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  • Writer's picturemaggiehsmith07

So Long Old Pal

I traveled to Illinois to spend some time with my mom. I thought April would be a good time to visit but it was cold, windy, and cloudy much of the time. I had packed optimistically – shorts and sunglasses. I’ve worn neither.

I grew up in Illinois and left when I was 17. I’d successfully campaigned for my parents to waive their parental rights so that I could leave for the Army at the same time my former Oswego High School classmates were leaving for college. If you’ve left the place you’ve grown up in you may understand what it feels like to leave that place – it’s as if you’re on a long, thin tether that stretches far and taut. Anchoring you to that place. You’re floating high above the once familiar landscape, far from that place.

Occasionally, you descend and return. The flatness of Illinois and aging barns remind me of where I come from. Long freight trains rumble slowly down the tracks.

During this visit, a woman who lives in the building where my mom does asked me, “Did you have a good flight home?”

Home. I’m momentarily confused until I realize she’s referring to Illinois. My mom doesn’t exactly live in a city but to me, this visit, it sounds like a city. Sirens wail, planes rumble overhead having taken off from O’Hare or Midway. My ears have grown accustomed to Virginia.

My mom is 79 and has lived alone since my dad’s sudden passing 22 years ago. I show up when I can and look in her fridge and ask her what she’s been eating. In my current industry, senior living, seniors are sometimes given a mini-mental to assess their mental status. My mom beat my ass twice at Scrabble so her mental faculties are fine, thank you very much. While in the grocery store parking lot the other evening, a man didn’t see her small frame and I watched, in wordless horror, thinking she was about to be run down. She’s surprisingly agile when her life is threatened at the Jewel parking lot. Her hands shoots up and she leaps away. The man was flustered and apologetic. I try to lighten the mood by saying, “I thought I was going to get that life insurance early!” But it doesn’t have the intended effect. The man seems more flustered and uncertain how to react – hastily exiting the parking lot.

Somehow, mom and I land on the idea to travel to Galena, Illinois which is approximately 2 and half hours northwest of her home. It’s in a corner where Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin converge. A town where Abraham Lincoln once spoke and where Ulysses S. Grant resided following his war service.

If you’ve ever driven in Illinois, much of it is flat. You can see for miles – which could be a benefit during tornado season. As you approach Galena, the landscape changes – there are hills. Soy fields glimmer like emerald carpets.

Following my dad’s passing, he was cremated and then spent 13 years in a small box on the floor of my mom’s closet. If he were here, I’d rib him about his eventual coming out of the closet. My mom and her friend took my dad’s remains to Galena – a place he’d visited and enjoyed. They placed him by the bike path which runs along the train tracks.

“The next morning, we came back and there had been a frost and there were deer footprints around the ashes. Like they welcomed him.” Mom said. The sun shines.

I decide he’d like being by a train. He had worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad for over 40 years. We drive by Grant’s home to take a look. As we turn to drive away from Galena, a train horn wails. So long, old man.

So the sun shines on his funeral just the same as on a birth,

the way it shines on everything that happens here on Earth.

It rolls across the western sky and back into the sea

and spends the day's last rays upon this fucked-up family, so long old pal.

James Taylor, Enough To Be On Your Way

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