Eventually, your parents will have to downsize, and then what?

A tooth can grow in a heart: I learned this from the Internet. It is true that when I investigated further, I found that hearts are one of the last places teratomas grow; these tumors containing scraps of hair, bone, and enamel are far more likely to emerge in the ovaries, for example. But I still wake in the middle of the night certain that this ache in my chest is the deep-dug root of a stubborn tooth, one that has resisted orthodontia and the professional aspirations of the middle class bourgeoisie, where I otherwise reside. This tooth has kept me simultaneously grounded and stuck to the ground. And as I clunk about my darkened house, looking for a place where I can still my anxiety enough to calm myself for sleep, I keep stumbling, mentally, on this misplaced tooth and its metaphorical implications until, at 4:15 am, I am certain that the impending loss of my parents’ home in southwestern Ohio will be the thing that finally splits this root in two, flooding my internal organs with a bacterial sea from which I will never recover.

• • •

The Ohio that I think about when I think about where I am from crinkles when you take a step. It’s a maple root curving across a muddy path, last year’s leaves on one side, a delicate hasp of baby hair grass on the other. It’s snails in the weeds, chiggers in the lawn, limestone paving stones baking in the sun. It’s the rainy day my best friend and I took a shortcut across a soybean field and ended up slogging through mud for an hour and a half, soaking wet and covered in burs. It’s the deep algal stink of the reservoir, crawdads trawling the drying creeks, salamanders under rocks in the forest. It’s a country full of venal sins and dull prosperity and creeping desperation: decaying storefronts, vinyl siding, old Victorians rotting in the summer heat. But slip down to the woods, and the air is cool. Pileated woodpeckers screech overhead, and wildflowers as intricate as the workings of a clock emerge in spring.

I grew up in a town of buckled sidewalks, in a yard bounded by alleys, with drunk college kids yelling in the night. After I moved away, my parents bought a place in the country, the dark nights loud with tree frogs. You can sit at the table in the breakfast nook and watch two dozen birds mob the feeder while spooning cereal into your mouth. This house is where I return when I go home.

My parents have begun to talk about what comes next. Eighty is on the horizon, and eighty is too old to be running the Bush Hog lawn mower and cutting down trees. Seventy is too old to do this, and my parents are several train stops past seventy. We have responsible adult conversations about selling the house and buying something more manageable. We’ve discussed options—something smaller, more in town? Something smaller, and closer either to my sister or to me? There are advantages and disadvantages to all, and we muddle through them, obliquely. My parents don’t really want to leave. I don’t really want them to leave. But it’s not possible to go on like this forever.

So: five acres of second-growth woodland, an intermittent stream, a three-bedroom modernist house, and a two-car freestanding garage may soon be on the market. Meanwhile, a petulant voice at the bottom of my heart cries, And where does that leave me?

• • •

For a decade after I moved to Colorado, I had a ready answer when people asked, “Do you like it here?”

“I love it,” I’d say (of course, I love it), “but I miss the rain.”

Sometimes I’d say, But I miss the humidity. Or, I miss the smells. All small-ball, water-spider talk for I miss it so much I want to howl.

Also: I never, ever want to live there again. That toothed lump in the wall of your heart might be your own inalienable tissue, but its mood is not benevolent.

• • •

I belong to Ohio even though:

  • I was born in Nebraska;
  • I left as soon as I possibly could;
  • I live in another state;
  • I’ve never voted in Ohio;
  • I’ve never paid payroll taxes in Ohio;
  • I’ve never held title to anything in Ohio;
  • My family has no historical presence there—no moldering gravestones, no broken-down farms, no elderly great aunts stashed in a nursing home;
  • I hated so much of it: the hot, itchy summers; the overcast winters; the Kool-Aid lip stains on my classmates; the way people spoke—“chimbly” for chimney and “Embley” for Emily and “chicken pops”for chicken pox; and the way people asked, Is that a GEE-tar? when I was carrying my violin case.

But Ohio still operates as the stone I tap, fretfully, when I ask myself, Where are you from, anyway?

The thought of never coming back fills me with grief.

