, “find out what I know.”[3] And in this respect, I aspire to better know who I am, how I became who I am, and who I am becoming.  I regard myself as a sojourner, and I invite you, the reader, to undertake this journey with me as you engage recollections of and reflections on my life stories.  I trust that they will be good company for you as you find your own path to deeper self-understanding.

Knowing myself starts in Indiana.  I was born in Terre Haute and reared in a middle-class home in a quiet residential neighborhood near the municipal stadium and the major east-west railroad line.  My family was selected in 1951 by a national magazine as “the typical American family.”  Terre Haute was at that time the city nearest to the population center of the United States.  As the magazine article described, my family in Terre Haute was “a symbol of the heartland of America.”  My parents also fit some of the statistical norms of the day; for example they were white, native-born, Protestant, married, and had two children.  My father was a World War II veteran, and worked as an accountant at a Terre Haute manufacturing factory.  My “typical” mother had worked as a school teacher during the war, but had quit when I was born and become a homemaker.  This lasted until my brother and I were into our elementary school years when she went back to teaching.

I was one of about twenty-five students in Terre Haute in 1958 who were selected to be part of an experimental seventh-grade homeroom class at one of the local junior high schools.  We were enrolled in an “advanced” curriculum of science, math and literature.  The creation of this class was inspired by the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in the previous year.  In the aftermath of that event, some in the Terre Haute schools concluded that U.S. education was lagging well behind that of the Soviet Union.  Those of us chosen for that “accelerated” class were to become the next generation of rocket scientists to help “close the gap with the Russians.”  That 7th grade experience was the most memorable and difficult year I ever faced in school, including my university studies.

Always striving to excel in school, I graduated as salutatorian in my high school class in Terre Haute and enrolled at Purdue University where I initially majored in forestry.  That soon changed to biochemistry, and since it was the time of the Vietnam War,  I also enrolled in Air Force ROTC.  That committed me to a four-year tour of duty after college, during which I served as a launch officer for Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles at an airbase in Wyoming.

Although reared in Terre Haute, the area of southern Indiana around Jackson and Martin Counties is most important to the essays I write about my childhood and family.  Those areas represent my “native ground.”  There, as a child and younger adult, I encountered the persons and places that nurtured the interests, passions and values that are still important to me today.  One of these people was my maternal grandmother, Christine Lebline Rapp.  She had a significant role in defining my current interests in nature, agriculture, geology, archaeology, the arts, my family heritage and spirituality.   Some of my essays explore my life in relation to her and what I learned from her.  Others consider places and things that I shared with her and deeply associate with my memories of her.  Still other essays focus on her life before she was my grandmother.  Yet they are still a part of my journey of self-exploration.  Although my Grandmother Christine died in 1967, I still think of her and draw inspiration from her on a daily basis.

So who was she?  Christine Lebline was born in Jackson County, Indiana, in December 1888, the first-born of her parents, Woodford and Lucy.  Her grandfather, John Lebline, had emigrated to the United States from Bavaria in 1854.  He landed in New York, and although he had intended to come directly to the community of Rockford in Jackson County, he went by mistake to Rockport along the Ohio River near Evansville.  For reasons that are not clear, he then went to St. Louis where he stayed for nine months before walking back to Rockford.  Family lore says that he arrived in Rockford with just fifty cents to his name.  After working as a hired hand for a time, he purchased eighty acres of land along the White River.  He cleared that land to grow crops and eventually expanded his farm to 350 acres by the time of his death in 1913.

Christine’s father and mother were married in 1887. After John’s wife died in 1892, his son Woodford, Lucy, Christine and their second daughter, Matilda moved into the Lebline home with him, which was located in the village of Rockford about two miles north of Seymour.  Rockford had been a thriving river and railroad center in the mid-1800s with more than five hundred inhabitants, a meatpacking house, gristmills, harness and blacksmith shops, a church and saloons.  But by the time John moved to Rockford in 1856, it had begun declining in importance, partly because of a decision to route the east-west Ohio and Mississippi (O & M) railroad line through Seymour rather than Rockford.  Seymour was, in fact, named after the railroad’s civil engineer who made that choice.

Christine excelled in school.  Her literary interests were encouraged by friendships she formed with women in her community who loaned her books and magazines from their personal libraries.  She graduated from the local high school in Seymour in 1906 and enrolled in DePauw University at Greencastle in the fall.  She was the first person in her family, man or woman, to attend college; her parents had not gone beyond primary school in their formal educations.  After one year at DePauw, Christine and her best friend from Rockford transferred to Indiana University from which she graduated in 1910 with a major in German.  After spending the summer at IU serving as an assistant to her language professor, Christine was hired to fill a last-minute vacancy teaching German at the high school back in Seymour.

In the summer of 1911, following her first year of teaching, Christine embarked on the greatest adventure of her life to that point, an almost two-month excursion to Europe to see the sites and to reinforce her language skills.  She was just 23 years old and her most exotic travel experience before that time had been a group tour with her mother to Niagara Falls as a young girl.  After Christine returned from Europe, she resumed her teaching responsibilities at Seymour High.  Also during that time, she and several friends jointly purchased a log cabin on a hill west of Nashville in Brown County.  This cabin was located next to the home of artists Will and Mary Vawter, and Christine formed a close friendship with them that lasted until they died over thirty years later.  She also became acquainted with others of the early Brown County artists.  She owned and used her cabin until the 1950s.

