There’s a barn in Iowa that seems to contain whole pieces of who I am.
I grew up as a town girl in Michigan; this barn is in the middle of the prairie, reachable only by dirt roads. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s; this barn was teeming with life in the 50s and 60s. I have seen this barn only a handful of times in my life, and yet it suddenly seems to hold secrets about me.
I’m going to tell you about this barn, and why I was exploring it with my mom and brother, aunt and cousins, and my own daughters this past weekend. But first, I’m wondering this: How many pieces of your before-you-were-born history have you written off as “not relevant”? How many people, places and events do we pass by without a flicker of recognition or fascination, because we somehow feel removed, either by time or direct participation, or both?
That’s how I’ve treated Iowa. Both of my maternal grandparents grew up in the same small farm town, and several of my relatives still live there, but Iowa was just a place my parents took my brother and I when we were kids. It was a place that held exuberant relatives who hugged us and made delicious buttermilk pancakes fried in bacon grease. It was a land of rolling fields of corn in the summer, and snow in the winter—enough to impress even us Michigan natives. But when we left, Iowa stayed in its place, separate from me in every way.
Stories tie us to places removed
This past weekend, I went back to Iowa for the first time in 20 years; we were gathering to celebrate my grandmother’s life, at her memorial service. On Saturday, after singing all of my grandmother’s favorite hymns at the church, after a bitterly cold moment together at the cemetery, and after lunch and stories, old photographs and memories shared at the community center, we caravaned out to the family farm.
This particular farm has been in my family since the end of the Civil War. After the war, my great-great-great grandfather, who fought for the North, was offered land in return for his service. He said he’d take a farm in Iowa, then he walked from Virginia to claim it.
I’ve been to the farm several times before, and I’ve seen the barn, but I had never recognized myself in it. It was just a decrepit barn. All it takes, though, are a few stories to slide open those heavy, creaking doors and reveal all the possibilities that lie within.
“There was always a huge family gathering at the farm on Thanksgiving,” my mom told my girls. “All of the kids used to play and play in that barn, for hours. We’d stack the hay bales to create rooms and then we’d play house. We’d stay long after our fingers and toes were numb from the cold.”
I pictured my mom playing in that very barn, feeding her imagination and her sense of belonging—both to an extended family and to a place. I realized “This is more than just a nice story. This place is wrapped up in who my mom is, which means it’s tied to who I am.”
With my own eyes I watched my daughters explore the barn and the grounds around the farmhouse, thrilled with each discovery. “Can we spend a whole week here some time, like Grandma and her cousins did in the summer?” S asked, and I realized this place and its history are also tied to who Q and S are.
Excavating my way toward meaning
I haven’t sorted out what all of this past means to my present, but after spending time on that farm, my personal landscape seems much more expansive than it ever has before.
I thought Iowa was just a land of farm fields and cemeteries filled with my family names, but it’s also a place where half of my history is rooted.
I thought I was traveling to Iowa just to celebrate my grandmother’s life, but I was also there to understand my own life in a new way.
Now, when I look at pictures of this barn, it makes me wonder what else I’ve missed.