• • •

Two and a half decades after moving away, I still feel anxious and hollow if I go too long without visiting. It’s not just people I miss; it’s the place. The places, actually. My visits home sometimes feel like frantic greatest-hits tours, in which I have two days to touch every key childhood landmark: here’s the Pine Woods, here’s the limestone falls, here’s the house where I grew up, here’s the stark yellow house where the school bus turned from Main Street onto Sycamore, here’s the ash tree in my best friend’s yard that we used as a swing set, here’s the field where we played and once, on a foggy night, ran through patches of lamplit mist, yelling to each other that we were unicorns. It’s a university town, so it is both well-preserved and constantly undergoing change. Every year, there are fewer fields, fewer weedy road-ends, fewer remnants of the town’s dour and unsmiling past. More and more of my greatest-hits tours have stops where I whisper, This is where there used to be. . . .

But I don’t mind. Getting updates is partly why I come. I have always felt vaguely sorry for classmates whose families moved away and who have no reason to visit anymore. How awful, I’ve thought, to be cut off from the geography of your past.

And then there are the friends who stayed. From Colorado, I watch their lives on Facebook; they work in the library, teach in the schools, serve on the school boards, invest in the housing developments that eat away at the surrounding countryside. They’ve become the grown-ups of this place. As I swipe through pictures of these strange my-age adults superimposed on the icons of my past, I probe at the complex and confusing hurt that thickens in my heart. Is it envy, this gray and fatty thing? Or is it merely homesickness, neglected?

• • •

For centuries, it was commonly accepted that the cause of tumors filled with hair and teeth was unclean thoughts, spinsterhood, or both. They were clearly obscene, like something out of Hieronymus Bosch—even clinical drawings of teratomas are startling and grotesque, discolored fleshy bulbs with tangled knots of molars. They are so weird they can make a rational citizen of the twenty-first century start to reconsider Bigfoot, evil spirits, and the Loch Ness monster.

Nevertheless, the eighteenth-century physician Matthew Baillie suspected they had a medical cause. In 1789, he published an investigation in Philosophical Transactions as to whether teratomas were malformed pregnancies or something altogether different. He described his dissection of a prepubescent girl, whose body had been brought to his home at Windmill Street. A capsule in one of her ovaries contained hair, teeth, and fatty tissue even though her hymen was intact and her womb “exhibited the ordinary appearances of a child’s uterus.” In a later work, he combined this evidence with similar growths found in the body of an eighteen-year-old virgin and a castrated male horse to argue that these “productions” had nothing to do with impregnation: “[M]y conjecture is put beyond dispute.”

These early accounts—often trotted out in historical reviews of the teratoma phenomenon—are characterized by a vivid sense of place: Baillie mentions Windmill Street because his house there was famous, built by his uncle to showcase his own anatomical work (it had an operating theater). You can imagine the body brought in through the back entry—was she in a bag, like potatoes, or a more dignified shroud? Was she stolen or donated? (Given Baillie’s uncertainty about her age, the former is more likely.) Did her mother know she was there?

Later reports are more clinical, excising any mention of place or time, the labs stocked with a numb vocabulary of sameness: windows, lintels, bookshelves, fluorescent lights, ducts hidden behind acoustic ceiling tiles. Even the tumors themselves are shorn of identifying detail. They are specimens, relegated to formalin-filled jars on an anonymous shelf. You’re not supposed to notice or care whether that shelf is in London, Boston, Moscow, or Beijing. This is science, after all, and scientists are like teratomas, cut from the surrounding landscape and preserved in laboratories that endlessly repeat across the developed world.

Science has separated us from the cosmos, writes Rebecca Solnit in a book about a photographer, and I nod and nod, underlining furiously. Key developments in the making of the modern world, she writes, have “annihilated time and space.” Once tied to the moon and the stars, time harnessed to the telegraph became something “administered by technicians” while the railroads “made it possible to ignore the terrain as encounter and experience: they made place into real estate.” Yes.

For the most part, we go along with this annihilation. But even as we skim along, Googling real estate listings in Normandy and Oslo and Lake Tanganyika, adopting the local cuisine of peasants around the globe, our own inalienable selves latch on, put down roots, and cling like death to a single unique spot on the earth’s crust.

