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First Person, Mary Ellen Shaughan: Going back to Iowa

Mary Ellen Shaughan


Mary Ellen Shaughan JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

Lake Mills, Iowa, population 1,800, was and is my hometown. Located in the heart of farm country, the area produced more than corn. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Wallace Stegner, was born there, and Meredith Willson, of “The Music Man” fame, grew up about 20 miles away.

I was the third and final daughter in my family to leave home. After four years at a large state university, I was excited about the prospect of leaving that small town behind, certain that all sorts of adventures awaited me. My sisters and I returned to visit our parents many times over the years. I arrived first with my husband and one child in tow, then with three, then four. When my parents (known to everyone in town as Tom and Pearl) were in their mid-80s, they sold our family’s house and moved to Minneapolis to be closer to my older sister and her family. Before the sale was final, my youngest child and I returned to the empty house one last time, searching for anything of sentimental value my parents had left behind.

Though no family remains in Lake Mills, I return when I can to visit friends I’ve known since kindergarten. They remember when my mother brushed my hair in “sausage” curls; when we bobbed for apples at Halloween and thought it was special; when we drifted in and out of teenage romances and listened to each other’s angst; when we sang together in choir, or, as members of the marching band, filed onto the field during halftime of Friday night football games. These women were everyday witnesses to my formative years, and this year I was able to renew those friendships.

I rented a car in Minneapolis and drove two hours south, leaving Interstate 35 about 20 miles north of Lake Mills, proceeding the rest of the way on old Route 69, two lanes and bumpy. Every few miles there were signs warning No Through Traffic, but nobody was there to halt my progress.

The road is a white ribbon separating fields of waving green corn, and I could feel my pulse quicken the nearer I got to my destination. When I spotted the tall grain elevators north of town, I could feel a smile beginning.

I stopped at the only traffic light — right in the center of town — and turned east on Main Street, driving past Asbury Methodist, the little church I attended most Sunday mornings and many Wednesday evenings, and from there, continued just a block further to “my” house. I searched both its current appearance and my memory, comparing the two.

Though the house is still recognizable, some key items are missing. Someone removed the white rail fence that enclosed the smallish backyard, the same one that looked so enormous when I was 12. The big old oak at the back corner of the lot, the one I fell out of in June after fifth grade, is gone, as is the apple tree that rewarded my folks with juice-running-down-your-chin apples every September. Still marching down the front steps of the house, though, are the black wrought-iron railings my father proudly ordered and installed, the ornate ‘S’ incorporated between vertical rods. I wondered if this initial works for the current owner.

Most businesses that I knew are gone, their owners deceased, moved in with one of their children, or retired to a home on the lake, three miles distant. Many of the buildings, like the people, have had face-lifts. The old movie theater remains open and in the same location; the local newspaper has moved to a newer but less interesting-looking building. The drugstore where we gathered for banana splits on Wednesday nights after summer band concerts in the park is gone.

I met my friends at one of their homes, and noticed that I was the only one with white hair; the others are all blond. The restaurant where we went for lunch is new, but I recognized it as the old brick bank, which was the only one in town for years. The dining room is open and spacious. The former vault, with its door swung wide, now provides private dining for eight.

As we followed the hostess to our table, one of my friends stopped to greet a local woman who was already seated. Then, by way of introduction, my friend said, “This is Mary Ellen Shaughan; she’s a poet!” I winced inwardly. Though I am a poet, being identified as one always feels pretentious. I need not have worried.

The woman looked me over for a long minute, absorbing the information, and then, apparently immune to the immensity of my literary accomplishments asked, “Tom’s daughter?”

Some things never change.

Mary Ellen Shaughan, a gardener and poet, lives in Amherst.

First Person welcomes submissions from readers. Email essays of no more than 800 words to Suzanne Wilson at swilson@gazettenet.com.

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