I love questions. I love asking them, answering them, dissecting them, rephrasing them, and struggling with them. The key-to-my-heart question: Would you like freshly grated Parmesan on that? The expect-a-much-longer-answer-than-you-anticipated question: So, where are you from? After my first few parties as a freshman in college, I quickly realized I needed a one-line answer to this question. Before I could come up with one, my new friends started referring to me as “the girl from Germany.” Since then, my answer has changed depending on where I am when answering it. At Elon, I was an American from Germany. At home in Stuttgart during college, I was from North Carolina. In Ghana and Sri Lanka, I was from Washington, D.C. In Washington, D.C., I’m from northern Virginia and Germany. It’s sometimes an exhausting circle. And every day, I am over-the-moon grateful for the life-changing opportunities I’ve had that make that question so difficult for me to answer.
The first couple of weeks back after an intense year living in Sri Lanka were a whirlwind. My transition home this summer was equal parts comforting and challenging, joyful and sad. I was ready for everything good and familiar; I was unprepared for everything difficult and overwhelming. I didn’t quite fit into the shape of the puzzle piece I left behind, but I wasn’t ready to process what that really meant. I felt strongly that I needed to slow down, make sense of some things, take some time to settle and stay put.
Instead, I unpacked a year, repacked for an overnight, and jumped in my brother’s car to drive with him from Washington, D.C. to Denver, Colorado in twenty-four hours.
I am very familiar with transitions, with dancing along the brink of always having to let go. Instead of slowing down when I get back to the States in late July, I’m thrilled for the opportunity to find out about some of the roots I claim not to have. My brother, about to move to Denver for graduate school, has decided to drive out West instead of fly. Ben asks his good friend Charlie and me if we want to come along; we’ll fly back after a fun weekend in Denver. I tell him absolutely and ask if we can stop in Lincoln on the way.
My father’s side of the family is from Nebraska: his parents and most of his relatives were born, raised, and schooled in various pockets of the state. My ninety-five-year-old grandfather, who lives outside of D.C. now, has told many stories over the years about growing up in Nebraska. He met my grandmother in New York City soon after World War II; years after they were married, they realized they had been in a Tom Thumb wedding together in Lincoln when she was six and he was nine. They had also overlapped by a year at college in Lincoln. My parents, too, spent time in Lincoln, moving there to go to law school together soon after they got married. A few relatives still live out there and tend to land that used to belong to my grandfather, but my family’s discussions about Nebraska these days revolve around the large family plot in Lincoln’s Wyuka Cemetery, where my great-grandparents and grandmother are buried. I have never been to Nebraska, or seen these graves, or truly understood what it’s like to feel so connected to a town, a state, or any one way of life.
It’s fitting that before my brother’s big move, our family has a birthday party for Granddaddy and Dad. Their birthdays are one day apart, and this year they turned ninety-five and fifty-nine, respectively.
I have wanted to visit Nebraska for years. I always hoped Granddaddy would be the one to show me where his family comes from—I imagined slowly driving through the streets of Lincoln, the thick sweet air setting the mood for the stories he’d be telling. But it’s nice that my first visit to Nebraska will be with my older brother, Ben, as he begins a new life chapter in a different part of the country.
We leave D.C. around eight p.m. It’s a warm August night and I am stuffed in the back of a ’98 Mercury Cougar. Ben is driving and Charlie is in the passenger seat. Ben’s car has been in four accidents (none his fault) and we’ve already discussed a contingency plan if the car doesn’t make it to Denver.
Ten hours in, we stop for breakfast. Omelets for the boys, a small stack of pancakes for me. I brush my teeth under the bathroom’s fluorescent lights, my hot pink shirt and messy curly hair seeming wildly out of place. I study my reflection in the mirror, thinking about the turn of events that have me standing in a Denny’s bathroom in Ohio at 6:30 in the morning. My mornings of waking up underneath a mosquito net in Colombo, padding into my green-tiled bathroom to get ready for another day of teaching, seem so far away. A different world, a chapter come and gone.
