Each July I take a break from my regular duties as an executive coach and leader of Vistage CEO groups in south Florida. We go looking for life balance in activities outside our routine.
In July of 2009 my wife Patty and I traveled throughout the Middle West and stopped to see friends in Henry County Iowa near the area where I grew up. For many years I lived with my family on a farm known to us as The Olson Place near Swedesburg. At that time the farmstead was dominated by a small well designed white house with two front porches and nice landscaping. The house was situated on a rise surrounded by other buildings including a dilapidated, long unused horse barn where hay was stored in the second story loft. The barn was a favorite play space in inclement weather and long winter days. It offered great swinging from a rope attached to a track and trolley at the top. Other buildings included a granary, chicken house, hog house and machinery shed. There was an orchard and garden south of the house and a pasture on the north. There were dozens of black walnut trees (my early source of Omega 3s) and many maple trees on the property. The place was typical of mid century southeastern Iowa family farms. It was a great place to grow up. The area surrounding the house included about eight acres and provided excellent stimulation for creative play. In a single summer day one could slide to safety down the tin roof of the chicken house, construct a fort from a pile of fence posts, play a game of softball and perform aerial acrobatics from the hay rope all within a few hundred feet of the house. A curious child could easily identify both the big and little dippers lying in the cool grass under the night sky or imagine animals in the clouds from the same vantage point during sunny afternoons. It is no wonder that I count that time in my life as ideal and remember it fondly.
I had seen the place in the mid eighties. It was then abandoned and grown up in weeds with the white house in a sad state of repair. Even then the memories were still strong. I’m not sure what I expected when we turned north on the gravel road to approach my childhood home but it was surely not what we found. Not one hint of the farmstead remained. In its place only a field of corn stood. All the trees and ruined buildings were gone. The rise where the house had stood was bulldozed flat. The bank to the south of the driveway that caused snow to pile up three feed deep in 1953 was nowhere to be seen. I could recognize the driveway that once led from the road forming a Y near the house one arm leading to the parking area near the gate to the rear sidewalk the other to the back of the farmstead and on to the fields. Now it stubs from the road across the drainage ditch and stops at the first corn row.
My childhood memories seemed gone blotted out by chainsaws that removed the trees, tractors that leveled the ground and trucks that hauled away the remains of long abandoned buildings. I stood in front of the corn field and considered the proposition. Eight acres at an average 160 bushels per acre yield in Southeastern Iowa times the price of corn would bring around $7,000 per year. It was an economic “no brainer”. The cost of putting it into crop production could be returned easily in a single crop year. Memories of the 50s do not compare favorably in value. In the Vistage groups I lead in Palm Beach and Broward Counties in Florida we would call that smart business. Patty snapped a digital photo of me and the corn field and we moved on with none of the nostalgia we came for.
About a mile and a half northwest of the farmstead is the small town of Swedesburg. In my childhood it featured a large brown brick Lutheran church (still there) and a white store building housing the Farmers Union Exchange, a general store. The building is now painted yellow and has been transformed into the Swedish American Museum. We stopped there out of curiosity and the motivation to buy something to remember the day by. What I discovered here was that home is not a house and farmyard but the collective memories and warm welcome of many people who shared common experiences with me. I could not go home to a place that no longer existed but I did go home to people who live in that vicinity. I wrote about it later that evening. I will let the poem Going Home tell the rest of the story. In August of 2009 I used the story and poem to encourage all members of my Vistage groups to make pilgrimages to their homes to seek the same kind, warm, grounding connections. Many of them have done so and have described the trips to me. What a great way to balance our lives of challenge and hard work. Thomas Wolfe was wrong! You can go home again.
We stopped today at the yellow Swedish American museum in Swedesburg, Iowa.
In my childhood it was a store where good food staples, sewing supplies, a pocket watch or a pair of jeans could be purchased from the Farmers Union Exchange.
Today it is where the records and historical treasures of generations of Swedish families are kept.
A smiling lady, the wife of a cousin, recognized me though just barely.
The word went out that a native son from far away was at the store.
In a few minutes my second cousin Sam arrived with time for an impromptu visit.
A favorite uncle was called but could not get there until we would be gone.
My mother’s cousin Louise appeared with a smile and a hug.
She managed the archive and showed me my place in it.
My memory was sought regarding dates, now more than fifty years past, when my family lived in the Olson place and later Grandma Seberg’s house. It all has a place in the book kept here.
There was a degree of warmth, a level of acceptance, an affectionate embrace one can only find at home.
We spoke of childhood friends, things that happened long ago, where our kids live now.
With the purchase of a small wooden horse and a Swedish cookie our visit ended.
We left with warm feelings for the people and the place that means home.
It is amazing to discover that there are people who track us and count us because they care.
It is still more amazing that they regard us as part of their community though we departed more than fifty years ago and would so happily welcome our return.