This trip, it’s the humidity that hits me first. We stepped out of the airport from the artificial cold of the airport air-conditioning into the dampness of the outside. My girls and I make our way to the rental car that we have to have this trip because we’re home for a good long stretch and it’s just too much with all of our schedules to try and manage without a car.
And we drive. The kids chatter at first. We’re so happy to be here. I’m so happy that they are happy to be here. I love that at ages 13 and 11 when we talk about going to Illinois they say “When?!? Soon? Let’s go now.”
And as we drive the landscape begins to change. It turns into the stretches of green that sometimes makes my chest feel tight when I’m away from them for too long.
Time stops a little as I drive. When I was a kid I was fascinated by stories about travelers, driving in the night, the only light to be seen was from the yellowed headlights and the orange burn of a cigarette. I find my mind wandering as I drive, I drift between feeling every bit of 41 with my women-children in my car with me, and feeling like the teenager that I was… It felt like I was a teenager for soooooo long.
And we are there.
It doesn’t look like much, exit 32.
It would be easy to drive right by. If you are coming from Galesburg, it’s the first exit that you come upon for 14 miles. If you are coming from the Quad Cities you wonder if you should take 150 or 74, and either way, if you blink, you could miss Woodhull.
This is the exit where I start to breathe easier, but also where my heart begins to pound. As I get to the end of the ramp I turn right. And my car goes around the bend and I know it’s just a matter of moments before I see my Great-Grandma’s house. If I look to the left I can see my Grandma’s house through the yard of her neighbors (and when I leave my Grandma’s she will stand on the stoop of her house and wave and we will smile and swallow a hard swallow as we drive away, but quickly looking through that same spot).
I pass 2nd street and see where my friend Liz used to live. I turn Left onto N. Division Street. I see the water tower. And that weird buried building that was always there that as a child we didn’t know what it was. If I glance to the right of 17 down Division towards the cornfields I can almost see my best friend’s house and some bikes on the road and hear the grumble of almost teens wondering when they are going to get out of this po-dunk town. And I realize that I’m musing some old lady musings and that the only kids on bikes are the ones from my memories.
I turn on N. Division and the street is the same and yet so different. There is a new community center building that wasn’t there when I was a kid. The lumberyard is still there… sort of. The building is there, but the lumberyard is gone. As a kid Jodie and I used to play in the newly built hog houses – the most perfect play structures for us to hide and trade some Lisa Frank stickers.
The pharmacy is still there – but it’s not a pharmacy anymore. It’s a church and doing well. As a pharmacy I used to go in and buy Jolly Ranchers, Laffy Taffy, Carmex, and get Green Rivers. Once I got thrown out because, well frankly, I was probably being an annoying kid and deserved to reprimanded.
And then I see it.
The Butter Churn.
How is it possible to be homesick for something that is so new? My heart pounds a little, and I get nervous. Whenever I’m home I don’t really do well talking to folks, I feel a bit like a voyeur. I want to sit in the corner and soak it all in, the people that I love, the place that makes me feel melancholy and proud and alive and then someone will say “Steph! How are you?” And I smile, then probably look away even though I value eye contact, and try not to cry as I say “I’m well. It’s so good to see you” Because it is SO good to see them.
And I will listen to the stories that visiting people will tell us about how The Butter Churn has made life a little nicer for a relative that lives in town. And the reason they are in the store is because they wanted to see for themselves the store where their mom/dad/grandparent/relative now shops and talks about.
And I will watch the babies play.
And if I’m lucky, most of the time I will go unnoticed. And write a blog post, not for the people of Woodhull necessarily, but for the rest of us that come from small towns. Folks that go back, and it’s different and terrible and wonderful.
For all of us though – go support your small businesses. They need you. It’s not enough to wax poetic about the sweetness of your town (either from the past or present) and not spend some money there. All of these small towns are fueled by the small businesses of people who are helping to create memories for everyone else and feeding their families.
Exit 32. Who knew that it would be a place that would change everything?