The first time I spent a summer in Wisconsin I was eight, and I rode the upper western half of America in an eighteen-wheeler full of cherries and apples.
We’d moved from the Badger state a year earlier, migrating West to the newly booming town of Boise, Idaho, my parents ostensibly chasing opportunity. My father was an educator, Wisconsin bred, and in Idaho he found a pace to grow, a place to build something, a place to cultivate the mission into which he’d thrown himself years prior when he started a school in Green Bay. He’d gone West and found his plot and planted himself. He’d made a new home in a new city and the history of our seven person nuclear family pivots on this particular migration.
But none of us have ever forgotten the place where we came from, where the Kern family was born and built and where we most flourished inasmuch as we have. Years have passed and we have made homes in new places, first in Idaho and then in North Carolina where we are today, but the rolling hills and deep woods of Wisconsin will always be our native land. The great expansive lakes and the cold winters and cool summers and deeply felt passion for the team we all own and would never consider, even for the shortest moment, giving up on. We’ve planted ourselves in other places, but we have roots here that will never die, roots we’d never consider pulling up.
It was during that trip when I was eight that I first began to recognize this.
My parents had somewhat apprehensively dropped us off at a Boise truck stop to meet up with some old Wisconsin friends, Steve Weidner and his boys, Ryan and Matthew. Steve was a longtime truck driver and he made a slight detour to pick us up. Ten days, seven states, and more Western style outposts than I can recall later we made it to Grandma and Grandpa Kern in Green Bay.
For six weeks we played in the woods, swam in the pool, played billiards in the toy room, shot hoops with Grandpa (who insisted we cultivate a good lefty hook shot), and shopped with Grandma (who warned us never to tell Grandpa how much she had spent on us if we ever wanted it to happen again). These are among my most precious childhood memories and in my vivid but biased recollection these were the days of storybooks. And for the next ten summers, until my siblings and I were too old and too involved in other things to make it for a whole summer we spent as many days there as Grandma and Grandpa would have us.
Above all, I will never forget their house on Arapahoe trail, outside of Green Bay, the family homestead nestled peacefully against the woods, like a head on a pillow. They didn’t build this house, technically. It was already here. But they may as well have. It’s not the same house anymore. An addition and a new garage and a swimming pool and a remodel, and much more have seen to that. But we are, all of us, the substance of the history we have created and this house is the substance of the history my grandparents created. That addition? They built much of it themselves. That garage? Grandpa was up on the roof. That pool? He was in the pit digging with a shovel until the job became too big and he rented a backhoe. What used to be a fairly common ranch house in a pleasant Upper Midwestern neighborhood is now a “dream house”, according to it’s new owner.
You see, grandma just sold the house. The expenses have been piling up for a while, even before grandpa passed away more than seven years ago, and it’s too much to handle now.
Some houses are memorable because they’re big. Others for the unusual way they’re decorated or designed. And still others because someone famous lived in them. This house is memorable for none of those reasons. It’s not that this house is small or that it’s poorly decorated or that it’s been inhabited by boring folk. On the contrary on all three counts. But it’s most memorable because of the stories we tell about it, the stories we’ve made and lived and will never forget whether we own the property or not.
It’s memorable because of the time when Grandpa jumped out of his chair with a banshee’s yelp of joy when Michael Jordan hit his last shot with the Bulls, because of the Christmas Eves and Fourth of Julys celebrated here, because of the babies that have cried here and the fights we’ve had, because of the Packer’s games we watched and the flank steak and orangy roughy and the frozen custard and the time that my cousin and brother foolishly went skinny dipping for a Snickers bar they should have known was never coming. It’s memorable because it’s where Grandpa worked hard and laughed joyously and where he died. It’s memorable because it’s where Grandma hosted us and made us homemade popcorn while we watched the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers and where she cared for grandpa as he died. It’s memorable because of the children who’ve played here and the legos and late night card games. It’s memorable because it smells like hard work and prayer and so much love, so much doggone love. Because there’s laughter here, the laughter of a chorus of voices who’ve walked through those doors and been welcomed with arms opened wide. It’s memorable because there’s peace here, a peace which surpasses understanding and floats in the air like some cosmic, Spirit filled elixir: a medicine.
This house is a haven. And it’s been our haven. But like Frodo and company marching away from Rivendell, we must move on. Each of us must migrate to our own places, the memories fresh enough they’re tangible, to do as best we can what Grandma and Grandpa did here. Whether we’re here in Titletown or down South, the precedent’s been set and our job is to create new history of our own, new joy and new laughter and new work. Our job is to love the way they have loved and we don’t need this little place, this brilliant, beautiful, lovely, hallowed, memorable spot on earth to do that. It helps, yes. But that’s what the memories are for.