When we finally pulled up to the farm, it was well past 10 o’clock at night. The air was bitter cold. We drove a rusted-out, orange VW Thing with no heater and a cracked windshield. Why I agreed to accompany my friend on this 2,000 mile road trip from Chicago to California, I will never know.
We weren’t more than an hour out of Chicago when the car began to sputter and violently backfire. The mechanic at the next gas station just shook his head. “Not much I can do for ya boys,” I remember hearing. We just kept driving. Clueless about what could happen, naïve enough to keep going. We were headed towards a small farmhouse in Gravity, Iowa, home to my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jim.
When we finally rolled onto the farm, I had never been so cold in my life. We’d been driving for 10 hours in what felt like a convertible on a Siberian expressway. Every part of my body was either shaking, shriveled or had gone completely missing. I wore everything I had – a parka, layers of shirts and socks, gloves, a beanie. I even had an improvised face mask made from an extra sweatshirt, used primarily to keep my nose from freezing, but also to protect my face from lacerations if and when the windshield blew out.
I don’t think Aunt Carol and Uncle Jim could’ve been more entertained as when they saw us. They couldn’t stop laughing as we peeled ourselves from this frozen tin can. That was many years ago. That we made it all the way to California against such odds was never discussed at family reunions. But the improvised face mask? Jim would never let me forget it. His laughter when we reminisced, well, it said it all, and reminded me of how absurd my excursion really was.
This last weekend our family attended Uncle Jim’s funeral near that small farm in Iowa. During my stay I was able to see some sites, hear some great stories and run a bit on the rural roads. I got a little flavor of the lifestyle that drew him back from California to the little town in Iowa where he grew up as a child. A place where he tended to horses, built barns, refurbished classic cars and generally lived life on his terms.
Memories are the glue that keep families connected, and they capture a place in time. And it’s the laughter that helps reveal these moments.