In 1913, Christine eloped with her boyfriend, John Rapp.  He was older than she and the brother of her best childhood friend and college roommate, Clara.  John did not have much interest in school and left after eighth grade to begin farming with his father.  By the time he and Christine were married, John’s father had died, so they moved into his family’s home on the Rapp farm.  They began expanding the operation and purchased additional land owned by some neighbors who had moved away.  John sought to diversify his operation by beginning to mine sand and gravel from a stretch of White River that bordered his farm.

The first of John and Christine’s four children, daughter Margaret, was born in 1918; she became my mother.  On New Year’s Eve that same year, their house burned to the ground and they had to move into another house located on the neighboring land they had purchased a few years before.  They lived in that house for almost four years while planning and re-building their original home. Christine designed the new house and incorporated several distinctive architectural features that she had admired on another house in Seymour.  Twins, John and Julia, were born while they still lived in their temporary quarters, and they finally made the move into their new home just before the birth of their fourth child, Ingleby, in 1923.

Then the bottom fell out.  Christine discovered that John was having an affair with another woman in a nearby community, and an acrimonious time ensued in their marriage.  Christine filed for divorce in 1927, and although she and John attempted reconciliation in early 1928, his continuing relationship with the other woman led Christine to finalize the divorce later that year.  In the settlement, Christine was granted custody of the children and ownership of the farm.  John moved to Seymour and later to Indianapolis where he married a woman he met there and continued to live the rest of his life.

During the 1920s, Christine embraced the Christian Science faith, which most certainly influenced her during those difficult times.  With assistance of her family, neighbors and hired help, Christine navigated her farm through The Depression and continued as a farmer for the remainder of her life.   She stayed connected with Indiana University and through its various music and literary programs.  Three of her children graduated from colleges and the fourth became a successful executive secretary.  Christine never remarried.

I was a junior in college at Purdue University when my grandmother died in January of 1967.  She had experienced some minor strokes and was living with my family in upstate New York.  I had just seen her during a break from school when I had visited my parent’s home over the holidays.  My parents called early one week to tell me she had died, and I decided to drive to Seymour from Purdue to be with the family at my grandmother’s funeral on Friday.  My grandmother was the first person who was close to me who had died; I had been to only one other funeral before then, that of my grandfather John.  His death had not affected me much since I was younger at that time and we were not close.

My grandmother’s death was different.  I drove to Seymour after classes on Thursday and arrived in time to attend the viewing at a local funeral home.  I didn’t know many of the people who had gathered there, other than family, so later that evening I abruptly decided to return to Purdue that night.  I explained that I had some school business to attend to the next day.  No one, as I recall, objected to my not staying for the funeral itself.   I’ve since concluded that one of my strongest, and perhaps deepest motivations for writing  essays based on my relationship with my Grandmother Christine has been to “close the circle” with her, which is something I did not do years ago.

There is one more family character from my childhood who is a key figure in some of my personal essays–my paternal grandfather Lee Simmons.  He is distinctive as a person in my family whom I never knew in person.  He died in a railroad accident 22 years before I was born.  Yet in my childhood imaginations, I made him into the grandfather I never had, yet always wanted.  And he, like my Grandmother Christine, has come to me recently through the discovery of family photos and other heirlooms that I have never known before.

A final way that I am closing the circle through by essay writing has been in reflecting upon my experiences as a grandfather myself.  My first grandchild, Samuel, was born in 2009 and I have been discovering first-hand what this new stage of life means for me.  It is part of my exploration of the question, who am I becoming?  It also prompts me to think of a poem by Indiana poet, Norbert Krapf[4]:

& you sense you have just

begun to reach levels of approach

that open into paths and roads

you had not even imagined

& know that now you

are prepared to speak…

And now I know I am prepared to speak.

______________________________

This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011.  All rights reserved.


[1] Abigail Thomas.  2008.  Thinking About Memoir.  Sterling Publishing Co., New York.

[2] Vivian Gornick.  2001.  The Situation and the Story.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

[3] Patricia Hampl.  1999.  I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory.  W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

[4] Norbert Krapf and Darryl Jones.  2006.  Invisible Presence: A Walk Through Indiana in Photographs and Poems. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

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4 Responses to Behind My Writing

  1. Norma Welty says:

    Beautifully written, Steve. Your narrative voice is an enviable, but soothing read.
    Thanks. Norma

  2. Adriana Soto says:

    I was actually looking for something to help me understand Vivian Gornick’s depth of inquiry. And loved how you explained that for you it means that more questions are being created than being answered. I think this is true and couldn’t find the right way of putting it, so thanks for that. And also… love your writing!

    • steverobert says:

      I’m pleased that you found my WordPress site, Adriana. A good example of the truth in that principle of questions being created is my latest essay, “A Silver Thread.” Even though the recently-discovered archival documents that form the basis for that essay have shed some light on a number of my questions, they have raised even more.

      Thanks again for coming to my site. I’ll take a look at your WordPress site soon as well. 🙂

      • Adriana Soto says:

        I can definitely see that on a memoir I’m analyzing. While one thing unleashes itself, others seem to restrain even more. I will surely read your other essay (A Silver Thread) soon and was glad to find your site.

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