Downstate near the Mississippi River there’s an old house that used to belong to my family. It’s a small clapboard house built in the classic heartland style, with a big yard, lush gardens, and the inevitable white picket fence out front. It stood on the outskirts of Edwardsville, right where the last streets gave way to open countryside. It is–or at least it used to be–a beautiful place. When you looked out from the porch on a summer’s day, you had an unbroken view of meadows and fields and remote blue hills shimmering in the golden heat. You’d swear that nothing had ever happened there more dramatic than a passing thunderstorm.

The house played a big role in my family history. My great-grandfather built it at the turn of the last century; my grandfather grew up there, and it’s where my mother spent her summers when she was a kid. By the time of my childhood it had been firmly established as a kind of private sleepaway camp for our family. As soon as school was let out for the year, our parents would take us from Evanston to Edwardsville, where they’d leave us for weeks or sometimes months at a time. One of my cousins claims there was a year when her parents didn’t come back for her until Christmas.

I can’t remember how often I stayed there myself, or how long those stays lasted; they’ve all blurred together into a kind of eternal Tom Sawyer-ish reverie. Back then Edwardsville was a postcard-perfect midwestern town, a place of towering shade trees and well-tended hedges, cracked sidewalks and brick alleys. It was an ideal setting for childhood adventures. It was where I graduated from a tricycle to a bicycle, and from softball to hardball; the first tree I ever climbed solo was a weeping willow by the picket fence, and I still remember finding a cicada shell stuck to a branch at its heart, like a statuette of martian jade.

But mainly what I remember are the gardens. They were mazes of flower beds that filled up most of the enormous backyard and each year spread further around the side of the house and out toward the street. The few times I dared to venture alone into their interior I was immediately lost in a disorienting riot of brilliant colors and intoxicating smells. There were endless beds of red and yellow tulips, bristling stands of zinnias and asters and snapdragons, towering skylines of gladioli and sunflowers, fog banks of Queen Anne’s lace, and rose trellises as intricate as fireworks. And then there were the bumblebees. They floated down every path–swarming in the long sunlit aisles, hovering and drifting and clustering and swerving from blossom to blossom like commuters in an aerial city. That was a heady sight for a suburban kid like me, who’d been taught to think of all insects as rare and threatening invaders.

But there were always lessons at the house. It was really a boot camp in what are now called traditional family values. Our four old hosts–my great-aunts Hilda and Helen and my great-uncles Marty and Eugene–made it plain to us that everything said and done and thought there was swathed in morality and custom. We learned the proper way to be deferential to our elders, the proper way of washing our hands before meals (the soap was scratchy and smelled of coconut), the proper way of saying prayers at bedtime (on your knees, out loud, hands folded on the bedspread, an adult auditor present). There was a proper way to say please and thank-you at the dinner table, and, more crucially, a proper time to say them–the airspace above the table was as crowded as O’Hare, and a wrongly calculated grab at a bowl or pitcher or platter could cause a disastrous midair collision.

Edwardsville was the first place where I understood what manners were for. Back home they made no sense; they seemed to be nothing more than a bunch of meaningless gestures parents foisted on kids to test their obedience. But here they were unobtrusively essential. They allowed people who may not have even liked each other much to get along effortlessly in the closest quarters. They were a way for tradition, faith, courtesy, and habit to exchange places in a ceaseless dance.

At the heart of these lessons was Sunday morning at church. This was the most essential ritual, and it was the only one I never quite mastered. You had to be awake, scrubbed raw, crammed into your best clothes, and lined up on the front porch before the church bells started tolling. No matter how early I started, I was always late. By the time I reached the porch, soap still sticky behind my ears and my shirt buttoned wrong, the whole neighborhood had already come streaming past: girls in white blouses and billowy pastel skirts, boys in white shirts and long pants and strangle-knotted ties, men in ancient, spotless suits, and women in brilliant dresses emblazoned with storms of birds and flowers. Sometimes, when we were all hurrying down the now deserted street as though late for the Ark, the bells were already falling silent; and sometimes we were racing against a morning thunderstorm billowing up in the high summer heat, so that as we overtook the last stragglers we found the steeple standing in dazzling white starkness against the black western sky, like a rebuke to the turbulence of the trees.

Inside, the air was suffocatingly sultry and the pews were hard. People sighed and rustled and coughed; they fanned themselves furiously and glared daggers at their neighbors as though blaming them for the heat. The minister stood at a plain pulpit of varnished blondwood before a big window of clear glass. He spoke softly but forcefully about the immanence of God in the world around us and the dire certainty of His approaching judgment. Sometimes the storm broke over the church as he spoke and the sound of his voice was drowned out by the wild drumming of rain on the glass, but he never acknowledged the fury around him even by so much as raising his voice. Then the black clouds behind him would unravel, and the sunlight would come pouring through the window in furnace-hot shafts; and as my suit dissolved into scratchy ooze and even the hymnals burned to the touch, I understood what it felt like to be caught in the crosshairs of God.

