I hadn’t been there for years. Ten years prior I had spent a night there in passing on the way to my sister’s college graduation. I grew up knowing that my familial roots were tied to Munster but had always rebelled against the idea that the Midwest was in my blood. I was born in San Diego but my sister was born in Indiana and returned to go to Purdue, the same university my parent’s went to years before. Both my mom and dad’s parents lived there until moving west to be close to the grandkids. And my dad’s aunts, the uncle I’d never met, my grandfather’s grave and some of my parent’s best friends…all in Indiana.
I have fond memories of visiting my mom’s parents. I remember visiting and playing in the basement of their house with one of those weight loss machines that has a rubber band that wraps around your gut and jiggles. I’m sure it wasn’t exactly safe for a young kid, but I always looked forward to taking a ride on the shaking machine. I remember watching Bozo the Clown or the Cubs games on t.v. with my grandpa. He was a quiet man who didn’t get riled up about much. Once, after taking me to a toy store to get an action figure of some sort, he left a window cracked at a car wash. We sat in the viewing area helpless as the car moved passed us on the tracks. He didn’t say a word the entire ride home; it was the angriest I ever saw him and one of two times I saw him show any emotion (the other was when he cried at his 76th birthday, knowing it would be his last).
My mom’s best friend lives in the house that her husband grew up in, which is a few hundred feet from her childhood house. Hailey and I were visiting for a friend’s wedding in Chicago and thought it would be fun to come early and experience Indiana. My parents were there for a different wedding, so the trip quickly became, for me, an exploration into what could have been. One night I went for a run; the first mile or so Hailey and my dad came along and then I went off on my own for a bit. I couldn’t help to think about what it would have been like had General Dynamics not hired my dad and brought our family to San Diego. I ran by the high school I would have gone to. The possibilities seemed endless. What would my hobbies have been? Who would I have hung out with? Would I have gone to Purdue? Would I be obsessed with the Indy 500? I definitely wouldn’t have surfed or fallen in love with the beach. Maybe I wouldn’t be as scared to leave the comforts of Southern California had I grown up in a place not spoiled and cursed by a never changing climate and year around beauty. Life would have been so different.
Dusk gave way to the blackness of night and I kept running. I ran by the high school I probably would have gone to and began singing the only fight song I knew for it, “Munster Mustangs we hate you, you’re gonna fight, you’re gonna lose tonight!” My dad went to my mom’s rival high school and always sang that song when we were growing up. On the way back I slowed in front of my grandparent’s house and pondered knocking on the door to ask if I could go on a ride on the weight loss machine but then I snapped out of my nostalgic trance and realized how awkward that conversation would’ve been.
My parents drove us around town, showing us significant houses of their childhood. Separated by the main freeway, their neighborhoods didn’t seem to be too different. We drove, heard stories and then I asked my dad if we could go see it—his dad’s grave. My grandfather died before I was born and my dad doesn’t talk much about him. His parents divorced when he was sixteen and because they both remarried I only knew my paternal step-grandfather, Bill, as my grandpa. I loved Bill as a grandfather and am grateful to be his grandson (he passed away a few years ago, it was an honor to lead the internment service).
We drove to the cemetery and my dad got out to check with the attendant to find the location of the grave. My dad said that he hadn’t been to the grave in a long long time. Wandering around a cemetery in the cold of November in Indiana was quite an experience. We spread out and walked through the wet grass. It’s odd to feel an emotion for a man that you not only never met but also know caused plenty of pain in your family. So much of what I had been told about my dad’s real dad made me appreciate Bill even more. Yet I also knew that, for some reason, my parents chose my middle name (Kiff) after the man for whom I was searching.
I saw “Rohde” on a head stone and walked over wishing I would feel something profound, but there was nothing of the sort. The head stone was clean, but the grave marker next to it was covered with grass. We began cleaning it with our feet and then it came. I am a sucker for seeing my parents get weepy. I got teary eyed as I watched Hailey hug my dad. I glanced down at the name, “Kiff” and felt thankful for the man he had helped my dad become. I didn’t sense a feeling of closure, nor was it one of a new beginning. Maybe it was just an affirmation of my heritage or a bizarre thank you to the family I never met. Either way the thoughts of “what could have been” were replaced by the realness of what was right in front of me and I think I learned, just a little bit more, how to acknowledge and respect the past while moving forward with those I love in the present.