Q: What state is high in the middle, and round on both ends? A: O-HI-O.
My first memory of Ohio is the summer of 1978. I was 14 years old and my mother, brother, were driving to Wisconsin to pick up my sister, who had spent the summer working at my aunt's store in Appleton. We stopped in Youngstown, Ohio the first night. After spending quite a bit of time looking for something to eat in this rust belt city we finally found a pizza place called Gina's pizza. I remember they sold t-shirts that said "Gina's pizza makes me passionate." I did not buy one though. We also searched in vain for some entertainment, but when we found the town's movie theatre, we were disappointed to see that it was boarded up. I immediately put Ohio in the number one spot of places I never wanted to live. So, imagine my reaction, when eight years later, when my husband (then-fiance), James came home one evening to announce that he had big news. His advisor had assured him that he could get him into graduate school at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio! If you say the word Ohio and draw out each syllable, and speak with a slight whine, you will have a pretty good approximation of what James heard. We intended to stay for two years while James did a Master's degree, and then move on, but the true irony is that after the first year there I decided to enroll in graduate school, too, and so we had to stay on an extra year in order for me to complete my studies! Being in graduate school sure beat working at K-Mart all to hell, which is what I did for the first few months we lived there. I whince everytime I remember getting on the intercom to speak the ubiquitous "Attention K-Mart Shoppers" and then announce a blue-light special in housewares. After a few months of that I found work as a nanny before deciding to enroll in a Master's program in Spanish Literature
Ohio had its charm and we have some good memories of it. The last year we were there we got to live in a great old farm house on 15 acres while the professors who owned it were abroad for the semester. The house was on top of a hill overlooking a creek and some more farmland. I remember once our little dog, Pablo, came home from a run smelling awful of something I never smelled before or since. He also had something sticky on his back. My theory is that he stood under a cow while it was peeing. Only in Ohio. We also have good memories of our two foster pets, Barbara (the dog) and Donna (the cat) who were the pets of the professors who owned the house. It somehow felt right to live in a big farmhouse and have two dogs and a cat. Donna used to kill field mice and bring them home. She would sit in the middle of the dining room and eat them, except for the teeny tiny liver. No worries, when she was done with her snack, Pablo would lap up what was left. The cat would never catch the mice in the house though, no challenge, I guess.We also started our first aquarium while living in Ohio, with a fish James won for me at a carnival. We had the fish for about 2 years and had to leave them behind when we moved to Arizona. We left them with the two professors, and their children, and they (all the fish) all died shortly thereafter when bleach was mistaken for bottled water.
While we were living in Oxford the movie Little Man Tate was filmed in Cincinnati, with a portion filmed on the campus of Miami University. I had not seen the movie since it first came out in 1991 (after we had left Ohio) so it was a treat to watch it again and recognize the campus landmarks. The movie is Jodi Foster's directorial debut and tells the story of Fred Tate, a-seven-year old boy genius who is the son of a working- class single parent (Foster). The conflict between Fred's emotional and intellectual needs are played out by his mother, and his teacher (Dianne Wiest). Although each tries to give him what he needs, it takes a lot of work and heartache before a balance between the two is found.
I don't remember what keywords I used in searching to come up with the book Good Roots: Writer's Reflect on Growing Up in Ohio, but what a gem of a book it turned out to be! Exactly as the title suggests it is a collection of poems and essays by writers who are from Ohio. Authors include P.J.O'Rourke, a fellow Miami University alum; and Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine, who swears he really did have a normal childhood. I read this one out loud to James and we were both taken in by it. As editor Lisa Watts points out the stories are about a time as much as a place, but Ohio just seems to be the right place to have as a backdrop for the time when children did a lot more exploring, and a lot less soccer. James used two of the essays in his Frameworks class for would-be geography teachers in Massachusetts. (Don't get him started on that, by the way). Anthony Doerr's contribution "We are Mapmakers" about the mental maps of the places we grew up and how we create them was a particular favorite, and especially useful for James' class. We didn't know there was a place called Novelty in Ohio until we read this essay. It was just the right place name for such a reflection.
One thing I never had the nerve to try when we lived near Cincinnati was Skyline chili (served 5-ways!). So what could I do, but attempt to make it myself today. It is usually served over spaghetti, which seemed a bit gross to us, but was surprisingly good and filling. I found a recipe for it in the Boston Globe magazine, of all places, in an article about Super Bowl recipes. It calls for a lot of spices and a bit of unsweetened cocoa. James did try Skyline chili once, and said that mine was better. He recalls that there was no flavor to the bowl he ate.