By Frank Wessling
Books about cats and dogs are popular. There’s this Iowa cat named Dewey who became the most famous citizen of Spencer, and a dog named Marley who won’t learn human manners. This is OK: animals help us keep some balance in life and remember that there are some things we can’t own no matter how we try.
But the people of Oxford, right here in the Davenport Diocese, deserve as much attention as Dewey and Marley. They are the subject of a lovely book published in 2008 titled simply “The Oxford Project.”
It’s both a picture book and a testament to plain honesty. Each individual who stood in front of the photographer’s camera for a black and white photo becomes a unique statement of human dignity within personal vulnerability. With some of the added personal comments, they show the simple clarity of vision so common in small town living.
There’s Al Scheetz talking about his wife, Delores: “My wife is a full-blooded Italian. Does that tell you anything? We had seven kids — six girls and a boy. That’s what happens when you’re Catholic.”
Eileen Jiras says she and her husband, Larry, “have known each other forever. We lived three miles apart when we were growing up.” Now, “On Wednesdays we eat dinner at St. Mary’s for Super Sixties. Last week we had chicken, noodles, apple salad. The week before we had roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, and a wonderful Cherry Delight. I don’t have time to take a nap.”
Ed Cox says he and his wife of 61 years argue “once in a while, but you’ve got to have ‘em every now and then. We go to church every Sunday. We have six kids, and no one has left the church. I’m on oxygen now. I think it has something to do with all the bean and hog dust. They say it’s bad on your lungs.”
Not everyone in Oxford sounds as complete as these people. Some speak of searching for a better life, of not being accepted, of infidelity and abandonment, of still feeling the attraction of a wild fling even after marriage. What everyone shares, “successful” or not, is a direct, uncomplicated sense of responsibility for being who they are.
These things happened, they say, and here I am as a bit of God’s truth and goodness today.
“The Oxford Project” is a big, heavy book that will lightly touch any heart. The pictures were taken by Peter Feldstein, who lives in Oxford and taught photography for a long time at the University of Iowa. The book’s asking price is $50. That’s a lot. Still, some things are worth a lot, as Oxfordians might say.