In our wandering society, there’s something almost suspect about living your life in the same town in which you grew up. As Americans, it’s practically part of our genetic code that, like our pioneer foremothers and fathers, we move out into the world to seek opportunities we can’t possibly imagine we’d find at home. We head for parts unknown, looking for excitement, romance, or the next big thing, for brushes with fame and experiences unlike any we’ve had before. We assume by that leaving what’s familiar, our lives will be richer.
But it turns out that the unpredictable arc of life happens whether you choose to move every year or two or spend your entire life in one town. Even a town like Oxford, Iowa.
In the 1970s, native New Yorker Peter Feldstein moved to tiny, out-of-the-way Oxford. The locals weren’t sure what to make of this big city artist — probably even less sure when, in the spring of 1984, he sent around letters asking each of the towns’ residents to pose for a “come as you are” photograph in his studio on Oxford’s main street. No one showed up at first, but gradually residents trickled in. By summer’s end he had taken photos of 670 Oxford residents. Most of them posed simply, standing in their everyday garb in front of a wrinkled drop cloth. The following spring he exhibited about 100 of the photos in the town’s American Legion Hall, then filed the photos away.
Pat Henkelman (b. 1929) in 1984 and 2005. "I get up at 5 a.m. My son — he works as a prison guard — stops by for breakfast every morning. He usually wants Cream of Wheat or oatmeal. Then I say my morning prayers, take a bath, and eat breakfast. After that, I clean houses. I come home and have lunch, usually a sandwich and a cup of green tea. I watch TV, usually CNN. Sometimes I take a nap... I think the instant you die, you step out of your body. You have to be perfect to go to heaven — like Mother Teresa — but almost everyone else goes to purgatory. There used to be a hat store in town. I wish it still was here. I love hats."
In 2005, Feldstein decided to take follow-up photos of those Oxford residents who hadn’t moved away or died. Again people posed, often in a stance identical to the one they’d used in those first photos, heads tipped to the left or right, hands on hips or hanging loosely at their sides.
Calvin Colony (b. 1956) in 1984 and 2006. "I’m a plumber, but I’m also a diver for the county. I dive for drowning victims, hunting accidents, snowmobiles that go through the ice. It’s black down there and you’re crawling through logs. I’ve probably pulled out twenty bodies since ’73. I’ve had maybe 13 lions over the years. You can train ’em, but you can never tame ‘em. You can’t trust ’em around children. They’re like cats around mice. They’ll kill a dog pretty quick. I used to feed ’em roadkill deer. I fly gyrocopters. They’re a lot of fun. I also fly a World War II photo reconnaissance plane. It’s dark green and still has D-Day invasion stripes on it. For the last six years, I’ve been going to a resort in Jamaica called Hedonism. On one beach, you have to have your bottoms on. On the other beach, you can’t lay out unless you’re naked. You’ll see people having sex if you stay around long enough. All the alcohol you want is included in the price. It’s a good time. You don’t have to take many clothes."
They’d aged of course, and gained a bit of weight or lost a bit of hair. But these outward changes gave little indication of the seismic shifts in many of their lives — of children born and died, couples joined and marriages torn asunder, career and travel dreams realized or quashed.
Kristi Somerville (b. 1982) in 1984 and 2007. "I just graduated from the University with a degree in psychology. Right now I’m working in a junior high school with kids who have mental disabilities. Eventually I’d like to get a PhD and be some sort of therapist. When I turned 18, I had a small armband with a heart tattooed on my arm, but as I got older, it wasn’t me, so I changed it to a Pacific Northwest Indian design. I have a Celtic tattoo on the back of my neck. I know a guy who does tattoos, so I traded one of my paintings for the tattoo on my arm. I do mostly acrylics on canvas. I paint a lot of trees, plants, and leaves. I like to be outside, and I love going to concerts. I just went to Lollapalooza in Chicago. My parents didn’t run a very tight ship, so I went to a lot of concerts around the country when I was growing up. I have an Obama sticker on my Volkswagen right now. He’s really charismatic. It’s not that I’m anti-Hillary. I like the idea of Bill back in the White House. I just think Obama would bring some change. I want to travel to Eastern Europe, South America, Central America, Mexico, Asia, and more places in the U.S. I’ve been to Europe a couple of times. I can’t see myself ending up in Oxford, but you never know."
Journalist Stephen Bloom interviewed about 100 of them and found them remarkably candid. The paired photos and memoirs are compiled in The Oxford Project.
