Friday, October 20, 2006

Postcards from the Heartland

To prepare for the trip out to Iowa, I needed some damn hot pants (no, it is not logical, I just did) so I splurged on some ultra chic and expensive Echo jeans. Against my better judgment, I walked away with a pair of dark blue skinny jeans (which look more like leggings than denim) and some "Ava" Citizens of Humanity low riders - how could I resist?

Granted, they were ridiculously expensive but I think Abbie is right that the fancy jeans just fit better. What can I say, when faced with the prospect of seeing my grandmother's corpse face to face, I needed to pep myself up with gluttonous purchasing.

5AM is an ungodly time to wake up but the cheapest ticket I could get to Iowa required it so, 5AM it was. The morning was wet, rainy and it was pitch black outside when we drove to the airport. I haven't flown in a year or so and it is a bigger pain in the ass than ever before. I am not sure what the logic is behind the plastic bag requirement but they now force you to place all your 3 oz liquids and gels (anything bigger goes in the trash, I kid you not) in a zip lock plastic bag.

I got busted trying to sneak a 3.35 oz bottle of hair gel past 'em and they insisted I throw it out. Instead, I sweet talked a sympathetic woman working at the airport to keep some of my over-sized toiletries until I return this weekend but I mean, come on, what a silly rule.

Next they make you take off your shoes, belt, jacket, scarf and sweater until you are basically naked. They searched my purse by hand to pull out two vials of liquid lip gloss. These glosses had to go in the plastic bag in order to be allowed on the plane. How the hell does a plastic bag make liquids somehow safe?

I suppose the minor aggravations/humiliations are worth it if it means the plane won't blow up mid-journey but I sometimes wonder if these airport screeners get sadistic pleasure in making passengers strip down to their skivvies. The lady checking my ID muttered, "Dumb ass" as a hippie girl left the line to go and purchase one of the precious plastic bags from the newsstand. Two minutes later, I had to go buy one and I swear I heard a faint, "Dumb ass."

Once you are in the air, it is impossible not to get excited by the feeling of movement. As we happily drifted through puffy, white clouds, I dozed on and off for most of the flight. The sensation of landing is so addictive, as the plane breaks it feels like your body wants to keep on flying forward, and if it weren't for the seatbelt holding you in place, you just might be able to get enough speed to be airborn, for a brief instant before you splatted into the pavement. One more flight later, I arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It is a small town airport and easy to navigate.

It is funny. Once you hit the Midwest, people start looking different: longer lines at McDonalds, bigger waistlines, larger hair, more bejeweled sweaters and impressive beehives. The cultural differences between the Oakland and Cedar Rapids airports used to throw me into quite a tizzy. Going from urban to country is like jumping into a cold plunge after soaking in a hot tub - a bit surprising but sort of refreshing too.

People tend to be very friendly here as well. They go out of their way to help out strangers and out-of-towners like me. Everyone in these little towns knows each other and they stop in to visit each other and chat; babies are cooed over, husbands are discussed, children's new cars are decided upon and neighbors are analyzed. There is not much else to do in a town with one main street and two bars, one of which is called, I kid you not, "Beavers."

Midwesterners are alternately viewed as open, friendly, and straightforward, or sometimes stereotyped as unsophisticated and stubborn. Factors that probably affected the shaping of Midwest values include the religious heritage of the abolitionist, pro-education Congregationalists to the stalwart Calvinist heritage of the Midwestern Protestants, as well as the agricultural values inculcated by the hardy pioneers who settled the area. The Midwest remains a melting pot of Protestantism and Calvinism, mistrustful of authority and power. - Wikipedia

Once I hit the road in my rental wheels, it all felt familiar to me again. I remembered all the times I had driven out of this airport to go see grandma in her nursing home. It took so many hours of plane and car travel to get to her that it always felt like some sort of a quest and the prize at the end was my funny granny, her cryptic remarks and her happy exclamations about the goings on outside her window.

The flat Iowan landscape is composed of about two colors these days: yellow and blue. For far and wide are miles and miles of yellow husks of dead corn standing up to attention and above them a pale blue sky stretching on forever.

I have a fond spot in my heart for Iowa. Maybe it is because this is where my immigrant grandparents spent the bulk of their lives and eventually grew old and died, or it could be the fact that my father grew up here, but it is also beautiful countryside that speaks to my love of empty open spaces. Either way, driving along these empty, corn-lined roads feels strangely therapeutic.

As with most of my trips to Iowa, I blasted the Brit pop, Oasis and Blur. The disparate natures of the barren Midwestern landscape and the syrupy richness of British pop is too tasty. Add in some whispery, bittersweet Elliott Smith and some cigarettes and it can't get much better.

Tomorrow morning my grandmother is being remembered in a small church down a long, dirt road outside of Strawberry Point. I have never seen a dead body in the flesh and it will be particularly strange to see the empty husk of someone I once knew lying still in a coffin. I wonder if it will be like the funerals in Six Feet Under? Will there be drama and intrigue? Sex in the church closet? Naw, this is Iowa, not LA.

Some of my grandmother's childhood friends will be there to send her off proper. My father and I will be her only actual family members in attendance. Most of our clan are back in Switzerland and unable to make the journey. I am glad to be here to say my final goodbyes. Glad to take this time to remember her, not as she is now, but as she once was, young and impish, tricking her neighbors with a glass that dribbled and scampering around the backroads of Iowa, leaving her mark in people like me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

they do fit better don't they eva bean? much love and thoughts...

Robert Frost

"We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated hear
Till someone really find us out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hid-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are."