• • •

Age alone is not the reason my parents might need to sell, and this is the great white-sheeted gorilla we are not talking about: my mother has Stage IV cancer. She’s had several years of good luck with treatment, but the business of life is getting harder. She has pain in her back, a permanent catheter coiled uncomfortably in her lung, and the latest CAT scan shows that the tumor is growing.

My parents’ modernist multilevel house is not going to work well with hospice. Their house is small and open, and even the main level has stairs. It may open into the forest and ring all night with the calls of tree frogs, but it is terrible for wheelchairs and hospital beds. When we talk about something more manageable, we’re talking about this.

• • •

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the mystery of teratomas was finally cracked. Scientists working at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, followed their hunch that these tumors arose from “primordial germ cells” that had not yet matured into their final, fixed identities. (Did they go for a celebratory walk along the waterfront, order up a lobster boil, toss a shell into the waves? Or were they so focused on the lab that they could have been anywhere?) A bit of pluripotent germ cell layer gets trapped during the development of an embryo. This little pocket then goes rogue, with the germ cells differentiating and becoming a range of mature tissues—hair, bone, teeth, muscle, thyroid, fat tissue, and even eyes. This pluripotency is why teratomas are able to produce so many different kinds of tissue. Scientists hope that by harnessing these pluripotent cells, we will be able to regrow human tissue. The solving of the teratoma mystery, in other words, led to the birth of stem cell research—the dream that we can remake ourselves from scratch.

• • •

I was once pluripotent, or so I thought. I left small town Ohio for New York City, then reversed course and headed west. I’ve made my home as an adult in various Colorado towns, learning the birds and flowers, and getting worked up about local politics. My husband is from Colorado, and so, of course, are our children. But I have always been ambivalent: the pinch in my heart, the whisper in my ear, the stubborn tooth that refuses to grow anywhere but Ohio.

I think of myself as part of this place, along with the fireflies and the toads and the Dutchman’s breeches, but I no longer have any real claim to it. The slow process of my mother’s dying has made this clear. Each phase of her treatment reaches me via email, and though I write and call and visit, it is not the same. I buy plane tickets to rush myself back, to help, to be near, to do what I can, but in the end, I am just another guest.

• • •

I was of a place, and I abandoned it. In my house in suburban Denver, I get up, grab a pillow, thump down the hall to try the couch. The clanking chain of loss comes with me. I should have gone to college in Ohio, I think, watching the thin, shifting play of our neighbors’ porch light on the ceiling. I should have gone back more often. We should have spent a month there every summer. And the fireflies! We have never visited when the fireflies are at their peak. The kids have never seen the forest floor alive with toadlets. We’ve only been there once for migration, and twice for the blaze of autumn.

I put the pillow over my head and try to force sleep.

The rootless pluripotent cell, raging through the dark corridors of the body, brings with it a devouring darkness.

Where are you from? The question was once a proxy for Who are you? but the dream of pluripotency has swept all that away. Perhaps I am a bone, or an eye, or a tooth. Perhaps I am nothing.

The cells stranded in the capsule start to build, marooned from sense or meaning. They put together a jaw and teeth separate from any food or stomach; their hair neither protects nor decorates. Their eye, unconnected to an optic nerve, will never see.

But my eyes are connected to optic nerves; my teeth chew real food; my hair grows where it ought to grow. The life I have made in Colorado is my real life. When that tooth is finally ripped from my heart—when my parents leave Ohio, or die, or both—I will not drown.

I push off the couch and pad to the refrigerator to soothe myself with food. I am startled by my reflection in the kitchen window: my hair wild, great baggy gouges beneath my eyes, the spoon in my hand disappearing into the ice cream carton. I look like a thieving ghost.

Where are you from, anyway?

It’s time to let that go, I tell my reflection, or my reflection tells me. This is where you are now. Right here.

About the Author

Emily Wortman-Wunder

Emily Wortman-Wunder's book of short stories, Not a Thing to Comfort You, won the 2019 Iowa Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in the fall.

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