Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reunion and Departure: July 19-21

Last night I got a decent night's sleep, incredibly, and am now in chipper-enough spirits to relay the story so far.

Last weekend my mom organized a family reunion at the Dunn family farm in Iowa. I rode down on Saturday with my parents and sister, Theresa, who just finished grad school at Penn State and moved to Austin, TX with her fiance. The occasion wasn't as nice as it should've been. I was not in the mood to deal with Mom. I swallowed my discontent in traditional silence, but that, predictably, made me quiet and ill-at-ease. And constipated. (TMI?)

My aunts, uncles and (most of my) cousins from Chicago, Dubuque, Champaign-Urbana and Georgia were there. This was the first reunion with the next generation. My cousin Erin's 5-month-old son Will was there and quickly became the center of attention. We usually don't see each other more than once a year and we're not the most extroverted family anyway, so the baby was a welcome social lubricant and filler of dead air.

I used to feel gipped because my family was so often shy. (Those of you who know me understand how hypocritical that was.) Nowadays I take responsibility for picking up (a fair share of) the slack in the conversations. Unfortunately, the lid on my internal turmoil also tamped down my interest in social interaction around Mom. It's sad to say, but I think if she hadn't been there, I would've enjoyed the reunion a lot more. ("Isn't it ironic? Don't ya think?")

The official function was a Sunday luncheon at Flatheads, the bar in St. Anthony. "St. A," as it's known locally, is the town nearest the family farm with a population of a couple hundred. Even that seems like an overestimate, though. All 16 of us filed into Flatheads, a suitably small, casual establishment with a big-game-hunting theme. We divided into the time-honored adults and kids tables, a quaint distinction now that every "kid" is over the age of 21.

Over pizza and fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, the adults chatted easily, while the kids sputtered along. We're still learning how to relate to each other as adults. The familiarity and informality we had as kids is gone. Getting together on a somewhat-annual basis will do that to ya. It's like we're trying too hard to keep the conversation polite. We don't wanna offend anyone with a bold question or comment. As I said, I was way off my game, so nary a peep could be heard from my corner of the table.

I felt better on Monday, but by then the Illinois and Dubuque contingents had to leave. Even with my improved mood I wasn't feeling gregarious, so I squandered my last chance to converse with the remaining Georgia relatives for at least a year (except Uncle Mike, who owns and visits the farm often for maintenance and caretaking). Cousins Laura and Susan whipped up a batch of spaghetti for an early supper, immediately following which I said goodbye and left for the train with the folks.

That was a tense ride. By the time we hit Zearing (5 miles into the trip), I wasn't sure I could handle the stress. On I-35 my anxiety let up as I initiated another game of "Name That Tune: Classic Rock Edition" with Dad. He got "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and almost choked up telling me the origin of the song title. It was what a kid carrying his brother said to Father Flanagan (he of Boys' Town fame) when they showed up at the father's door. When we stopped for gas at a Des Moines suburb, I told Dad it'd been a tough weekend for me. I didn't say why, and he didn't ask.

The decent atmosphere prevailed until we reached Osceola, a town well south of Des Moines and site of the nearest Amtrak stop. The station was old and maintained on the cheap. The ticket office was barren and strewn with loose papers, like an overseas military HQ in the last days of the British Empire. The benches, though, were classic and in reasonably good shape. The lady in the ticket office informed us the train was running an hour late, giving us 2 hours to kill.

We cruised a residential 'hood and parked in the town square to walk around. It was a typical small town Main Street. Most of the buildings were early 20th Century, half of which housed local businesses: cinema, hardware store, tailor, medical equipment, tavern, Chinese and (Midwestern) American restaurants. The other half were empty. At the conclusion of our walking tour the boredom was overpowering. I realized what made it so unpleasant was being with my parents. I said, "I can't remember the last time I was this bored." Dad laughed and said I should get used to it if I was gonna travel by train.

We drove around some more. Mom was antsy to get back to the station. Dad shot her down but drove us back to the station anyway, in that aggressive-passive way of his. I unloaded my backpack and suitcase again and carried it to the side of the station, to avoid the stuffiness inside. Outside there was an intermittent breeze to relieve the humidity lingering before sunset. The silence and tension rolled in like a debilitating fog. After a half-hour of stupefaction, I reminisced about the delights of visiting the farm in the summer as a kid. The emotion welled up into my mouth and barely affected my speech on one phrase.

Shortly thereafter the station worker called us to the platform. Just to be safe, Mom and Dad hugged me in the station. That was almost visibly emotional for me. They appeared to be holding it back too. It took a while for the train to arrive. They came out there but kept their distance (I'm guessing) so as not to confuse the conductors. It was after dark at that point. When the train finally pulled up, it was otherworldly. A sleek, silver double-decker roared into the sleepy hamlet, slicing through the peaceful night as if opening a portal to the future. I thought of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Strange that a retro mode of transport dazzled me so. My nerves had a lot to do with it, engorged as they were on my parents' (mainly Mom's) anxiety.

I waved goodbye to the 'rents anticlimactically and boarded the train.

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