Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Spilling love

We piled in the car Thursday and took off for Iowa, birthplace of both my parents and once home to countless cousins, aunts and uncles. Our destination was the wedding of my cousin's daughter. We left a day early to sneak in a visit with a sister-in-law on my husband's side, also in Iowa.

Iowa has been a second home to me. We visited several times a year as a family and my twin sister and I would spend weeks here in summers. Besides home, it was the place we spent the most time. My parents were born 100 miles apart, so we split our visits between the Rose and Ogan clans. Though we had a slight preference for one side because it came with an entire slew of relatives, including twin cousins a year older and their two brothers, one our age exactly and one two years younger, it is my Grandmother Rose's house that fills my dreams. I know it intimately from the 1930s blue velvet couches with clawed feet to the wood columns separating the living and dining areas, the cold room where pies, cakes and cookies were stored alongside onions and potatoes and the upstairs attic with two fluffy beds, a lot of old clothes and a stuffed pheasant. It was a magical place.

The drive that was so boring as a child was lush, green and much anticipated this trip. It has been seven years since I stepped foot in Iowa, much too long. I would not have known exactly how long I had been gone if it were't for Uncle Bill, a retired fifth-grade teacher who knows the family history and major dates.

We overnighted in Davenport with my high-energy, easy hostess sister-in-law, Tara. Showing up on her doorstep at 10:30 pm, she welcomed us with red wine, farmer's market fresh goat cheese and gluten-free crackers. As president of the local chamber, she was off early in the morning for a meeting and major golf event. We soaked in the hot tub on the deck of her 1930s house, emerging refreshed and ready to meander through southern Iowa.

The sturdy green corn was glorious and thick. My dad remembers planting it 42 inches apart. Now, they are planted shoulder to shoulder, so thick you can't walk between stalks. Lush fields of nothing but soy and corn, which fills so many of our foods. Occasionally we smelled pigs and spotted a few cows, but this is crop country. As kids, we joked that there were more pigs than people in Iowa. Tara set us straight: 27 million hogs and 3 million people. She would know.
House of dreams

I wanted to visit Grandmother Rose's house and re-travel the road from Brighton, her town, to Indianola, my mother's birthplace. It was a trip we took a million times as kids. This time I wanted to take it with intention. Getting from Davenport to Brighton was a lovely journey. Iowa is so much more rolling than I remember, unlike its flat neighbors. I reveled in the rich cropland and blue skies, even the scent of manure.

We approached Brighton and I noticed I didn't have the butterflies of childhood. We stopped beside the house, which look so diminished – perhaps because the front porch was missing. As I was standing on the curb taking pictures, a woman popped out of a building across the street and sternly asked what I was doing. "You can't take pictures of private property without permission," she barked. "I can from the public right-of-way" I responded in a tone of which I am not very proud. This depressing conversation foreshadowed what we would uncover lurching though the very small town: empty buildings, general disrepair and a lackluster appearance. Not the vivid place I remember of cheese cut fresh from the block and wrapped in butcher paper, trips to the sundry for small toys and candy, collecting fresh eggs from compliant hens and lazily rocking on the green, metal glider watching the world slowly pass.

We sailed out of town and toward Oskaloosa, the halfway point our grandparents would meet to exchange us. We always stopped at an in ice cream shop. Believe it or not, it still exists with a new version of the cow-jumped-over-the-moon logo. At least some things have survived.

I kept waiting for the butterflies as we jaunted into Indianola, but they never appeared. We were anxious to get to my Aunt Con's house for the pre-wedding party. Connie died last summer and I wasn't able to get out for her funeral. Her children graciously invited us to stay at the her house for the wedding and it seemed like a wonderful way to say goodbye. Her presence was everywhere – literally. A year later and her daughters have only tackled the mementos and life accumulation in the basement, no small feat. Chris was there heaving burgers on the grill and Julie had set the table with her fabulous salads. They are Connie's children and my first cousins. Doug stayed at home in California for necessary surgery and Jennie, as mother of the bride, was at the rehearsal. This seemed like the times I relish the most: family streaming in, eating, reminiscing and laughing. The Ogans have quite the sense of humor.

My cousin Linda, on my dad's side, stopped by and we learned she is related to the other side in a very round-about way through second marriages. That's Iowa for you.

The next morning Chris and two of his three boys and Tad and I and our two girls made the pilgrimage to the corner sundry for green-river phosphates. They were thirst-quenching and rivaled the green-ness of the corn.

There was no escaping the corn, even after the beautiful wedding. The reception was held on a farm in Bondurant, Ia, beside sweeping corn fields and the scene of a decadent sunset. All at once, a group of us descended on the edge of the field and began to find our way into the maze. We soon realized it would be too easy to get lost in the dense forest and stuck closer to the opening. With that wonderful inherited sense of humor, we all began imagining zombies and vanishing relatives and a sedate group shot quickly turned to fun fantasy.
Iowa cornfield zombies/Tad Barney photo

Sunday morning, we slowly packed our bags and toured every inch of Connie's house, relishing this last visit. All weekend we poked through the stacks of photos remembering the freedom of childhood we experienced here. Friday night, Chris had handed me a square stack of faded Instamatic photos he called the power pack. Pawing through several times, I understood why: these were the images I had chiseled in my memory. Pillow fights and overnights, Christmas-morning mayhem, gatherings around the dining-room table and movie marathons in the TV room.

The power pack helped me realize why the butterflies were dormant. Iowa, beautiful as it is, is more about the people it held for me and so many of them have moved or passed on or away. This visit was the closure I needed to say goodbye to childhood and much-loved relatives.

• When has travel touched my heart?
• How can a sense of place move me?
• And what about those that peopled them?
• What's it like to travel back in childhood?
• How do I express gratitude for my life?

I'd held off making the
hotel reservation for
some vague reason

and then the real
invitation came,
to spend the weekend
in Connie's house

and I jumped on
the chance to
recapture the
magic of childhood
she'd spun here

raising four children
as a widow and
orchestra teacher
before anyone ever
heard of single parents

yet her heart was
so full of love and
light, it spilled from
her own four to
anyone she

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