To Iowa on the Santa Express

This weekend, our family is gathered for the sad occasion of our beloved uncle’s funeral in Cascade, Iowa.  Milton B. Hughes was a giant of a man in the community–in stature, family, farming, the Knights of Columbus, but, mostly, in the size of his generous heart.  My brothers and sisters debated a 15-hour drive through the night or a flight to Chicago followed by a rental car leg.  While Jim, my brother, is still up for a road trip, the women lobbied for the flight.

On Sunday, we sat around my Aunt Rosalie’s kitchen table, and we did what families who have been apart for too long do.  We poured over photo albums and talked about the glorious summers we visited our Iowa cousins between the late 1960’s and early 1980’s.  Each summer we took turns–they came to Maryland or we went to Iowa.  We thought, for certain, that we got the better end of the deal.  Our memories of life on an Iowa farm are glorious, featuring all sorts of unsupervised and dangerous escapades, like making forts of hay bales in the barn; building a tree house out of scrap lumber that was ridiculously too high and in a pine tree that swayed in the wind; and rooting through an old farm house on the property that, because of its age and instability, was for storing feed and supplies.  The sound of my uncle’s voice warning us, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. . .” remains clear as a bell.

Only one time did we go to Iowa at Christmas.  It was 1972 or 1973.  Mom and Dad promised us a white Christmas because there’s always snow in Iowa.  We drove to Pittsburgh and then took a Greyhound bus through the night to Chicago.  From there, they rented a car and drove the additional four hours.  I remember the bus in Pittsburgh.  It was dark and snowing.  My dad bought each of us some sort of activity book and candy.  Mom and baby Susan slept all night.  We three bigger kids kept Dad awake all night and peered into the black night in anticipation.

Although I don’t know the exact state of my parents’ finances, I still wonder how they afforded even this simple bus trip.  Mom says it was advertised as a Santa Express, one of those “children ride free” deals.  It was the pre-ATM world. My Dad went in to a Sears and charged $50 on the credit card to get enough cash to get us back home from Pittsburgh.

Doesn’t matter.  Some people dream of going to Florida or Jamaica for the holidays.  Iowa in summer or winter ranks right at the top of my vacation destinations.  My uncle had recently dug a pond, and he and my aunt somehow found/borrowed skates for all of us.  I don’t know what else went on during the crazy cold days we were there.  There was no snow for certain, just blasting clear cold, much like it is this evening here in Amarosa, Iowa,  just a little while outside of Cascade.  Amarosa is the birthplace of artist Grant Wood. You know Wood as the creator of “American Gothic,” the iconic picture of the farmer with a pitchfork with his daughter beside him.  This is another painting that captures the snow in Iowa one cold winter 1940. Looks heavenly to me!

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