The population hasn’t changed much in the last two decades, but it seems as though everything else might have. It’s been twenty years since I ventured back to this place. And twenty years ago, people were still shoveling away inches of river silt and washing away flood lines from all the walls left over from a long, hard flood.
But those stained walls and silt-covered, gray fields and highways aren't really how I remember the place I spent the first ten years of my life. For that, you probably have to go back more like twenty-five years. And to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect when I passed that city limits sign a couple days ago. But as I did, I realized quickly that I was in a town that felt warmly familiar and yet so strangely foreign, all at the same time. In fact, some places looked just the same as when I had left them--small, simple, well-kept. For instance, the ball fields had just been cut and the water tower shined in its usual silver. And the trains--they still roared down the tracks every so often. And the big grain trucks still kicked up dust on dirty, gravel roads in the river bottoms.
But then again, other places were eerily different--as if just skeletons of the things they used to be. For example, the same school swings that I swang on twenty-five years ago still dangled in the summer breeze. The only difference was, there were no kids in their worn seats, and it looked as if there hadn't been for quite some time now. And where there was once sand for little feet, tall weeds grew up and fought the chains for room under the metal crossbars.
And as for the Wood Shed in the middle of town, where I remember old men on squeaky bar stools, now there is no one. Even the woman behind the bar who would always take a dollar in exchange for a big bag of ice has vanished.
And although the four walls of the tiny gas station still stand at the corner of town, gone now are the 3Musketeers and PayDays that used to line a little shelf in front of a counter that was no longer than a TV dinner table. And gone, too, is the lanky man who always sat behind it.
And where there were once 4-H kids laughing over cheeseburgers and fries and Ketchup, they are gone, too, now. There are no tables. No wooden chairs. No Mac's Cafe.
And just two miles outside of town, there isn't so much as a piece of concrete left of the little sidewalk that led to the little white farm house that kept dry the purple bedroom and the pencil marks that climbed the walls as three little girls grew.
And gone, too, is that little white farm house. ...And the matching playhouse. ...And the big gray barn. ...And the tin shed where a little girl kept her treasured rock tumbler. In their places now stand rows and rows of tall, brown corn waiting to be taken up into big green combines.
It was almost as if time had carved out this little place's soul and left only the swings and the tracks and some of the walls of what used to be. And yet, as I drove out of town, I could see kids playing hopscotch in front of that red-brick school. And I saw old men laughing on squeaky bar stools in that tiny bar. And as for that little white farm house, I saw that, too, standing tall amid all that brown corn. And best of all, I saw myself looking at those purple walls lined with books and teddy bears right before I closed my eyes and turned out the light.
And as I glanced in my rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but see the ghosts of the people and the places that had long ago woven themselves into my story. And it was just then, in my rearview mirror, that everything looked the same again—just exactly as I had left it twenty-five years ago, still the same painting that I had always...and would always call...home.
I write about rain on tin roofs, gravel roads, old trucks with holes in the floorboards and small-town summer nights. I grew up on a farm in a little Midwestern town. Now, I live in Kansas City, Mo., with my weatherman husband.
Laura Miller's first contemporary romance novel, Butterfly Weeds, hit the Amazon Best-Seller's List and Top 100 in October 2012. The sequel to Butterfly Weeds, My Butterfly, released in June 2013. For All You Have Left, By Way of Accident, When Cicadas Cry and A Bird on a Windowsill followed. Look for The Life We Almost Had, Laura's latest small-town romance, at book retailers now. And check out her children's book, Pay It Forward!