I have traveled to thirty countries, but I am not prepared for what I find on this first road trip west of the Mississippi. There are cows and 80’s hairstyles and wind turbines and more cows. I make a game of attaching nouns to the states we pass through: Iowa is corn, Nebraska is equal parts heat and meat. The traveler in me wants to stop at all the sights I am passing by, but the need to get to Lincoln before nightfall makes us pass it all on by. I also don’t have much say in way of our stops since I’m not driving any portion of this trip—although I try to convince him otherwise, Ben thinks my driving skills must be pretty rusty after being out of the country and not driving for a year. I stay settled in the backseat.
We make it halfway across the country in a day, and by the time we get to Lincoln, we’re exhausted. We pass the Cornhuskers stadium, where my parents went to home games while they were in law school. We stop for lunch at Bison Witches Bar & Deli on P Street. There’s a local vanilla porter on tap for two dollars and I suddenly love the Midwest.
Travel, as much as it causes us to speed up, also forces us to slow down. By the time we get to Wyuka Cemetery, I am revived and relaxed. I’ve got a bunch of daisies and my camera—Granddaddy wants to see that the plot is being kept up—and a bright-eyed, big-haired woman in the cemetery’s welcome center gives us a map. She tells us that Wyuka sprawls over 124 acres, and that it’s better to drive than walk to the plot.
It’s a humid afternoon and I’m grateful for the shade of the cemetery’s many tall trees as we wind our way past hundreds of graves. I already feel myself slowing down, relieved to finally be here, at Wyuka, in Lincoln. I need to know this home, one that belonged—belongs—to people whose blood I share. Even if just for an afternoon. There are so many family stories surrounding this part of the country, so many names and places to connect and piece together. I will do that someday, I think. But today, it’s just about being here.
Section 18, Lot 27. There we are, generations of Lampert’s home in Lincoln. My family, name written in stone, blood buried in the ground. Four footstones surround the large marble headstone, and I lay the daisies in front of my grandmother’s. She died twenty years ago. I have one vivid memory of her in a worn pink bathrobe, towel around her head, standing in the hallway looking at photos of my brother, sister, and me—her only grandchildren. Standing in front of her grave now, I call my father, who calls his father, and our three-way line is silent for a little while. I tell Granddaddy the plot looks nice and that someone has put an American flag near his father’s footstone. It is almost unnerving to be talking to Granddaddy while looking at the unmarked space next to my grandmother’s grave where he will someday be buried. A breeze lifts the leaves of the nearby trees and I am awash with the past and the strange present. The world buzzes with a dull roar, soft like suds in my ears.
And then it is time to go, and I feel that familiar, curious tug of fullness and regret. Maybe having roots is not dependent on settling or staying permanently, I think as I leave Wyuka. The late afternoon sun drips and rests easy on the hay fields as we leave Lincoln and begin the long, flat drive across Nebraska. This is the land my granddaddy plowed and cultivated, spending twelve hours a day with a hay rake and a team of horses. From Rushville to Lincoln, this land covered my great-grandfather and grandfather in dust over generations of Nebraska summers that I desperately want to brush off and belong to. Am I meant to recapture these roots, or plant my own elsewhere? What does it mean to belong to a place?
Suddenly tired, I curl up in my makeshift back-seat bed. I think about all the places I’ve called home, the places I know best that keep calling me back. In some ways, these few hours in Lincoln meant more than a summer backpacking through Europe, a semester abroad in Ghana, a year living in Sri Lanka. How many times have I tried to define “home,” tried to answer where I am from? The past few weeks have left me feeling emotionally scattered and exhausted, shaky and unsure of too many things. But today, on this hot August day in Nebraska, the honeyed air offers a sense of stability. I still have more questions than answers, and this taste of where my family is from has left me wanting to know much more. But it is something. It is copper-colored earth that belongs. Closing my eyes to the sounds of the highway rushing by, I fall asleep in motion, in transition, and without thoughts of beginnings or ends.