COMING HOME TO THE PAST
When driving around my hometown of Fergus Falls in western Minnesota (pop. 13k, give or take), and find myself on the town’s south end, I have an almost irresistible urge to turn left onto County Highway 210, just beyond the car wash and the Buick dealership on the right and where UBC used to be on the left, and drive eastward past Nature’s Garden World and Wall Lake into the rolling, wooded hills spotted with lakes and ponds glittering like sapphire jewels set in oak and birch woods and bristling with barns and silos...back to the little calendar-picture farmstead nestled inside a shelter belt swaddled by sloping corn and wheat fields a quarter mile from Fisk Lake...back to the white farmhouse and red barn shaded by oaks and box elders that for eight years I once called home.
Back to where, as I drive a quarter-mile along the gravel section road, take a left, and drive another hundred yards along another section road toward the shelter belt, I know in seconds I’ll see a passel of black-and-white mutt collies skip-hopping and tail-wagging down the sloping driveway to greet me.
They’ll run down through the trees, barking and nipping each other playfully then splitting into two groups to turn and follow my pickup up the slope and into the yard. One will grab a deadfall branch and shake it or taunt one of the others with it.
I’ll park under the big oak by the propane tank and the two rusty wagon wheel vine trellises abutting the mouth of the ancient sidewalk. I’ll open the pickup door, and Buck and Thor will take Stella to the ground, pretend-mauling her because they pretend-maul their mother when they get over-the-moon about something as momentous as either or both my wife and I returning home after a brief trip to town. Buck and Thor’s fun will end abruptly when Stella has enough of their high jinx, and throws a nasty though brief tantrum that will leave them both just as briefly shaken and sheepish.
Whereupon they will turn their attention to me or Gena. Along with Stella and their unabashedly abusive father, Old Shep, they’ll make it nearly impossible for us to walk to the house, blocking the path with their wriggling bodies and wagging tails, barking crazily all the way along the sidewalk curving around to the crumbling concrete step fronting the new metal storm door we bought at Fleet Farm, replacing the old, splintering wooden door with its bulging, rusty screen. This skirmish is all the more hectic and even maddening when we’re trying to get groceries into the house, but also fun in a way, because we love our dogs (we were one of those couples who chose dogs over kids) and, in a vague way in our youthful hearts we sense even in the midst of life’s full flower how fleeting the blossom will be.
And it was...
Now, twenty years later, when I’m tooling around the south end of Fergus, I resist the urge (most times, anyway) to drive out that way, toward that calendar-photo farm, because, as much as I want the years to have not passed and for life to be the same as it was then, I don’t live there anymore.
I left the dogs’ ashes in Colorado. I left my ex-wife in Colorado, as well, and moved back to western Minnesota, to the area that is as much a home to me as anywhere I’ve ever lived. That’s the problem. I’ve lived so many places, starting back when I was a mere baby—mostly small towns in North Dakota, but then on to Arizona, Montana, and Colorado—that no one place stands out as more of a home than does the old farmstead in Minnesota where I lived for eight years, married and with four dogs and a cat and--for a couple of those years--chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese.
I would like to have the Colorado years back, as well. Those were good years, too. Most of the thirteen, anyway. I guess it’s good that I can look back fondly. Maybe it’s the sign of a life well lived. I can only hope I’m still living it well, so that I’ll look at these current years as fondly as the others.
I think I am, so maybe I will. I moved back here with an elderly rescue dog, a brown and white Australian shepherd named Sidney. I bought a house that I’d spied on a website while still in Colorado. I remembered visiting the place when we lived here before, and liking it. Friends had owned it then, and they’d invited Gena and me over one night for supper. I remember we watched the movie, Amelie.
The house is a little brown stucco bungalow at the end of a dead-end gravel road in the heart of town. (I had always thought that if I ever lived in town again after nearly thirty years in the county, it would have to be at the end of a dead-end gravel road.) Voila—I’m here! While I’m close to my neighbor to the east, Roberta and I have become good friends, almost like family, and there’s a big empty, wooded lot to the west. So I have plenty of room to stumble around here, being half-nuts and writing my western novels and doing whatnot, including brewing beer out in my garage with my friend Bill, whom I first met way back in the fifth grade when my family lived nearby in Wahpeton.
Sydney died four days ago. While I’m still numb from her passing, like what the old John Denver song says about losing a friend, I’m going to keep the memory. I’m keeping a lot of them. Sorting them out, day by day. The longer I live the more I realize our lives are almost all memory. The mind—my mind, at least--is a vortex of recalled associations colored by varying degrees of emotion—some of it sentimental emotion, some of it as real and honest as a falling-down barn.
That’s the kind of emotion, the result of a life well lived or at least well examined, which makes us most human.
So I’m here now, present inside a memory. I’m a little confused at times, because there is so much here in Fergus that reminds me of the past and the person I used to be, and the people and animals that comprised my life back then. Sometimes my mind is made up of overlying images from different decades. But mostly I’m working it out, not driving out overly often to that calendar-photo farm to stare at that shelterbelt from the main highway and pine for the past, but walking this new neighborhood with old Syd--even if she is only a memory now, too--creating a new one.