On a recent trip to the US, we ended up within shouting distance of my old hometown. That's the town that the family left almost sixty year ago when they braved the long and arduous trip to California on the highway of dreams called Route 66. Naturally, this opportunity could not be missed.
Our first stop was a hospital in another town about ten miles away. It is where I was born. No, I didn't expect anyone to remember me, I just wanted to take some pictures and maybe get a brochure on the hospital's history.
Upon entry, we noticed an information desk manned by four elderly gentlemen volunteers. All I had to do was mention the family name and they all started telling me about the fame of cousin Ronnie and his football prowess (just 55 years ago), my Aunt and Uncle's old store, and what cousin Delores' kids were up to. I learned Aunt Chancy's daughter had worked at the hospital for a while but was now an administrator somewhere else.
The old boys all agreed, "You have to talk to our Administrator, she knows your cousin!" Off we go to tour the hospital, spend a considerable amount of time walking down memory lane with the Administrator and collecting a treasure trove of information on the family and the hospital's history. All this and we haven't even arrived in my hometown yet!
That is the next stop though and it doesn't disappoint. After our family had moved 'out-west', a man and his wife that had both attended school with my Sister bought our home. On a previous visit we had sat outside at a picnic table in the back yard and talked to the husband about old times … and the house. We heard from the old-boys at the hospital that the husband had passed away the year prior but that the wife was still living in the house that was to be our first stop.
As we drove up to the old homestead, the memories came flooding back; the family reunions, the 'crazy-eight and pinochle card games between by Dad and his brothers that caused tempers to flare, the flood filling the cellar and making it necessary for my Sister and I to be paddled in a row-boat up the street so we could go to school and so much more.
The house is located across the street from a park, on the shore of a lake, on the Illinois River. I recalled fishing in the lake for Bullhead but catching mostly carp and sunfish, throwing rocks at snakes swimming by and skating on thin ice in the winter.
I remembered my dog falling through the ice near the shore and my desperate struggle to wade out to him, breaking the ice as I went and, I remember my Mother yelling at me when I and the dog walked into the house, both of us soaking wet and shivering. She had warned me not to go on the ice until it was frozen solid. It didn't matter when I protested, "I didn't go on the ice 'Mickey' did!" Her logic was, I was supposed to be smarter than the dog. I don't know where she got that idea.
All of this and so much more raced through my head as we pulled up outside the house. As my wife walked over to the park to take a picture of the lake, I told her I would tell the Mrs in the house we were going to take some pictures. I thought she might not recognise me and she might get concerned.
When she came to the door and I told her we would be taking some pictures of the house she said, "You're Keith aren't you?" When I admitted I was, she insisted that my wife and I come in for a glass of lemonade and to sit and talk for a while. (Keith is my name in an alternate life.)
It was when we walked through the front door and into the house that time seemed to stand still for me. This was the first time I had been in this house in fifty-eight years and I felt as if my Mom, Dad, Sister and I had had just left the day before. One built-in bookcase had been removed but other than that, all I could see was exactly as we had left it, all those years ago. It was a moment I shall never forget.
After we were poured a cold glass of lemonade, we sat and talked with this kind lady about so many things and so many people from so long ago. She said they had researched the title to the house and found it was built in 1914 … and was still as solid as a rock. She told of the many memories the house held for her and I remember wondering how one home could hold so many memories. The entire experience is one very few people will ever know and I feel so privileged to have been given this gift.
Before we left we walked through more of the house but I didn't want to intrude on the private areas. We were told the attic had been finished off into a bedroom area but the basement never changed. I asked if the coal room still had tepees painted on the walls from when my Mom was the Cub Scout den leader but apparently, they had faded long ago.
The workbench was still at the bottom of the stairs to the basement, it was where my Dad had mounted a hand operated meat grinder and he and I made fresh ground horseradish … and cried over it. That was also where he kept the earthworms he sold to fishermen who came to the lake unprepared. He kept them there, that is, until the flood waters invaded the basement. When the water receded we had dead earthworms clinging to the walls of the basement until they were all scraped off and his business venture collapsed. Everywhere I looked brought back more memories than I could ever imagine.
We said our goodbyes to this wonderful lady and as we drove out of town we passed Uncle Vince's house, Grandpa's grocery store, the church where I received First Communion and the vacant lot where Grandma's movie theatre started out showing silent films accompanied by my Mom on the piano.
We stopped at the local café and each ordered a BLT with potato-salad and a cherry Coke at $5.50 … and noticed the business was for-sale. There was a quick stop at the library, which brought us in touch with Cruella, the grouchiest person we met on the entire trip. But even that was memorable.
Yes, it is an ordinary small town in the heartland of America … just like so many others. I'm not sure if it is the place or the time that makes them so special, but special they are.
All of them may be very much alike but it is the memories that live in us and in the people that live there that are unique and precious.
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