Livin’ the Dream

The public (read: one former neighbor) has demanded a sixth installment to Summer 2015: Roadtrip to the Heartland.

Roughly twelve hours after pulling into town we found ourselves having dinner with friends. At my mom’s house. With food she just happened to have at the ready. Other than a freezer full of chicken carcasses, I don’t have anything ‘at the ready’.

I think my contribution to the meal, which I’d initiated, was stirring a pot of curry and spooning rice onto people’s plates. It’s the only kind of entertaining that can be done after spending four days in the car on too little sleep.

The adults were talking around the table, having a conversation that was both easy and meaningful, while the kids ran around outside with other kids they didn’t even know, eating watermelon, being consumed by mosquitoes and catching frogs. Many, many frogs. Which I found both endearing and repulsive.

But, jumpy amphibians aside, it was exactly what I’d wanted for my boys: an idyllic fiction-worthy version of summer (less, perhaps, 30 mosquito bites). It was the reason we made this year’s stay a week longer. So they could be immersed in Americana, to have a frame of reference for this land below Canada beyond their passports and seven days in the car every other year.

I’d envisioned the boys wilting in the midwestern humidity, catching fireflies, learning how to play tennis, playing with cousins and spending time with grandparents and aunts and uncles.

And, as I sit here now, back in Calgary at the end of five long weeks, having avoided my car like the plague, I can’t help but think: mission accomplished. Cousins. Grandparents. Aunts and Uncles. Frogs and fireflies. Tennis. Building projects. Swimming. Fishing. Ice cream. Donuts. Movies. Kid-free time. Truly, we ticked all the boxes this summer.

I am flooded with memories whenever we make these trips to the Heartland, for Indiana has been a part of my vocabulary for such a long time. When I take the boys to get donuts at the local shop (I’m very partial to their apple fritter) it’s with the realization that I’ve been buying donuts there since 1990. Long before they started selling neon-colored popcorn. And added a second location.

When I walk in to the Mexican restaurant I always feel compelled to frequent, despite the inevitable regret that follows, I think of past meals with smaller versions (and fewer) of our boys; the oil-stained chips and the black saucers of watery salsa. The shredded iceberg lettuce that I never eat and the pool of pale refried beans dotted with cheese that gradually seeps into the lettuce.

And when I drove the boys to tennis camp all the way out in the boonies, I ‘naturally’ found myself making very awkward small talk with a girl I haven’t seen since prom night, 1992; whilst spying another high school classmate across the way, and a girl I used to know, who had her second child a week before the Hen was born. Despite being due after me.

I swear I’m not still bitter about that.

On our way to spending time with the professor’s side of the family, we stopped at the iconic, small town ice cream place beloved for their large portions, the 100 different milkshakes and sundaes and the strawberry shortcakes teetering with berries, vanilla soft serve and whipped creamBecause you need both, of course.

As I stood in line with the professor, waiting to place our order, I saw my former high school principal sitting at a table with his family. And later, a former cheerleader who graduated the year before me. As a person who has lived in a lot of places, I am slightly mesmerized by people whose lives have kept them in the same place.

If you asked the boys to name the highlight of the month-long visit they will say ‘cousins’, followed by ‘grandparents’ and maybe, if pressed to name something else, ‘swimming’ or ‘the beach.’ But mostly they relished running around with their network of kid-relatives.

It’s why we go. So they can have memories of making fires and watching VHS cartoon tapes in the basement of a vacation rental, of catching their first fish, of building a treehouse (ship) on their grandparents’ sprawling property and hammering nails into birdhouses and riding in the back of the pick-up truck with their grandpa at the wheel.

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Mere days after we’d made the cross-country trek, we got back in the car for a quick overnight trip to Chicago, where the boys indulged in the Legoland Discovery Centre with some of their cousins, while the professor and I enjoyed a kid-free brunch at Lula Cafe.

I’ve visited Chicago countless times over the years and every time I go, I think: we should live here. I love its beautiful brownstone buildings. And the neighborhoods, dense with enormous, sturdy trees.

Having scored free street parking, we ambled through tree-lined Logan Square to our hipster brunch joint, frequented by people who looked like they’d clothed themselves from the reject pile at Goodwill. After putting our names on the waitlist, I pulled out the Sunday edition of the New York Times that we only ever buy when in America. Lo and behold, our table was ready before I’d even read an article: a Sunday brunch miracle! We ate food that was both interesting and good and on our way back to the car, walked right through an outdoor farmer’s market. Casual, bordering-on-slapdash in its organization, every stall had something I wanted to buy.

I scanned the tree-lined boulevard for for-sale signs and wondered if the public schools were any good. And then we got in our car and spent thirty, forty minutes to drive nodistanceatall. And, just like that, as happens every single time I visit, I cancelled the moving truck I’d mentally reserved.

Sorry, Chicago.

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After three weeks of Indiana-living, leaving an undetermined number of our belongings in any of the seven places we’d lain our heads, and trying to figure out how to squeeze an entire box of books and an office chair into our already-crammed vehicle, we headed north to South Haven, Michigan.

For a vacation from our vacation.

To hopefully summon the strength for The Great Return 2015.

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