Although I live in a large city now, autumn always takes my mind back to the small town where I grew up.
Our tiny hamlet was located in eastern Iowa, near the Wisconsin and Illinois borders. My family was firmly ensconced in the slow pace of small town living in the 1940s through 1960s, when the world intruded very little and the quiet was relatively undisturbed by either traffic or current events.
Our house had a panoramic view of the entire town. In sweatshirt weather, when the air would get so crisp you could almost reach out and snap it in two, I’d sit outside on the lawn to look upon the town, and to think. Dusk would settle and the sky would get that purplish pink color it always gets around 5:30 PM on a late fall afternoon. Slim spirals of smoke would curl up from chimneys and perfume the town with the scent of burning wood. I wouldn’t notice it getting late until the ground turned so cool it started freezing my bottom. Only then would I march inside to be greeted by the blast of heat from the furnace and the smell of dinner on the stove. Only, we called it supper then.
There wasn’t much to my hometown, but what was there was pretty: an oval park smack dab in the center, and when the sewer running through it was covered up, was downright enjoyable to walk through. The hills were full of homes and trees that turned the entire valley into an artist’s palette of beautiful, lush summer greens and flaming bursts of oranges, reds and yellows.
Our little park always hosted and took great pride in Fourth of July celebrations. For reasons beyond my comprehension, thousands from nearby communities would join us for our patriotic eating and drinking, bingo-playing, carnival gaming, and then the piece de’ resistance; a rip-roaring dance under the pavilion. Wonderful memories, but it was the winters I liked the most. The same pavilion was iced over as a rink for skating, and we were usually there until it got dark and the streetlights went on, a signal to return home. Our noses would freeze, our toes would tingle, and our hands felt so numb you thought you’d left them somewhere back on the ice when you fell that last time. The small, brick bandstand always held the manger scene at Christmas, and since the baby wasn’t placed on the straw until Christmas Eve, you could sit on the bales and gossip while you took off your skates and rubbed your toes. The snow blanketed the trees and ground, softening our steps and our voices as we walked out of the park.
Past the park and down the road past Junior’s Tavern at the end of the street, was a circular gravel area. A train once ran through the nearby pasture, and when I was little I had peeked into the abandoned depot sitting among the weeds. It had smelled old, and I wasn’t interested in what it used to be; at least not until that night when I was seventeen and my impression of the abandoned building changed.
I had ventured to the dead end for the quiet solitude, to think. The moon was full and cast a deep shadow across the gravel, silhouetting the stillness of the night. I stared at the old depot for a long time, when passengers began to emerge from a fog into full view, getting off and on the train. The steam hissed from the side of the train, the iron clanked in the distance and the smell of metal assaulted my nose. Then it all faded away, and I was back to myself, staring at an empty building. I was hooked on the place after that.
Years after I had grown up and left the town, a young man took it upon himself to refurbish the building. He completely transformed it into what must surely have been its original dignity, so like what I had witnessed that night many years before. Now the sweet little depot is a local attraction and open for tours on holidays. I cannot help but wonder if the young man who refurbished it had ever been there as a teenager at night during a full moon.
Up the steepest hill and to the left was my family’s home. It was half a house, a cold-water flat with two rooms down and three up. Since we didn’t have hot running water, we always had to heat water in a big kettle on the stove.
The kitchen was so small that the table and chairs had to be shoved up against a wall to make a walking space. Everything was a bit snug when we sat down to a meal together, which was three times a day. There was always a commentary on the menu.
“How come we hafta have pork chops again? Can’t we ever have anything different?” we’d ask, no matter if we had pork the previous night or the previous year.
“Just be grateful you have enough to eat. There are starving children in China who would really appreciate that,” Mom stated. I always knew how smart she was by how many people she knew…even children in China.
The second floor’s corner room served as my bedroom. Once a dressing room for a bedroom, it was only the width of a twin bed, with just enough space for one small dresser. My bedroom claimed the only closet in the house. That was okay, though. We had very few clothes to wear so we needed little storage.
A bathroom replaced the outhouse when I was about four years old, but it didn’t have a bathtub, so on Saturdays Mom grabbed a huge vat, set it on the stove and filled it with water. After the water was heated, she rolled the wash tub into the kitchen, locked the door against unexpected visitors, and called each of us one by one to our bath. I got to go first, because I was the girl. After my brothers and I outgrew the washtub, Mom took us to her mother’s, whose house had a bathtub. She caught up on the family gossip while waiting for all of us to get clean.
When I wanted to play, I sought out my best friends, Dianne and Elaine. They lived on my street and we were always together, running around the neighborhood or going to the park, and always wondering what it would be like to be all grown up.
We formed a new club of something or other every week, with the oldest (me) as president, then the next (Dianne) as vice president, and the youngest (Elaine) as secretary. We always started out the first meeting with a fresh pad of paper and a sharpened pencil, for meeting notes. After diligently recording our every “motion” for an hour, we soon tired of the routine and went off to the park to swing, or on our bikes to explore.
The whole town had been our playground. That was the good part. The bad part was, I couldn’t go anywhere without someone knowing me, so I couldn’t get away with anything. By the time I got home, Mom had heard all about my latest misbehavior or transgression from at least three different people, and was standing on the porch with a flyswatter, ready to beat the evil spirit out of me that disgraced her, her parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents.
There were two churches in the town. One sat on the east side of the park, the other sat majestically atop the tallest hill. It was the Catholics who built upon the hill. No modest, unassuming structure for them, thank you kindly. The imposing brick structure had been one of five: the church, the rectory, the convent, the grade school, and the high school. The brick convent, grade school and high school were torn down years after I moved away.
The non-Catholics, on the other hand, were satisfied with a little white, dignified wooden structure that was heated by a pot-bellied stove. Growing up, my brothers and I were never allowed to fraternize with “those other folks”. I only know about the pot-bellied stove because I peeked through a window on my brothers’ dare. To this day, I still don’t know who those non-Catholics were, where they lived or went to school.
The hill down from the Catholic Church was always the best for sleigh riding. The bottom would always be closed off after a good snow so we could get our sleds out and ride safely. But I don’t think anyone really needed a sign. The adults just knew to keep their cars away from the church hill after a snowfall or they would run over a sledder. It was an okay ride if your sled stopped at Elaine’s grandmother’s house halfway down, a good ride if it stopped at Herrig’s garage as the street leveled, but a great ride if you coasted another half block to Manderscheid’s Tavern.
Once in a while I’d walk off alone to the south edge of town, traipsing through the old depot lot, heading to the pasture. The cows were usually gone to other fields during the day, so I had no worries about disturbing cows, or being chased by a bull.
The pasture was full of adventure. A small stream ran through it, fed by an underground spring. I loved to grab a mouthful of the water to quench my thirst, or simply sit there and watch the sparkle on the drops as they flowed down the rocky bank and into the shallow stream. Then I’d resume my hike and end up on a small hill that overlooked the town. There, among the rough bushes and occasional tree, I’d plunk my behind down, grab a long piece of the rough grass, slip it in my mouth for chewing, and then relax by staring across the empty field and pondering the questions that seared through my brain.
Sitting there in the quiet of a summer afternoon, with the wild flowers peeking up and blooming in surprising places, the white clouds floating against a soft blue sky, and a gentle breeze caressing my cheek…it was impossible not to feel good. I felt safe, and I had found divinity there, in nature and sunshine, and alone with my thoughts.
Autumn, winter, spring and summer…a town for all seasons.
And although it may have been a sweet, summer afternoon in which I found God…it wasn’t until autumn, dusk and a sweatshirt…that I found heaven.
n © 2009 Karen St. John