Lisa Toboz

Letters From the Rust Belt

Letters From the Rust Belt

Looking through mummy’s papers, I noticed that in the late '70s she listed "housewife" as her occupation. This surprised me, considering we never lived in a house – we lived in that apartment off Sharon Road, the one with the groovy plaid couch. Our neighbors thought it was weird that she gave us fire-belly toads for pets instead of a dog, and that she decided not to send me to kindergarten because she thought nuns were evil. Or how she’d blast “Parallel Lines” and sing really loud in the kitchen while she baked cookies. Or how she’d roll down all the windows in the car and yell out crazy things to people because she was so happy.

You were too young to remember any of this. Everything along the rivers was closing up and falling down. Our father lost his job like most fathers lost their jobs, but that didn’t stop us from dancing.

letter to my great-grandmother

I remember your house like a familiar drive home – knowing no route names or street signs, just landmarks that have stood before my time. In a past life, I am sitting in your kitchen, listening to you tell stories about your trip to the 1939 World’s Fair. I devour the Sara Lee cheesecake you feed us because it is American and convenient. I laugh when you complain in Hungarian. I walk through rooms, looking for the things that remind me of you: the mounted deer heads over the guest room beds, the cuckoo clock by the back door, the ringer washer at the foot of the basement stairs, your wedding portrait from 1928. Your house is a time capsule, and when I need to organize the chaos in my life I open it, knowing everything is in its place.

letter to my father

Today Jeff and I drove past the nuclear plant near Industry on our way to a flea market. I never realized how far your commute was from our apartment in Moon to the steel plant in Midland. You told us stories about river rats, swing shifts and trading adventurous food with the guys at work, late night meals of squirrel or bear or venison. Remember when you took us to Niagara Falls and introduced us to chow mein? A group of monks sat in the middle of the dark restaurant silently eating. Paper lanterns shifted lazily over our heads while we speared dumplings with our chopsticks. I was amazed eating in such an exotic place in a different country. I didn’t think about it until now, but isn’t it strange so many Pittsburghers traveled on holiday from one industrial city to another. It’s like we did this so we’d never have to leave the comforts of home.

letter to jeff

One of my favorite weekend games is when we pick a direction and go, no plan, just you and me and the road. Going west into eastern Ohio is like time travel, and I try to imagine what we would have been like if we had met in 1979. We trade the GPS for a map and after only a few years of technical geography, I’ve almost forgotten how to read one. You assure me it’s impossible to be lost in America, but I see how you grip the wheel when we miss an exit. As we drive along Route 65, I see a photo of you and me that has yet to be taken: the two of us leaning against an old car outside a dusty motel. A neon sign, the setting sun, a slice of moon. We are laughing. The map catches in the wind, flies out of our hands.

letter to my mother

I dream about you a lot since you’ve been gone. Usually you seem very real, and the things you do in them are things you would have done if you were still alive. Like in one dream, you booked a room at some crappy motel next to a broken-down Ferris wheel, and Kristy, Fred and I had to scramble for money to get us all out of there and home. Or another time, you spent all the vacation money on souvenirs, so we couldn’t enjoy the rest of our trip. Why are you so irresponsible? I said, as if I were talking exasperated to a child. I have to remind myself, even now, that you were a grown woman, my mother.

But last night’s dream was different. I was standing at the top of the stairs of an old house. I heard knocking at the front door and peered down to see a man waiting for me to open it. I couldn’t see his face, but you were standing in the corner looking incredibly sad. Mummy, I said, and I panicked because you were disappearing. That’s not mummy, that’s a man at the door, Kristy said somewhere behind me. I was the only one who knew you were there.

letter to my city

I confess: For years I dreamed of ways to leave you. I wrote to pen pals from Yugoslavia, Australia, Malaysia. I watched “Manon of the Spring,” got really good at conjugating French verbs. I replaced posters of teen idols with maps. I took train rides to New York, searched for opportunities. I waited for rescue. I hated your overcast skies, your old people, your sports teams, your unemployment. I hated your run-down river towns with nothing to do. I traveled around Eastern Europe, trying to find teaching work and family roots, only to return broke and confused. I called myself a writer, but wasn’t writing anything. Defeated, I figured we should make the most of it. I listened to your streets. I walked through personal history. I forgave my ancestors for never leaving this dirty, broken beautiful place. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing here, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.