After a visit home last weekend, I made my way back to Columbia with a Walmart plastic bag full of apples from the apple tree that grows behind my parents’ house. This weekend I decided was the prime time to transform the little green and yellow gems into one of my all-time favorite foods, apple butter.
As I sat in the kitchen of my small apartment that is close to campus (but across from a fire station), I put on some bluegrass music and was instantly transported back to my grandparent’s kitchen. Grandpa Swabby tells a story from his younger years where he and two of his friends rode the train from Missouri to Washington state to pick apples one season. He describes long work hours six days a week, a small cabin by the lake, and the mountainous scenery that was vastly different than the farmland of Dunnegan, Missouri and the rest of Polk County.
These memories, paired with faded and yellowing photographs, bring to life a time, and place I can only go through the shared memories of grandpa. The stories are told at a pace that reminds me of the way fiddles and mandolins bring to life a song that was originally written before most homes had electricity, that I now play from my iPhone. The rich tradition of oral histories passed generation to generation is something that captivates me every time and turns me into a wide-eyed child sitting on the floor, regardless of which elder is sharing.
After this most recent visit, the gears started turning more and more about the direction I want to take my research and project during my time at the University of Missouri. Grad school at Mizzou has been incredibly eye opening for me, and in a way, healing. For so long, I wanted to get out of the rural Midwest and escape to somewhere coastal, or somewhere more diverse and challenging for me. This small-town identity that I felt like stuck to me without a choice has grown into a badge of honor that I proudly share with those in academia and journalism. Quickly after starting classes, I realized that my project and research for my master thesis is going to focus on a rural issue in these small towns that feel so familiar, whether I have visited them or not.
While the specifics are very blurry currently, future classes and conversations with my professors will help me to decipher what it is I want to launch into.
I wrote that first portion in early September. The air was still warm with only nods to the fall that was coming soon. Now, early November, the brisk mornings and end of daylight savings lets me know that winter is knocking on Missouri’s door once again.
I just submitted the first rough draft of my literature review for my graduate research. The topic? The digital divide and rural issues. A topic that is near and dear to my heart and has been an area of my academic research for the last few years now. My passion stems from living it. Urban areas have the infrastructure to keep college students like myself connected without even batting an eye. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, I returned home to the 40 acres that I grew up on, shooting hoops in the gravel drive and discovering my love for photography out on the small lake behind our house. It was clear that remote learning was going to be the new normal for the time being, but without internet access at the time, we were left scrambling to figure something out.
For the first couple weeks, in the most nostalgic haze I can even describe, I was waking up in my childhood bedroom, getting in my car, and cutting across the countryside on gravel roads to return to the country school I attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. Here I was using the WiFi to upload assignments, join zoom calls, and do my best to stay connected as a sophomore journalism student. Luckily, a short time later my parents had gotten a WiFi provider to install a network at home, and alas, I could Zoom while looking out at the open fields that were turning into hues of green, welcoming springtime again, making a global pandemic seem like a far off sci-fi nightmare, rather than reality.
I think of those who don’t have the means to get connected like I was able to. I think about the elders in rural communities who statistically use more healthcare services every year that are navigating a more online and automated world. I think of my Papa Steward who owns no computer, but likely, prefers it that way. I think of the places my Great Grandma Keller wrote about in her “Keller’s Kolumn” for the Clinton Eye where likely, time has not marched on much, but the world around taps it foot, waiting.
The entire conversation is so complex about the digital divide. The use of the terms the “haves” and the “have-nots” is stained across every academic journal that references who has and who doesn’t have access to the internet. As someone who has lived in the “have-nots” column before, I am surely thankful for the things that I was in the “have” category of, and that I can look back fondly on. I had a million stars overhead every night it was clear, God-fearing grandparents, high school basketball rivalries that felt bigger than the NBA finals, and miles upon miles of dusty gravel roads in every direction. While I may not of always had the coveted 25 megabytes per second broadband, I am thankful for what I did have instead.
I am excited to do this work, and hopeful that some good can be reaped from the seeds I am sowing. It isn’t pity for the communities that could have been mine that drives me, it’s advocating in the way that I can for all the people just like me, that due to life circumstance or sheer interest went down a path that was not mine. My spot in rural America is a nuanced one. Times where I tell people from my graduate school cohort, “I graduated with 9 people from my public high school” or let out a instinctive remark like “I’m getting’ ate up” when a mosquito bites me, I am instantly transported right back to being a sun-burnt, dust covered Midwesterner that’s finishing a day of driving a tractor, while dreaming of what else lies out there, far from where the Ozarks meet the Prairie.
My Grandpa, Gene Swabby, standing on the front step of the shack that he lived in during his time in Washington state as an apple picker.
Dwight Alexander, one of Grandpa Swabby’s apple picker companion and bunk mate, pictured in front of the shack that they lived in during the summer they worked in Washington state.