When I was growing up, every couple of years my family would take a road trip from our home in Southern California to visit our homeland in Minnesota.
My mother’s parents still lived in the small town where she, my older brother and I were born. It was across the lake from the slightly larger small town where my father was born. (My sister was the only outlier among us, having emerged into the world 50 miles down the highway in St. Cloud when my father was in college after the War.)
On our visits, we’d spend a few days with Grandma Gertie and Grandpa Vic, and then drive 100 miles north to see my father’s parents, Emma and Ole. They had lived in our hometown too, but when they retired, Ole sold his bakery business and they built a house on a different lake where Grandma Berg’s brother, Elmer, owned a resort. Several of her siblings also owned homes within shouting distance.
Visiting Minnesota was language immersion in our emotional geography and oral history. It didn’t matter that I was less than a year old when my parents moved to California. Minnesota was in the cells of my bones. It was in my DNA.
The summer I was five, Grandpa Vic took me fishing. I didn’t actually have a pole—he gave me a spool of fishing line with a hook, leader, and bobber. The chances of me catching something and being able to reel it in on a handheld spool were remote.
But that’s what happened. I got a bite, and with encouragement from my grandfather, began to furiously wind the line back onto the spool. When I got the fish up to the surface, it was a good-sized crappie—the first fish I’d ever caught. I think it was also the only time I ever fished with Grandpa Vic—he died a couple of years later.
Most of my childhood fishing experiences were on Lake Shamineau with Emma and Ole. I would often fish off the end of their dock, sitting there for hours, listening to the water lap against the boat and shore, and to the loons and shitepokes as their cries carried across the lake.
My wife and I, along with my sister and brother-in-law were planning a trip back to the lake this summer. We were going to meet several of our cousins and stay at the old resort that our Great Uncle Elmer, Emma’s brother, used to own. But the COVID pandemic has changed that.
So, we’re traveling our emotional geography while sheltering in place, retracing our origin stories by memory rather than by footsteps.
It’s a journey still worth taking, and perhaps even more so now. Connections become all the more important when we’re isolated. The gifts of homeland become all the more precious in the vulnerability of home exile.