My plane touched down in Missouri. The air was cool and sharp. The horizon was broomstick flat. It looked like rain.
In a few moments I was in a cheap rental car that smelled like an armpit. I cruised along the featureless byways of the “Show-Me State.” The state where I was born. The state where my father ended his own life.
I entered Parkville. The town where our lives went to perdition. And I remembered things.
My father used to tell a story about why Missouri is called the Show-Me State. When I was a kid, we’d ride in his rusted Ford F-100. Daddy would be eating licorice or sunflower seeds or spitting into a Coke bottle.
He said Missouri was called the Show-Me State because a politician used to go around telling other politicians to put their money where their mouths were. “Show me!” the politician would say.
Daddy used to do an imitation of a politician by growling “SHOW ME, SIR!” and waving his hands around like a televangelist undergoing a brain seizure.
I never forgot it.
The truth about the state nickname, I later discovered, is more complicated.
For starters, there are many theories on why it’s called the Show-Me State. Not just one. My father’s explanation wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t conclusive.
I did some Googling. The politician Daddy was referring to was Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, from Cape Girardeau County. The year was 1896. The congressman was a dead ringer for Missouri’s other poster boy, Samuel Clemens. He had a voice like a hammer and the personality of a heart attack.
Vandiver once shouted from the campaign platform:
“I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me! I am from Missouri! You have got to show me!”
But historians think the Show-Me nickname started earlier. One story originates in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado.
In the 1890s, when Colorado miners went on strike, replacement workers were shipped in from Missouri. These workers were from the prairie. Many were not miners, they were farmers and cotton picking chicken pluckers.
So on the job, whenever Colorado foremen explained mining methods to the Missourians, the hayseeds would get confused. Whereupon pit bosses would say, “He’s from Missouri, you’re just going to have to SHOW him.”
There are several more stories and anecdotes. There are also Show-Me State songs, poems, nursery rhymes, and even limericks.
“There once was a guy from Missouri,
“He committed a crime in a fury,
“In the courtroom he cried,
“On the gallows he died,
“For his wife was head of the jury.”
I drove through Parkville. It was raining slightly.
Parkville is a nanoscopic border town with quaint storefronts and a Rockwell vibe. There’s not a lot here.
When my father died, the town barely had 2,000 people. Now the population is three times that. They even have a sushi restaurant now. If you can imagine.
I wound through the sidestreets, trying to go from a childhood memory. Because there was a house here I needed to see.
And eventually I found it.
I threw my rental car into Park. I stood on the curb and looked at a nondescript garage door.
After my father was released from jail, he came here. Behind that garage door is where my father placed a shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger with his big toe. Behind that door my life changed forever.
My life has taken a serpentine course. For a time, I lost my personality. I lost my optimism. I lost my boyhood. We left Missouri for a part of Florida known as LA (Lower Alabama). I grew up there.
But I’m not crying today. Because I’ve cried enough. For most of my life I played the role of victim. I have perpetually asked why. Why me, God? Why did this happen to me?
Why, why, why?
But as a middle-aged man, I realize now this was the wrong question to ask. I believe the question I should have been asking is “Why was I selected?”
In fact, I can almost hear the Great Artist asking me this question. I can almost hear his booming voice, echoing throughout the prairie.
“Why did I choose you, kid?” He’s asking. “Why would I choose you, of all people, to undergo a life painted with physical abuse, mental illness, shame, and suicide? Why would I allow anyone in this world to suffer?”
The answer is: I don’t know why, Lord. I don’t know why, because I’m not smart enough to know why you would select a blamed fool like me.
I was born in Missouri, God. So I guess you’re just going to have to Show Me.
stephenpe - April 30, 2023 12:35 pm
Sounds like a necassary trip. I hope it gives you some more closure. I recenently visited my first house in Lakeland Fla with my daughter. We lived there till I was 4. Memories flood back. We love you , Sean. If you need a break one day Im willing to slip in a story……..
Reba Brewington - April 30, 2023 12:43 pm
My friend Tina, saw you last night. I’m one of those Morning Break women. We are such a God loving group of women. As I read this, I could put myself in your place young man. Continue writing please.
David in California - April 30, 2023 2:24 pm
Good question. Good answer.
Dee Thompson - April 30, 2023 7:25 pm
I didn’t know you were living in Missouri when your dad passed. I thought you had always lived in Florida. No matter. What’s important is when you re-visit the past like that you realize it doesn’t have any power over you any more. You aren’t a prisoner of it. My adopted son endured terrible abuse and neglect and the suicide of his older brother, and he was less than 8 years old during all of it. He was 10 when I adopted him. After he got counseling he eventually realized he could let go of that pain and it wouldn’t have to define his life. That was a long and painful process but for those of us whose childhoods were awful, the good news is that we can still find love, joy, and happiness. I’m so glad your life has become a tribute instead of a cautionary tale. Bless you. [BTW, if you want to know more about my amazing son, read here: https://deescribbler.typepad.com/my_weblog/2023/04/to-sleep-beneath-the-sky.html%5D
Cheryl Singers - April 30, 2023 7:40 pm
It was so good to see you last evening, Sean. Please tell your mom hello from us. Your talents were evident at 12. So good to see how those talents and gifts continue to grow. Know that your gifts are making a difference in peoples lives. I hope it’s fun for you. Creative people need an outlet or they explode!! haha. Seems you have found many. You are blessed.
Fran Decker - May 1, 2023 2:07 am
Sean, all of your posts are meaningful to me in some way. But today’s was exceptional. My husband took his own life over 20 years ago and the lessons I absorbed from that experience could not have been learned in other ways. I too am convinced that God had to show me