Ben Stoker (b. 1984) in 1984 and 2005. "When I was ten, my dad died. He had renal failure. He used to take me to his office on Saturdays, and in the afternoon we’d catch a Kernels game. Pretty much I think about my dad every day. I remember feeling his beard against my face. I remember his hands — they were soft and warm. Two years ago, when I was 19, my mother died of cancer. She was my guiding light. I was very angry with God. He came and took my father and then he took the other person I loved most in the world. I’d be a liar if I said everything is all right. I know I’ll spend an eternity with both my parents. Two sayings come back to me: 'He’s not going to put you through something you can’t handle,' and 'What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.' I have dreams, mostly of my mother. I dream that my family is in Disney World and we’re going from ride to ride, but my mother’s the only one not talking. I started at Luther College two months after my mother died. It was too soon. I turned into a party animal. I needed to fix my life, so I came back to Oxford. I used to want to study pre-med, but lately I’ve been thinking of becoming a teacher. My mother was a teacher. I want to have a family. I could care less if I make a mark on the world. I just want to be the best father I can be. A lot of people don’t like small towns because they’re so tight-knit. But that’s what makes this place so great. You know who’s sleeping with whom, but when your mother dies, you also know there’ll be 28 people at your door with casseroles."
The stories in The Oxford Project demonstrate many things — that love sometimes lasts, that parents want what’s best for their children but can’t always provide it, that there’s more than one way to live your life, that simple things can provide stability and sometimes mean the most.
Don Saxton (b. 1939) in 1984 and 2005. "My life really hasn’t changed. Maybe I’ve put on weight, but not much. Ten pounds, tops. I haven’t lost much hair. My health is still good. I still go to church every Saturday night, and I still sing in the church choir. I’m retired from teaching high school typing, business, and accounting. Sometimes I substitute, but I really don’t like that. When you retire you ought to mean it. There are people who say they’re bored. I believe them, but I feel sorry for ’em. I’m satisfied here. Never thought of moving. My roots are too deep. I’ve been mayor since 1974. I like the small-town atmosphere. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been having coffee and doughnuts with the same men at 5:30 every morning. I’ve been to lots of the larger cities once or twice –– Dallas, Miami Beach, Chicago, New York –– but I’m always glad to get back. I collect antique cars. I have a ’26 Model T, a ’31 Model A, two ’51 Chevrolets, a ’54 Chevrolet fire truck that was in service for the city of Oxford for 44 years, three Oldsmobiles (’60, ’72, and ’74), two Buicks (’50 and ’66), and three tractors (two ’53 Old Reds and a ’54 Farmall). There was a time in Oxford when we had two farm implement dealerships, a drugstore, a hardware store, a general merchandise store, three grocery stores, three gas stations, a welding shop, a Chevrolet dealer, a Ford dealer, a bank, three cafes, a weekly newspaper, a physician, a dentist, and a hotel. All that’s gone now."
And they prove that you don’t have to live in a big city for life to happen. You don’t even have to leave home. Sorrow and fear, passion and joy will find you, and the completely unexpected can happen whether you strike out for parts unknown or move just down the block.
Jim Hoyt, Sr. (1925-2008) in 1984 and 2005. "My father worked for the railroad and my mother was a rural schoolteacher. I went from kindergarten through twelfth grade in the same building. My biggest achievement was winning the Johnson County Spelling Bee in 1939. I was in the eighth grade and I still remember the word I spelled correctly: 'archive.' After basic training I was sent overseas and went through the Battle of the Bulge. I’m the last living of the first four American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. There were thousands of bodies piled high. I saw hearts that had been taken from live people in medical experiments. They said a wife of one of the SS officers — they called her the Bitch of Buchenwald — saw a tattoo she liked on the arm of a prisoner, and had the skin made into a lampshade. I saw that. I received the Bronze Star, but when I got home, I didn’t have a job. I worked at a bank, then for Burroughs Adding Machine, then in construction. I ended up a rural mail carrier. I have post-traumatic stress disorder. My oldest son, who was awarded the Purple Heart for service in Vietnam, suffers from the same thing. Seeing these things, it changes you. I was a kid. Des Moines had been the farthest I’d ever been from home. I still have horrific dreams. Usually someone needs help and I can’t help them. I’m in a situation where I’m trapped and I can’t get out. I go to a group therapy session every week at the VA. For the 50-year anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, they asked me to return. They would’ve paid for the whole works. But I said no. I didn’t want to bring back those memories. Thinking back, I would have pushed to be a psychologist — if for no other reason than to understand myself better. I met my wife Doris at a dance in Solon back in 1948. She’s the love of my life. I don’t know what I’d do without her."
Gain more insight into the citizens of Oxford in the video below.
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.