I’m driving on highway 29 in rural Illinois. This is the Midwest. When you travel here, you drive through corn and soybean fields. You smell pigs and manure. You see trees when the fields end, oaks and elms and birch that have watched this road since it was laid down. Depending on what time of year it is, you may see nothing but white snow, tinted with various shades of purity or grime.
I’m driving in the middle of summer, and I see green everywhere. The corn is still green, the trees are full of it, and even the water of the Illinois River, running parallel to the road, is an emerald green as it flows south and west to the great Mississippi. I have, thankfully, just exited a stretch of pig stench and the odor has dissipated enough that I can roll down my windows and enjoy a warm breeze. I am headed home. Not to the home of my childhood, but to the home that my parents made after I became an adult. The drive from Michigan, my new home, is the same drive, but extended. At some point, I will pass by the house that I grew up in, set back from the road in clear waving distance from 29, then I will drive for another thirty minutes, cross a bridge, and come to this new home.
I do this, passing by the house that was once brown-shingled and charming, a house that has lost that unique charm in the new owner’s need for vinyl siding and ugly fencing. I keep driving with the fleeting thought of stopping and skipping rocks at the river I grew up near, until I come to the bridge.
I’m stopped at a light in downtown Peoria. I can see the bridge before me, stretching a mile out over the waters of the Illinois and into what is self-deprecatingly known as East Peoria. Near to that is Washington. North of that is Metamora. My car idles poorly, and the longer I wait, the more I am convinced it will stall. The bridge beckons, drawing me from one world into another. I’ve been across it a thousand times because while I have grown up in Chillicothe, a tiny town north of Peoria on the west side of the water, most of my extended family lives across that bridge on the east side, including my dad. I haven’t crossed this bridge in almost five years. This is the first time I will visit my mom and step dad’s new home. The weight of this crossing is not lost upon me.
As a child, crossing the bridge over the Illinois usually meant going to my grandmother’s house. Growing up, I had two grandmothers and zero grandfathers. My mother’s father died before even she was born, which is an epic tale in itself, and my father’s father died at a time when I was too young to remember what he looked like. I see wrinkles and receding hair, smell cigarette smoke, and envision clothes tinted yellow and brown. Some of this I could be extracting from photographs, but either way its my memory.
My Grandma Ruth lives in Washington, Illinois. Washington is a medium sized town with very little to distinguish it from anywhere else. It has its large department stores, which pop up every visit with more and more frequency, and its full of churches and fast food stops. We played the Washington Panthers in high school football, and I remember that game as the time I punted a football very high and very far behind me, turning a rout into a full on devastation.
Ruth’s house had three bedrooms, and two of those bedrooms were always in use by one of her children. These were full grown children, and for reasons I never considered at the time, they were still living with Ruth. My dad was often one of these, my Aunt Kathy always another. Sometimes an Uncle Tony would be there as well, sleeping on a recliner in the living room with a belly that I could have crawled into for warmth, like Luke Skywalker on Hoth. There was always beer in the fridge, though my grandma never drank, and there was always a deck of cards on the dining room table.
Every other weekend my sister and I would journey across the bridge from one realm to another. There was not much difference between Chillicothe and Washington, but as a child they seemed worlds apart. We had a Dairy Queen, but Washington had a Swirly Cone. We had a Greek restaurant and they had an Italian one. We had a Kroger, and they had been swallowed by Wal-Mart. Crossing the river to grandma’s realm was an adventure, nearly every time, until I became too old to recognize the magic of that passage. Even the act of traversing the bridge filled me with wonder. On a sunny day the water of the Illinois would sparkle, the glitter of it almost too bright to view.
Weekends at grandma’s held a mix of delights. Often she would take us to Family Video, where I could pick out a new Super Nintendo game to play. We always had cards, either spades, euchre, or gin rummy, turning games that needed more than two players into two-player games. My sister was too young to grasp the rules, and for her there was the television. I have no idea what she watched.
As I bridged the gap from childhood into the teens, trips across the river became less frequent. I don’t know what kind of rules there are for visitation rights, but we no longer spent every other weekend there. In college, I only ever visited on holidays. In my 20s, visits stopped completely, until before I knew it five years had gone by since I had crossed that bridge over the river (to grandmother’s house we go..). By this time, the reality of my childhood had settled into my mostly adult brain, and I felt a hardness of heart towards my father and his side of the family that would take many years to soften. As far as I was concerned, that bridge was gone. At least until my parents decided to move across it.
I’m 90 years old now, and the bridge isn’t gone, but everyone I might have once crossed it to visit has moved away or died. We’ve either destroyed the world enough that I am forced to cross the bridge on foot, or hover over the water in my flying car. Either way, I’m waiting on one side of the bridge, looking over the water at that other world I once knew, once cherished visiting.
With old wisdom in my head, I realize that the reasons for distancing myself from those family members are far away and irrelevant. I have had seventy years to wonder what might have been had I simply drove over the Illinois River again. In seven decades, I have created my own family, watched people I love enter my life and leave it. There is likely someone I have known who feels about me the way I felt about the people across this bridge.
Memories come flooding back as I wait to cross.
I can still remember the way my grandma, already as round as a tomato, would grow red in the face when she laughed. I can remember watching as she prepared a dish known as goulash, which seemed a mystery at the time. I would later come to understand that it involved mixing up all the leftovers in the fridge. And I can remember the time she scolded me for seeking too much attention at my own birthday party; an act that would unintentionally affect me for the rest of my life.
I remember my aunts and uncles, the way they always tried to out-humor one another at Christmas parties; a trait I would pick up without even realizing it. I also remember them drinking too much and fighting, with fists, out on the lawn.
I remember scant details about my grandfather: pastel colors and cigarette smoke.
And I do remember my father. I remember the way he could answer every single Jeopardy question as though he’d seen the episode a dozen times. I remember that he once owned a car with a hole in the floor. I remember finding his Playboy stash in the closet, and folding out the centerfold exactly like I would later see young boys do in movies. I remember marveling at his use of pen and paper, how he could create art out of his head as easily as some people could sing. And I remember him loving my mother, long after she had thrown him out for the final time.
These memories bring tears to my eyes as I stare out over the water. This bridge is a landmark in my history. It is more than simply the means to an end. This is the wardrobe to my Narnia. When I crossed this bridge, I stepped out of my ordinary life into a life weirder and more complicated, a world that I would dismiss as a young adult, not worthy of my time because magic was for kids.
At 90, I understand the falsity of those words. Magic is for everyone, and the sorcery of memories is something worth crossing a bridge for at all junctions in the road.
I step on the electric power pedal of my flying car, place my walking stick on the cracked pavement, and take the step. It’s cold on the bridge today, the river underneath frozen, but it isn’t long before I’m on the other side. I drop the walking stick and step out of the flying car because I’m nine years old now and don’t need either of those things. I walk in my memories and find the things I’ve lost and become a memory as well. When I look back, the bridge is gone.
Photo by CC BY-SA 3.0).