I am in a motel. Fort Dodge, Iowa. A week ago, we packed up our bags, watered the trees one more time, and set out from Ohio to go west. Normally, my husband and I are both very detail oriented, making route decisions and motel reservations long before vacation begins. But this time, we decided to be free and easy. Well, at least free.
In St. Louis, we discovered a vibrant city full of wonderful and distinct neighborhoods. In the LaDue area, we walked down streets with such immense and beautiful historic homes, I was transported. For a HGTV addict, it was nirvana. We ate at a local restaurant where the waitress was so lively and attentive, we wanted her to sit down and eat with us.
Kansas City is full of wonderful suburbs. We stayed with friends, who showed us their town, peppered with memories of growing up with the distinct schizophrenia of those who can stand on one side of the street and be in Kansas, while shouting to a friend on the other side—who is in Missouri. We had barbeque. There is a little bistro there that makes chocolate chess pie. It almost made me cry, it was so good.
I stood on the Santa Fe trail, which runs right through our friends’ neighborhood. The swale worn by millions of wagon wheels is still there. I stood in the deepest part of it and tweeted. It was weird and futuristic. My husband took my picture as I stood in the past while telling the world about it on my iPhone.
There are characters out here in the heartland. We watched the Olympics in a tiny bar in the middle of Iowa, while the locals hooted at the rhythmic gymnastics: “If they can have that stuff in the Olympics, why don’t they put shuffleboard in there? I bet I could make the team!” Someone in the back noticed my husband looking at a map. Before we knew it, there were four people sitting at our table, all of them suggesting things to see in Iowa. Right then and there, we changed our plan. Today we are going to see the Grotto of the Redemption in northwest Iowa. Way off the beaten path. Suggested by a kind man in a red baseball cap, who took the time to give us a tip.
We have had a waitress who is an artist, one who has a degree in classical guitar, one who has worked at the same restaurant since she was fifteen. When we finished our dinner in Omaha, we got a free dessert, because they thought we were “awfully nice.”
I was born in Omaha. My Dad founded the Symphony there. We walked into the Symphony office after an hour’s notice, and they had dragged out archival materials about my father and his career with the orchestra to show us. As we talked with the staffers, one remembered something, and dashed away—coming back with an autograph book that she had as a child. She showed me the page that my father had autographed to her. “To a young musician with great promise.” The familiar handwriting of my dad, long gone, made my eyes water a bit.
We found the house I lived in as a child. I remembered the whole street. “There’s the house where Mr. Foley lived. Nobody trick or treated there. He was the grumpiest old man alive.” There was the graveyard at the end of the street that we were sure had ghosts and huge ravens that flew at you if you passed it after dark.
I knocked on the door of my old house. A young woman answered. When I told her I lived there as a child, she invited us in for a tour. It seemed much smaller than I remembered. I stood in my old bedroom—the one where I had the measles and vomited on the bedspread, and my parents wore sunglasses while cleaning it up, in hopes of blinding themselves to the sight. I told the little girl who lives there now that we had a Siamese cat, and Clare (she had braids and lovely brown eyes) ran outside, returning with a placid black cat. “You can pet him. His name is Jack. He has a little red goatee.”
We spent an hour there. Sarah, the owner, asked me if the refrigerator was always by the back door. I showed her where the peony bushes used to be. She took notes about my Dad, the way the basement used to look, and what the tile looked like in the bathroom when I lived there.
We had to leave. I felt that we had imposed; I didn’t want to take up any more of her time. We had a lot of driving yet to do that day. Here is the thing, though. Thomas Wolfe got it wrong. Not only can you go home again, but when you do, they invite you in and ask you for your memories.