Let me tell you what I know.
A friend of mine and I do writing prompts every once in a while. This piece was written in response to the prompt of “place.”
The town of Laramie holds the distinct rank of being third in population in the state of Wyoming. In any other state this might be an actual mark of note, something to be mildly proud of. But in Wyoming, the least populous state in the entire nation, this means that Laramie and its bare 17 square miles contain just over 30,000 people.
It’s got other stuff, too, of course — the ruins of Fort Sanders, a garrison meant to protect the workers of the Union Pacific Railroad as it crawled across the nation in its infancy; proximity to the dark lines of trees in Medicine Bow National Forest; and what I have heard is the tallest building in the state (nevermind that the tallest building in Wyoming is a 12-story student dormitory on the grounds of the University of Wyoming).
Altogether now knowing these things about this place, you might be surprised to discover that Laramie is also the location of the state’s largest collection of artifacts, decor and furniture from the Middle East — my grandparents’ house, a modest mustard-yellow stucco one story home tucked away on Sheridan Street.
Now, I can’t prove without a doubt that no other location in Wyoming is host to a larger amount of Middle Eastern items — this isn’t a fact one can just dig up on, say, Wikipedia, or make a call to the city hall office about. But given what I know about Laramie, and given what I know about my grandparents and their home, I’m going to go ahead and stick by that brazen assertion.
Let me tell you what I know.
I know that my grandfather, Francois, was born in 1924 in the mustard yellow home to his parents, two Belgian immigrants who had made their way as French professors at the University of Iowa, eventually making their way West for opportunities, as many before them had done. But instead of gold or promises of land, they came to this little city on the high plains for tenured positions in the University of Wyoming’s French department.
I know they passed the house down to my grandfather, their only child, who didn’t live in it fulltime until his 60s. With him he brought his wife of decades, my grandmother, Margaret, a woman from a farm outside of Cheyenne, a woman born to a Chinese man who’d worked on the very railroad that Fort Sanders protected, and a white woman named Fern whose family had lived in Wyoming since nobody is sure when. My grandmother was a young co-ed he’d met on a blind date at a mixer at the university and married a year later.
I know in the interim, back before they moved into the little mustard yellow house and filled it with their items from the globe, they lived everywhere from Barranquilla, Colombia, to Khartoum to Jidda. This was a result of my grandfather’s career as a foreign service officer and then ambassador, one that saw him send his children to boarding school in Rome and had his wife become as entwined and devoted to the foreign areas she lived in and served as he was.
Along the way, they picked up some things. Rugs, of course. Literally dozens of dallahs, Middle Eastern and Bedouin coffee pots made of brass and etched with delicate decorations (these are the items most likely to have ended up dispersed amongst the grandchildren; I’m looking at one right now sitting on my window sill as I write this). Several framed prints of photographs of women in burqas and men in tunics sitting in circles, laughing.
And it all ended up back in Laramie, Wyoming. The most unlikely spot for a global microcosm of decor, dropped unwittingly into a high plains conservative town, elevation lifting the plateau of the city up and over 7,000 feet, and bitter winters snapping the wind around the buildings. Can inanimate items miss their places of origins and creation? I have to think if it’s a dallah from the Arabian Peninsula, it must be a little bit surprised just how cold it can get in Wyoming.
Sheridan street and the streets around it are quiet and flat. Gardens are tended neatly, some with startling green grass — an anomaly for somewhere as dry as high Wyoming — and some more like the landscapes of the southwest — tiny wildflowers and succulents scattering the lawns amongst artfully placed gravel. Its streets are laid out in precise little grids, a fact that’s always struck me as incongruent with its beginnings as a lawless tent city that sprung up around the railroad. But wind your way through and you’ll see city parks with bandstands, bike paths meeting the roads, local coffee shops dotting the downtown, new homes and condos sprouting up at the far end of the town. But for the loom of the Rocky Mountains on the skyline, and the antelopes that dot the grass as you drive out of town on Interstate 80, you could be in a suburb outside any major east coast metropolitan.
My grandparents’ home, outwardly, fits neatly into this suburban town plopped in the low valley between the Snowy and Laramie Mountain ranges. The small backyard had a garden my grandmother tended, and the garage was filled with my grandfather’s wood workshop and hanging reams of tools. We spent summers playing wiffle ball, launching the plastic ball into the roof’s gutters, selling lemonade with the neighbor kids on the street corner, and climbing the massive pine tree on the corner of the road, never feeling scared of its height, because you were climbing amongst branches that were so dense you knew they’d net you if you fell.
It was only on the interior of their home that you got a sense that this was a different house than others on its block. The first thing you might notice is the massive wooden Kuwaiti door holding court in the dining room in between two traditional china cabinets. Its dark panels are convolutedly detailed with carvings, metal studs and a hefty knocker. (catherine speaking here, i need to fill in this spot with some more deets about how the hell and from where my grandparents actually got this from bc i’m sure it’s actually pretty interesting and i’ve never actually asked bc am bad granddaughter). Also imposing were the Moroccan trunks placed throughout the house, used for storage or coffee tables, that any of us could have easily fit into, if only we were strong enough to lift the weighty tops.
But it was the smaller items that captured my and my siblings’ imaginations every summer that we visited Laramie for two weeks. In particular I loved to play with a stackable, ornate brass tiffin lunchbox, that came apart into three pieces for which to stack your rice separate from your curry, and to which a slender fork and spoon screwed onto the side. I loved to take it apart and put it back together, wondering all the while how something so beautiful and mysterious was used for something so practical and mundane as taking lunch to your job every day.
What did these things mean to my grandparents, a Belgian-American and a Half Chinese farmer girl who’d majored in home ec and nutrition? Particularly my grandmother — could anything she saw in her likely unexpected years across the world have been more different to her from her family’s farm outside of Cheyenne, or the downtown diner her father eventually opened, than the souks of Dubai or the flat, dusty lands of Kuwait?
I’ve always seen it as a conundrum that my grandparents retired back to Laramie. By the point they were finished with their careers, they were sophisticated global travellers, world-worn politicos who had seen everything from Arab oil embargo to the rise of Saddam Hussein across the border from Kuwait, where my grandfather last served the State Department. How could they live out their remaining years in a dusty little town one grocery store and an innate aversion to anything — or anyone — foreign seeming?
I’m not sure. My grandfather passed away two years ago, and my grandmother, now in her mid-90s, lives with my parents in an in-law suite my mom had custom built to suit her. It’s got new everything — a plush couch, a marble-countered bathroom, a large flatscreen TV for her to watch the constant barrage of CNN that she prefers. But next to her bed are a framed photo of my grandfather, and in the window is a dallah. I’m sure they take her back to both her homes — the little house on Sheridan street layered with woven rugs and brass ornaments, and the places she occupied across the Atlantic in another lifetime.