Our hosts were really the best possible exemplars of this way of life. The four were all around 60 when I first stayed with them, and to me that was as old as Methuselah. Their hair was white, their faces had tectonic wrinkles, and the touch of their skin was dinosaur leathery. But their laughter bubbled out of them in a ceaseless froth, as though welling up from a hidden spring. To this day, whenever I think of them, I remember that sound: Hilda’s bright trill, Helen’s wheezy, half-smothered chortle, Marty’s haw-haw bray, and Eugene’s rare, lone snort like a stone dropped in a well. It was a kind of laughter that radiated well-being, acceptance, faith. Just being around it made you exhilarated, even when you were the target.

And you could be certain you would be the target, sooner or later. The four of them were brutal about everything they didn’t like, and the main thing they didn’t like was the world outside Edwardsville. That included us: they thought we were citified, willful, too big for our britches, forever putting on airs. When I had to start wearing glasses, they spent that summer calling me “Four-eyes” with ever-replenished hilarity. Once when one of my cousins staged a play she’d written, with the rest of the kids as actors, our hosts broke it up by standing in unison and booing and hissing and pelting us with wadded-up Kleenex, until the author ran off in tears.

In a way, that was their real lesson: reticence. All their instruction in correct behavior, in modesty and practicality and self-reliance and respect, really came down to this: There is never a good time to talk about yourself. Your problems are nobody’s business. Your triumphs are nothing special. Never boast, never complain, never reveal, never admit, never take pride, never expect a compliment, never look for sympathy or commiseration or approval. The only thing more offensive than asking a personal question is answering one; the most important goal in life is to keep your distance.

There were moments when they succeeded too well. It sometimes happened in the evenings, as we sat around the big dining table: everything would just stop. The deck of cards would lie unshuffled; the conversation would dry up; the laughter would die away, like a sweet breeze in the summer heat. Our four hosts would sit motionless, their heads bowed, staring fiercely at the floor. I learned better than to say anything then: any attempt to lighten the mood would be met with glares of hostility and incomprehension. There was absolutely nothing to be said; no thought was impersonal enough, no emotion that wouldn’t be in bad taste. As the silence deepened I’d feel as though they were fossilizing before my eyes: those Germanic peasant foreheads, those round cheeks, those hatchet noses, those glinting, heavy-lidded, suspicious eyes–they were like stone trolls in a forest glen.

That was when I was most acutely aware of how little I really understood about them. In all the years I’d been coming there, I’d never heard them say a word about their past. They told no anecdotes, they never gossiped or reminisced; by the time of my last stay, when I was 12, I still didn’t know the first thing about their lives. Why were they all sharing the house? How exactly were they even related to each other–were they all siblings, two married couples, what? And why, if they loved children so much, did none of them have children of their own? I didn’t know, and nobody would explain it to me. It was as though they’d already slipped out of reach.

It was only during that last summer that I got up the nerve to pry. I approached Helen, the one I always thought of as the nicest of the four. I don’t remember my exact question; it was something like “Have you all always lived here together?” The effect on her was astonishing. She seemed to rear up and exhale flame, like a startled basilisk. “In my day,” she gasped out, “people didn’t talk about themselves.” She eyed me with annihilating contempt. “And especially not to the children.” Case closed, permanently.

On the wall behind me as I write are photos of medieval gargoyles–creepy faces half ruined by age, silently bellowing and taunting and snarling. Above the bookcase are Venetian carnival masks, a melancholy woman with her eyes closed and a crescent moon in dreamy repose. Around my apartment are antique postcards from Cairo, a vintage movie poster from Pakistan, a pepper-gourd dragon from Mexico, a stampeding jade elephant from Vietnam, a little Lucite block containing a drop of petroleum from the Da Qing oil field in China, and a framed magazine ad for a Mongolian vodka. It claims that “as a result of its special recipe with the infusion of certain plants and the appropriate amounts of iodine, Chinggis Khan vodka can prevent seasickness among middle-aged men and women living in coastal areas.”

Some of these curiosities are souvenirs my wife and I have picked up traveling; others are gifts from friends who know our tastes. But whatever else this agglomeration of stuff may mean, one thing is clear: I’m the last person who ought to be extolling the virtues of small-town heartland life.

In fact, when I look back now, I’m not sure how much I ever really liked Edwardsville. I do have good memories of some specific things–like the elaborate battles we staged in the back alley and the solemn sessions of dishwashing after dinner. And many of the sights and sounds and textures still have an aching clarity: it’s been 30 years since my last visit, and I still remember the dazzle of gold-flecked green under the trees, and the chime of pump water falling into an enameled pitcher, and the cold slither of silver sweat on an abandoned glass of lemonade, and the intoxicating, almost nauseating tartness of homemade peach preserves spooned out on a breakfast plate. But I also remember the suffocating tedium of a heat wave passed in a house with no air-conditioning, no toys, and no books. And I particularly remember how hard-hearted my hosts were whenever I was depressed or lonely. They had nothing but contempt for what they called “moods.” I’ve wondered since then how exactly we all became convinced that the Edwardsville house was so loving, when the dominant response we got from the inhabitants was a stone-faced lack of sympathy.

