Just beneath the surface of normal


The Long Road Home

I just returned from four days in the Midwest to attend my grandfather’s funeral in Iowa. Because I’m cheap, I flew into St. Louis instead of Des Moines, because even with flight and rental car, it still cost half of a flight from Philadelphia to Des Moines less than 2 weeks in advance. It also gave me a chance to visit with friends in a city I once lived and started a family in, long ago and far away.

I picked up my rental car, reveling in the relaxed ease with which everyone connects. I learned from the Budget shuttle driver where he had gone to college and what his sons were up to. There was no need to pry; he offered it freely. The counter agent kindly upgraded me to mid-size – it turned out to be a red car with Florida plates. I found my old ability to accept politely and without complaint, even though I had essentially rented a Nissan Police Revenuemobile.

The real injustice began when I tried to leave. Evidently newer model cars no longer have keys. They have start buttons. I know what you’re thinking, because I once thought it too: a start button, how brilliant! You push the button and go! Except that five minutes later, I got out of the car and roamed the parking lot in search of someone who could show me how to make it go. Pro tip: you have to depress the brake for the start button to turn on the engine. Not the emergency brake, the brake brake. You’re welcome.

I drove north through the east side of Missouri and up into Iowa, marveling at the total lack of phone service. It turns out that the bars on my phone turn blue when you can access the internet and stream your entire music collection through the car stereo. It turns out that you shouldn’t expect to be able to do this outside of a metro area. My phone dwindled from 4G to 3G to 1x, singing “Daisy, Daisy” ever more slowly as it reduced to a couple of gray bars that I couldn’t even say what kind of service they were. Analog? Does my phone even pick up analog? Bless Jim, or it would have been a long and lonely drive through a rolling landscape littered with creepy anti-abortion billboards about murdering cute babies and nothing but either country or christian radio to to keep me company. Before phone service went away entirely, he told me that the songs you stream onto your phone get cached and you can listen to them locally. I’m pretty sure I owe him something important now, like letting him wear that awful quilted flannel shirt in public.

On my drive, I looked at the stratified layers of limestone crumbling away in the places the hills were cut away to accommodate the road. I had an extremely deep thought about the metaphor of growing up in land like that, which I was totally going to blog about, and I even stopped and took a picture of it:

Like layers on a roadside cut, so are the days of our lives.

Like layers on a roadside cut, so are the days of our lives.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was now.  Think of it as a philosophical version of Hedbanz.


So it was really nice seeing my family, meeting my dad’s cousins and their kids, and feeling so connected to my roots. I got to see ancestral graves, the dilapidated farmhouse where my great grandmother lived, and hear lots of family stories. I enjoyed seeing the funny little habits and traits I share with my family. I wish I could remember one, but I had lots of “me too!” moments where I saw all the amazing ways that coming from the same genetic/cultural soup gives you the same flavors, even if you’re distinct in lots of other ways. Oh yeah, here’s one: my super-dry skin and scalp totally comes from my dad. Thanks, Dad. But there were other, funner things (Also? Spellcheck didn’t flag “funner” as not a word, though it did mark “spellcheck”, which is weird. I feel so vindicated. I hope you’re reading this, Jim.). The upshot is that I come from funny, kind people with a lot of integrity who are so genuine that they sometimes don’t realize they’re stepping on your toes, and you hate to point it out because they’re so nice and you know it wasn’t on purpose. Make of that what you will.

But so what made this funeral so special was that my grandfather planned it himself several years back. I gather his sister(?) passed away and he was dealing with funeral arrangements and was all, “dude this totally blows,” and he decided he’d never put his loved ones through that hassle. So he spent a year – I didn’t even spend a year planning my wedding, people – planning his funeral. He wrote his own obituary, he picked out family photos for a slide show, he picked out music, he covered all the details (perfectionism would be one of those family traits). It was kind of awesome, like a final party he threw for friends and family. Granted, a rather sad party, but it had his fingerprints all over it and I loved it. Except the part where the military salute included gunshots that I wasn’t expecting and I jumped two feet in the air in the front row where everyone could see and it probably ruined a really solemn moment for a lot of people, but I didn’t want to bring up my PTSD at a funeral, so I’ve just decided to believe that everyone else behind me jumped, too.

From now on we should totally all plan our own funerals. Mine will have crazy costumes for people to change into, and conversation starters with dick jokes on them, or perhaps an assortment of anecdotes about times when I embarrassed myself. And there will be gypsy music. Sort of like if a Jazz Funeral got lost and wound up in the middle of Burning Man. There will be a quiet room where people can look at pictures and feel sad for a little bit, but I want my life celebrated and gently mocked. Preferably with tropical drinks. At the hotel my aunt made Old Fashioneds, which were grandpa’s evening drink of preference (though completely different from the recipes I just found online – his involve fresh squeezed oranges and maraschino cherry juice, so it’s more like a whiskey sunrise, I guess?); it was delicious and I felt very close to him at that moment, so I will definitely serve up my favorite drink at my funeral. Well, not personally, because that would be weird. And gross.

I drove back to Missouri on Sunday & spent a couple days visiting with old friends. Not as many as I would have liked, but I wasn’t there for long & I just left a funeral. I had once belonged to a very tight-knit group of pagans, which is kind of like belonging to an evangelical Christian church, but with more nudity and dancing and being cool with everybody doing whatever works for them. But the being religious all the time and tightly connected to your worship community and potlucks part is very much the same. I’ve sort of moved on from there and my spiritual practice/quest for inner peace is basically going to therapy, and it works really well for me. But I miss the sense of community. A LOT.

It was wonderful to visit people who I know so well that I don’t have to guess whether they’re laughing the uncomfortable laugh or the appreciative laugh. People who will take your outrageous jokes about vibrators, or eating babies, or whatever, exactly in the spirit they are meant – which is to say, holy crap, of course I would never eat babies or wield a vibrator in that fashion, but it sure is funny to imagine, isn’t it? – and then they will one-up me. I love those people. When I leave social events in NJ, there is always the conversation in the car that goes something like this:

Me: So, do you think that dead baby joke went over okay? I hope those quiet, conservative looking people weren’t too uncomfortable.

Jim: No, people laughed, and everyone loves you, I’m sure it was fine, and it was completely germane to the conversation, it’s not like you blurted out something about dead babies into a silence.

Me: Please don’t let me drink at parties anymore.

Jim: You had two glasses. You got a little loud, but you weren’t outrageous or anything.

Me: Do you think I should send them flowers?

Old friends mean never having to worry about whether that joke went too far. They will instead tell you that it was a horrible joke and give you tips on how to improve it. Because that’s what friends DO.

For the first time ever, I thought about moving home. I don’t think I could, because Jim needs to live near the ocean. But I wanted to. One of my best friends likes to say, when asked how she ended up on the west coast from Missouri, “they opened the gates and I ran,” and I used to agree. But I miss that pace, and the friendliness. I have managed to mute the memories of judgment and anxiety that go along with that culture, and I suppose I like to imagine that I’ve been in therapy long enough not to take that crap in anymore. But I guess the best part about visiting is that you get to experience the best, and then go home and miss it some more.

Yesterday would have been the 40th birthday of the daughter of the woman who shuttled me back to the airport. She died of a rare and aggressive cancer six years ago. I hope it was a good funeral. I’m glad I got to share in celebrating her for a moment on a shuttle bus back to the airport to fly home.

If home is where the heart is, I’m going to need more hearts.