When I was growing up, the start of August meant we were in the homestretch of summer. There were still a few weeks left to enjoy long evenings, late bedtimes, and Facts of Life re-runs. No school I ever attended began before Labor Day. But for my kids, and all kids in Memphis, August is the very end of the line. By Labor Day weekend, they’ve been closed up in their classrooms for a month. So it was with particular pleasure that, during the last weekend of July, I scooped up the children and skedaddled out of town for the most traditional of our family’s summer activities: Corn Capital Days.
As a child, I spent all year looking forward to the two weeks we spent in my parents’ hometown of Olivia, MN. We lived in Pittsburgh during my formative years, and we would load up the car (usually a Jeep Wagoneer, although there was one memorable Summer of Fuego), with our sleeping bags, books, cooler and games, and hit the road for a non-stop, 21-hour trip across the upper Midwest. It sounds like an interminable misery, but it actually wasn’t so bad, and the promise of freedom - of Gramma’s house, of small town streets, of 9pm sunsets - made it all worthwhile.
This year was the first time in Mr. Baby’s life, and the first time since Miss M’s toddlerhood, that we were able to make the pilgrimage to Olivia for this event. (Mr. Baby had actually been to Olivia twice before, under much sadder circumstances.) We were spared the road trip aspect by Pops’ very generous gift of frequent flyer miles, shrinking the travel time from 15 hours to two, but air-traveling alone with two small children in post-9/11 airports, I think I still got a glimpse of the tension my dad used to feel when driving unfamiliar Chicago roads at rush hour. We made it without major incident, though, and after a day to recoup in the suburban buffer zone, we made the last leg of our trek down highway 212, to the seat of Renville County.
Things may change over the years, but the feel of a small town is hard to mess with. Even with the high school knocked down from three storeys to one, the shiny new playground equipment in the parks, and the tragic loss of the Ben Franklin general store from the anchoring corner of downtown, Olivia still looks, feels, sounds and smells like Olivia. The streets still come to a dead stop at the edge of town, flanked by endless seas of corn and soybeans. The summer evenings still come on with air cooled by the moisture rising from the fields. The hours are marked by St. Aloysius’ bells, although the coo of mourning doves is just as reliable for indicating that it’s suppertime. And the smell of earth and growth, dusty roads and damp furrows, diesel tractor engines and truck beds full of sweet corn, make up an olfactory environment that has remained constant throughout my life, and I suspect for generations before me.
Speaking of those generations, the other great joy of our yearly trips to Olivia was the chance to see relatives that were otherwise out of reach. In Pittsburgh, we were a family of four, with no other family for 1000 miles. But in Minnesota, we were surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins of all degrees. My father alone has 64 FIRST cousins, many of whom still lived near the house he grew up in. The house my grandfather built with his own hands, his wife and four sons living in the basement while he finished the floor above.
I didn’t take the kids to Olivia expecting them to instantly warm to or appreciate the extended family that had traveled from all over the country to be there at the same time - 31 in total, not counting the hyper-extended family I probably passed in the street without even knowing it. I just wanted them to see the faces and learn the names, and I held some hope that the next time we came to visit, they might be a little less shy. So I was astonished when, within an hour of our arrival, Miss M had thrown off her bashful guise and was running from pool to playground with her cousins, chasing after great-aunts and –uncles she hadn’t seen in years, and doing it all without a glance in my direction. She was instantly comfortable in a way I have never before witnessed. It seemed like she just naturally knew that this was her place and these were her people.
I caught glimpses of her as she finished off her cob at the corn feed, or chased after the candy tossed at the Grand Parade, or zipped off with her uncles in the golf cart, and those glimpses looked so familiar it was startling. At the end of the day, I would track her down in whatever lap she ended up in, and she would tell me she was ready to go to bed. After my sense of reality recovered from that statement, I would tuck her into the rollaway in the basement, a large, dark room with a formica bar and stone fireplace hearth that provided countless hours of childhood entertainment for my sister and me. Both nights there, she went to sleep without a word of complaint, so exhausted and content she didn’t even have anything contrary to say about sleeping in a windowless cellar.
Unfortunately, Mr. Baby had a little anxiety that kept him from fully enjoying the trip – namely, his body-shaking terror over coming in proximity with a dog – but I think that’s something he’ll outgrow by next year. In the meantime, I’m still fulfilled by the knowledge that I can share part of my childhood with my children, as well as provide the same connection to our roots that has been the grounding force throughout my life.