Four Days in Iowa, Summer 2013

August 30, 2013
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Every trip home is bittersweet, a series of encounters with things that have changed and things that haven’t. They’re emotionally wrenching and never boring, the opposite of the lazy summer vacation. Each time we go back, it’s a little less familiar—seven years of small changes, a sense of continental drift between the Iowa I know and the Iowa I visit. Bit by little bit, it’s a place farther away than it used to be.


Albino Hummingbird

We arrived at Mom’s just after an albino hummingbird showed up at the feeder. Mom and Jim did a little internet research, enough to know that sighting an albino was an extremely rare thing. We forewent the usual howze-yer-flight, how-ya-doin’ introductory remarks and instead crowded around the kitchen window with cameras, waiting for it to reappear.

$2 burger night at Kalmes, Bellevue, IA

$2 burger night at Kalmes, Bellevue, IA

Where others might relax and let down their shoulders on a visit back home, Mom’s Alzheimer’s demands that we focus even more intently during our stay. I’m on notice for any signs of change. We usually only have a few days to be with mom which is an unfairly small sample size. But it’s human nature to look for changes and try to make sense of them. I’m sure Mom senses this and it must be incredibly annoying to feel like you’re being observed in your own home. Sorry, Mom.

We found some changes, but nothing that was overly concerning or unexpected. I’m sure none of it would be news to Mom, who is probably reading this anyway. A few words don’t come as easily for her and there were stretches during the day that were quieter than usual. You would notice these things only if you were looking for them. Mom, by her own admission, is living a good life right now. She and Jim travel a lot, she gardens and eats good food and is surrounded by extended family who check in on her when her deadbeat kids can’t.

We had some great conversations with her in the two nights we were there. I asked her directly about how she felt, which is a tough thing for me to do. She has moments of anxiety (who wouldn’t?) but assured me she’s feeling good in general. In that spirit I sent her a blog I’m reading which is written by someone who is going through what she’s going through.

Certainly when I received my diagnosis last September, normal life stopped. Suddenly I found myself in a tragedy that had previously invoked terror. Many of the concerns of routine life, of my schedules, of my responsibilities became suddenly of secondary importance. I moved into the present, which can be a place of richness.

… Alzheimer’s could never be called good. Like Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11, or a tornado, or an earthquake, Alzheimer’s could not be wished on anyone. Yet out of it can come a joy that has taken me by surprise.

“A Paradise Built in Hell,” David Hilfiker

I worry about mom, I worry that she’s holding back or has settled into an emotional balance that is comfortable but maybe not optimal. I worry that her August garden and houseplants, mostly lush but wilting in just a couple of small spots, are a metaphor. I worry that I don’t actually know anything, that it’s cheap to look for meaning in plants in August, that I’m not there enough, and so on. I just worry, even while taking some comfort in her assurances.

Young Tree


Wednesday got away from us. What we thought would be a lunchtime trip to the New Glarus Brewery turned into an all day truck-a-thon in the backseat of Jim’s 4×4.

An hour’s drive to the brewery was actually 90 minutes when we consulted Google Maps but by then it was too late to reverse course. A couple of other errands got squeezed into the agenda, ones ostensibly close to our original destination, but these added hours on top of an already long day. It was a comfortable truck, to be sure, but it wasn’t a day our city legs are accustomed to. Charlotte handled it with few complaints, as usual.

In New Glarus, we had lunch at windowless, townie kind of bar called the Sportsman’s Grill and I was reminded just how citi-fied I’ve gotten. Snobby, even? I’ll own up to it. I didn’t want to go there for lunch, it looked terrible from the outside. The inside did little to convince me I was wrong. However, they had a top-5 caliber sour beer on tap,1 and, this being Wisconsin, I got a really great giant bratwurst for, like, a buck sixty-five. NYC has closed my mind to experiences like this more than I’m willing to admit—it was good to go.

That night, after all the driving and after Charlotte had fallen asleep, Mom and Mags and I sat on the back porch while lightning flashed across the river. We talked all evening, without a pause. The lightning grew brighter over the river and eventually reached us. Soft thunder and sprinkles appeared as the storm skirted by. Mom told us that the hardest part of her life right now was not being able to drive, being totally reliant on others for anything outside of the house. She lives in the country, so driving is a necessity, the thing that gives you independence. In a sad twist, Jim loves cars—there are three in the garage, none of which Mom can drive.

Mom’s notes about the hummingbird were still on the counter when we left, waiting to be submitted to a website about albino hummingbirds they’d found. I took a close look at it because I wasn’t sure at first that they were Mom’s notes. The handwriting was different somehow, larger and simpler. It was definitely Mom’s, on close inspection, but it was just… different somehow. Probably nothing to worry about. Wednesday morning, we said goodbye in the middle of an intense thunderstorm.

Morning Thunderstorm, August 19, 2013


We stopped at McDonald’s on the way out of Dubuque for some 300° coffee and an Egg McMuffin. Did you know that Egg McMuffins come with a little circle of ham by default? Ain’t that America! The hour-long drive back down 151 was actually welcome despite yesterday’s automotive adventures. Charlotte, wary she was about to spend another day peering around headrests, asked, “When will we beeeee there?” at a rate of once per three miles.

