Pulling into my grandpa’s (Papa) West Des Moines neighborhood elicits a wide range of emotions from me, ranging from exhilaration to nostalgia to longing. When I’m driving down the gravel road, aptly named “The Dusty Road” by my brother and I when were children, I’m about to see family that I haven’t seen in a long while. I’m flooded with childhood memories of visiting several times a year– swimming in the pool and lake, swinging on the yellow wood swing my uncle made for us, and staying up late watching a wide range of movies with my grandmother (Omi), often ones I probably shouldn’t have been watching (let’s just say I had no idea what Pretty Woman was really about the first time I saw it, and to this day I can’t enter the ocean past my thighs thanks to Jaws). Finally, I’m saddened by the fact that my Omi will not be there to great me with a warm embrace like she did for so many years, because she died of Leukemia when I was in eighth grade.
A place is defined by “the lived experiences of people” (Hubbard 41) and my Papa’s house is not characterized by the six acres of gardens, the pasture where their horse, Thunder, spends his lazy days under the Oak trees or the way the lake feels when you jump off the dock on a summer day. It’s characterized by the memories we’ve made, my parents, brother and myself, my mom’s two brothers, and their families coming together. About 51 weeks of the year we’re split up among Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Texas so for one week a year, normally around the Forth of July, we congregate at the special house in Iowa for days in the sun and nights filled with wine and laughter around the pool, sitting under the arbor with its trumpet vines hanging overhead.
When I tell friends how excited I am for my Iowa adventure, they often question my sanity and assume I’m going to spend a week staring at a cornfield. I don’t exaggerate when I say that my Papa’s house is absolutely gorgeous. Before my Omi passed away, she was featured in several-page spread in an issue of Country Gardens because the house and the land surrounding it have truly become breathtaking. My mom often refers to the house as “a little resort” and she’s completely correct. The six acres are surrounded by not only the gardens but also by lush forests; so when lounging by the pool I can’t help but feel a sense of peace, calm and utter relaxation. Wandering down the hill in the backyard that leads to the small community lake, I often stop in my tracks to simply enjoy what is around. Jane Austen once said, “to sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” After a day outdoors, no word could describe how I feel better than refreshed. After everyone showers and cleans up for dinner, we enjoy the outdoors once again and dine al fresco if the weather permits. For all of these reasons, I believe the landscape, or “specific arrangement or pattern of ‘things on the land’” has definitely played a part in making this the most important place in my life (Mitchell 49).
When I look at pictures of the house when the first bought it in the ‘80s, I picture my Omi and Papa making their way up the dusty road and down the curvy grey paved driveway to see a space. They see a nice house, but it means nothing to them yet. They might imagine moving their two boys and little girl there; they might picture them playing in the front yard, which lacked the greenery and splendor it now possesses, but until they began to make memories and create a lived-in world around them, it was merely a space. Now, after Christmases and Forth of Julys spent sledding down the hill towards the lake or doing cannonballs into the pool, I can’t imagine my life without this place in it and I will forever be thankful that my Papa was able to create such a wonderful place for his family.
My late grandmother said in the interview with Country Gardens that she loves being outside, even in the dead of winter. “When I walk down and look at this flower garden, and all the pretty colors in it, it gives me great joy,” she said. Although my heart aches when I look at the article and think of how much more time I would have loved with her, I have to smile because although she is gone, the gardens still exist and the people who love her can exist in them. As I make my way down past the conifers and hostas, around the perennial bed and past the small garden house, I feel like she is with me. Gazing at the lush ferns, into the beds of roses and daylilies, I remember summer days as a child when I would happily stand by my Omi’s side like a surgeon’s assistant. I would hand her the spade like a scalpel and the trowel when she needed it.
Although my Omi is no longer there, the memories and the sense of place is as strong as ever between my parents, brother, uncles, aunts, cousins and Papa. I dunk my cousin Jack in the pool, talk about post-college adventures with my Uncle Paul over a glass of white wine and listen to my Papa ask me questions about the boys in my life and all I can do is smile, because I am at home.