Why is it we want certain things connected to our childhood to stay the same? Is it comforting for some things to be immune to change, to remind us of that wonderful time of life when most of us had fewer worries and challenges? As I drove to my uncle's funeral in my old hometown yesterday I drove past my grandparent's old house. I had not done that in a long time, and I felt like wading through memories a little.
For the last twenty or so years of their lives, grandma and grandpa lived in town, having moved from the family farm for their senior years. When grandpa passed away, grandma stayed there until her health forced her into a nursing home for the last months of her life. Her house was a small green structure with a wide front porch flanked by matching hydrangea bushes. It sat on a quiet street, populated mostly by widows who tended to their flower beds and kept their yards neat. It was nice, the badge of people who were not wealthy but were proud for carving out an honest living in between the Great Depression, a World War and Watergate.
When I was a child we were usually there at least once a week while Daddy mowed grandma's yard or helped around the house. I played up and down that street, bouncing between the nearby tennis courts and the alley that ran behind her house. There were a couple of kids who lived on that street and grandchildren who visited their grandparents, too. We played in backyards, chatted over fences and made playhouses out of carport sheds. It was a time when kids could play out of the sight of their parents for hours on end without the fear of abduction or the distraction of computer games. Occasionally, the ice cream truck came by and brightened our day. I have fond memories of time spent on that street. It was an enchanting place for a little girl who grew up out in the sticks with few neighbors and nary a Wal-Mart in sight.
As I turned down the street yesterday, I slowed to a stop and took a minute to absorb what has happened on 9th Street in the last decade or so. Now, I know nothing ever seems as big or grand as it did when you were a kid, but things really have changed there. It seemed so different. Run down even. Some of the homes are in disrepair, including grandma's. The beautiful hydrangeas are gone, the yard was a mismash of broken toys, and the neat little white house that used to sit across the street was gone. It seemed dirtier. The pretty brick home that used to seem so fancy when I played there with my friend K. now seems small and common. Gone is the old grocery store with the big screen door just up the block where us kids trudged up the hill with penny change in our hands to buy small pieces of candy. Time has changed the street so close to my heart, and that heart got heavier and heavier as I eased up the street.
Later at the funeral, my mind drifted briefly back to the other changes that have occurred in that small town of 6,500 people since I moved away 25 years ago. Storefronts have changed, the full service gas stations have moved aside for self service convenience stores and familiar buildings have disappeared.
On the twenty mile drive to the cemetery, the town gave way to trees and pastures as we rolled through the countryside. I saw parts of the area I haven't seen in a while but remembered as the miles ticked by. The stomping ground of my youth. My uncle was buried in a small rural cemetery that sits close to a nature preserve, the same cemetery where my other uncle was buried just a couple of weeks ago. It was a beautiful October day, the kind of day when the sky is sparkling blue with wispy clouds and the foliage is the prettiest colors in the crayon box. The weather was fitting I thought, for a man who loved the outdoors and the farmland of his southern Illinois upbringing. Perfect even. And as we drove along, every car in the oncoming lane pulled to the side, out of respect for a sweet, gentle man they didn't know but honored because it was what they were taught to do. A good old fashioned tradition that you don't often see anymore. And when I say every car pulled to the side of the road, I mean literally, every car along the thirty minute drive. Some turned on their headlights.
As we turned onto the narrow dead end road that leads to the cemetery, cheerily named Sunflower Lane, John Denver came on the radio and Back Home Again serenaded me. I smiled at the irony of that moment. When I hopped out of the car I automatically hit the door locks and then almost laughed out loud at the ridiculous need to lock a door anywhere within fifteen miles of that place. My uncle was buried with military rites since he was a World War II veteran. With the sharp crack of the rifles and the words, "A grateful nation", the soldiers honored him with their words and prayers as they gently laid the American flag in my aunt's weary hands. Most of the gentlemen were elderly, performing their duty at the funeral very seriously but very gently. Not a sound was heard while the commander spoke, except for a lone cough from the crowd, and I couldn't help but be grateful for those men who, on any given day, take time out of their lives to honor one of their own in front of grieving families. It seemed such an old fashioned and honorable thing to do. And it occurred to me on the drive home that while the buildings and streets of my childhood have changed, the people haven't. They are still hard working, common folks who hold onto traditions and rituals that are dear to them, and they care deeply for those they love. My uncle died peacefully at home because his wife and daughters worked very hard to take care of him there during his last days. Some things change on the outside, but the things that count the most don't, and for that I'm grateful. This is the stock from which I hail, and for that I'm proud.
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