We hustled out of town because we had a date with Maggie’s grandma for lunch at Red Lobster and G.G. does not like to be kept waiting. I love Red Lobster, I really do—I think people think I’m being ironic or joking if I say that. It reminds me of all the lunches I had with my Grandma there. Against all odds, this dumb chain restaurant has survived the culinary fads and tight pockets of Cedar Rapidians and has far exceeded the expected lifespan of a typical chain restaurant. It’s been in the same spot as far back as I can remember and I have tons of fond memories here, in Cheddar Bay.

There’s a funny relationship between memory and place. I often catch myself thinking that strong memories are strong because they’re attached to “authentic” places, places that are richly imbued with character and atmosphere and a sense of permanence: Grandma’s living room at Christmas, the gravel on Wilder Drive, the backyard I played baseball in with my dogs on 35th Street. Really, though, that’s not how it works. Memories attach to anything. So many fond memories are locked up in cheapo pre-fab construction of Red Lobster or the Best Buy. Memories don’t care, they’ll settle in the weirdest spots.

On the short walk to the car, I noticed that the topmost leaves on one of the little trees planted to divide parking lot from parking lot had begun to change to orange.


Back in Marion, Maggie’s dad has been preparing to move his woodshop out of the building next door. The shop has been an impromptu storage space for us, Maggie’s two presses the most significant and ferrous of the lot. Turns out I had stashed some stuff there, too: some unloveable baseball cards (’89 Topps Dane Iorg, anyone?) and a box full of old papers and notes from high school and college. I gave it all a once-over and then threw it all away. The lack of sentimentality about all this old stuff kind of took me by surprise. For now, I’m chalking it up as some sign of personal growth; we’ll see if I think that in 20 years.

I stacked the few things I wanted to save next to a big pile of 35mm negatives and Super 8 reels from 1960-62 that Mom had sent back with me before we left Dubuque. My job is to save this stuff, I suppose.

Maggie has substantially more stuff stored in the shop. The volume is one thing, the quality is quite another. Nearly every dusty object she pulled out had some significant sentimental value and demanded attention. This makes for a pretty slow process. But without a firm deadline to move stuff out of the garage—and with Charlotte off doing puzzles and playing with American Girl dolls with Wink—she had the luxury of time, for once. She went through old stacks quietly, with an occasional exclamation, while I played around with different ways to control the light that comes into my camera.

Workshop 2


The final full day of our trip. I went out for a satisfying run in the morning alongside Indian Creek on the trail that winds through town. I used to run on that trial when we lived above the Gallery ten years ago, but I remember the running being much harder then—I used to drive the half mile from the Gallery to the trail, which makes me laugh now. Score one for getting older and stronger.

Speaking of older and stronger, we got to spend a quick few minutes with Ray Mullen at his house in North Liberty. That brief visit alone could occupy an entire post, but suffice it to say that I was glad we went out of our way to see him. I got a tour of the house he built, where “everyone can be in the same room” and it was beautiful and inspiring. What a guy.

Ray Mullen with the Campbell-Steele-Raws

After that, we met up with my dad and Kathy at the Ox Yoke Inn for dinner. Since they were driving from Des Moines, we thought we were doing a good thing by suggesting the Ox Yoke location by the interstate. But when we arrived and saw nothing but a daring bright OPEN sign and a scary, abandoned Econolodge overgrown with weeds, we knew we had made a terrible mistake.

Ox Yoke Innerstate

The terrifying “Ox Yoke Innerstate”

Thank god for cell phones–we changed plans and went to the authentic Ox Yoke 15 minutes away in Amana. Charlotte got to see the bear and, in one of life’s tiny miracles, the “family style” dinner with cottage cheese, cole slaw, sauerkraut, and broccoli didn’t cause a terrible incident on the flight home.

Ox Yoke Inn

Before dinner, Craig and Wink drove us around downtown Cedar Rapids, which underwent incredible changes since the flood five years ago. We drove past the rebuilt and nationalized Five Seasons Center and snuck into the brand new public library building before its opening night reception. We ducked into the restored Paramount Theater and the new CSPS. Without CR’s copious parking garages—which generally survived the flood without incident—the city would have been unrecognizable.

A pile of money has allowed the city to attend to institutions it had neglected before and, at least in the New Bo district, purchase a big upgrade to its cultural infrastructure. There is art, a coffee shop, a huge new permanent farmer’s market. The requisite microbrewery is under construction.

I’m ambivalent about these changes to my hometown and I can’t quite pin down why. This is the downtown I complained Cedar Rapids didn’t have when I was a kid. And now it’s here, condensed out of thin air via two feet of rain. It’s an uneasy feeling to think of how little human effort it took to realize this change. It just happened. It’s an uneasy lesson, that this is how big change often happens. Things regrow after something terrible. No one could have planned this. This is the feeling of home now.