But none of that matters. The house did its work: I am as pure a heartlander as it’s possible to be. Anybody can tell at a glance where I’m from. It doesn’t matter what clothes I wear, or how I act: all over the world, people start speaking English to me before I have a chance to open my mouth.

But more than that, Edwardsville is still my baseline for human behavior. The manners and morals I learned there are the only ones I’ve ever believed in. I can’t abide rudeness or disrespect or casual obscenity; even though I’ve been buffeted by decades of counterexamples, I still expect everyone I meet to be unfailingly courteous. At the back of my mind is a model of an ideal society, and it’s an Edwardsvillean dream: shady side streets and solemn-pillared banks and dim post offices, neighbors chatting over back fences and customers gossiping around sales counters, men doffing hats, women instantly given seats on trolley cars, well-scrubbed children in school uniforms snaking down sidewalks on field trips–a whole complex web of civility, decency, patience, and good humor.

I’m just as dismally conservative about religion. I think it’s fair to say I’ve spent my adult life among people who have absolutely no use for the kind of faith I was taught in Edwardsville. My friends have been atheists, pagans, militant humanists, crusading astrologers–they’re more tolerant of Santeria than they are of Christianity. I’ve seen their point; in fact I’ve often envied anti-Christians, since they have the better arguments. But I’m stuck: deep down, at some wordless, irrational level, nothing whatever has changed since my earliest childhood. I’m still convinced that the plain white steeple house of the Disciples of Christ is the shortest way to the truth.

But underlying it all is the prairie itself. When I was a kid I thought the sight of the prairie was the most important part of the whole summer. From where we lived in Evanston it was a serene morning’s glide to Edwardsville down the new interstate in the sultriness of early June, and I would invariably be overwhelmed by my first glimpse of the prairie swelling up around us in all its abundance, a shoreless sea of ruffled green, vast and gentle and welcoming, radiant with benign power. To me this was the real source of everything I learned at the house. It even excused the cruelty of its inhabitants. What did that matter, compared with the immense acceptance all around me? There was nothing hidden here. Whenever I saw a thunderstorm rising in the southwest, billowing up over the steeples and treetops and water towers and grain elevators on the horizon, I thought of God long before I thought of rain.

Today there’s nothing left of my family in Edwardsville. My relatives are scattered around the heartland and the Pacific northwest–steady suburban home owners for the most part, churchgoing Republicans, devotees of skiing and stomach stapling and SUVs. They do still talk about the Edwardsville house with affection, even devotion; it was, one of my cousins said to me recently, “a place where anyone could feel truly loved.” But they also think its part in the family story is long over with, and they aren’t interested in preserving its memory. When the question came up of what to do with the property, the word went around that anybody who wanted it could move in rent free–and there were no takers. It was fine as a daydream, but nobody actually wanted to live there. One of my aunts told me she wanted the house demolished and the land sold off for whatever we could get: we were done with it now, and she’d rather see it destroyed than occupied by strangers.

I’m sure our ancestors would have understood. They didn’t mean to leave anything of themselves behind. No colorful anecdotes, no fond memories, no diaries; only a handful of letters and a thin scattering of mementos: most of my family lived deliberately without drama, without attracting the slightest notice from the outside world, as though being visible was no different from being immoral. They lived and died in remote farms and obscure villages and dusty provincial market towns; they were train conductors and telephone operators, seamstresses and land surveyors, gandy dancers and oil field workers, bachelor uncles and spinster aunts and drunken grandfathers and agoraphobic widows–a whole lost world of marriage vows kept, mortgages paid off, jobs held until retirement, deaths at home surrounded by children and grandchildren, as placid as the bottom of a deep, still pond. It’s as though they all wanted to pass through their lives unobserved by anyone but God.

They almost succeeded too. In the last couple of years I’ve been collecting every scrap I can find about them–rummaging through old papers and poring over old photographs and pestering relatives and family friends and neighbors for their reminiscences–and I’m impressed at how well they erased their tracks. Some of them survive only as names on genealogical tables, their entire lives reduced to the dash between two dates. Others are indistinct faces in photographs: a child yawning or bellowing, a young woman smiling and turning away, a disapproving grandmother caught just this one time before leaving town, dying of cancer, dropping out of the family memory for good. What can possibly be said about their lives? What can really be said about any of my ancestors, when they thought it was indecent to say anything at all?

As far as my relatives today are concerned, this subject, too, is closed: Of course our ancestors were happy, more than happy; their lives had a kind of sweetness we can barely even imagine now. And maybe that’s true. But I keep remembering a conversation I once had with an old family friend, somebody who’d known several generations of the Edwardsville household, all the way back to my great-grandfather. On impulse I asked her, “Do you think they were happy?”

I was half expecting her to dismiss my impertinence with a thunderclap of rage, the way Helen once had. Instead, she thought for a long while. Then she emitted a slow sigh.

“I suppose one or two of them might have been happy, in their way,” she said. “But they sure were good at hiding it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeremy Paschall.