St. Elizabeth, Mo., is a collection of about 300 people clustered within 1 square mile right in the middle of the state. Most people there don’t know me. They probably know my last name, though.
My grandpa grew up in St. Elizabeth with a dozen siblings, and he still raises beef cattle there with my grandma, who is from an even smaller neighboring town. These days the hills of his land seem covered in rust, with the oaks and sycamores clinging yet to their brown and burnt orange leaves. The white paint on the house he grew up in is peeling terribly. But my grandpa, his mustache, his pipe, his golf cap and his cows are the same.
My grandparents connect me to a life I probably wouldn’t understand without them. One recent, cloudless morning, I helped my grandpa grab some feed from the old MFA store, roofed with corrugated tin, supported by beams 2 feet thick and coated in cobwebs and swallow nests. My grandpa’s dad, a dairy farmer, worked there for decades hauling feed. After grabbing the bags, my grandpa — thoughtful, laughing easily, devoted to work to the extreme — chatted with two men about a cow’s split hoof. The cashier took out my grandpa’s tab, his name written neatly at the top, and noted the feed we took. Everyone knows my grandpa. He knows everyone.
When I go around town with him, riding in the beaten pick-up, helping with feed and seeing the settings of his life, I feel different. I feel like a Holtmeyer, to put it bluntly. I feel like I’m tapping into roots I don’t usually give much thought. It’s a proud, solid feeling. Life there seems smaller, yeah — I’m sure my nostalgia and separation affect my perceptions, and this life has plenty of troubles. But it seems simpler, too, to find contentment in plain hard work and integrity. And I come from a long line of people who did so.
I’m glad I can see into this world. I’m a lot like my grandpa. Each time I go back I learn a little bit more about why.