I don’t remember Iowa very well. It wasn’t awful, not at all, and Illinois had nothing on it. Highway 80, which, after all, could never represent all of the state, seemed less funky than 80 in Illinois. And, of course, to get from one to the other, I had to cross the Mississippi—which came as a surprise. I’d forgotten it and suddenly I was above it. My apologies to Mark Twain
Iowa was greener with more space and fields than Illinois. Yellow flowers trimmed the edges of the roads in some places. The University of Iowa had a radio station that actually played classical music – I probably thought the state was more civilized for it, not a very well reasoned conclusion.
When I got to Des Moines, I thought I would have an easy time of it. It had never seemed like a very large city on any map I’d seen. It surprised me when the same tangle of highways that surrounded other cities, twisted and circled around Iowa’s capital. From the highway it looked very much like some of the cities in my dreams about cities, with odd domes and last century’s skyscrapers. I’m usually lost in those dreams too. I took more than one bad turn, one of which sent me spinning down a swirl of road and almost into a wall. But since this was a magical trip….
What I liked best about Iowa was a windmill farm. I’d seen almost no windmills on my trek across the Midwest which surprised me because I’d seen so many from the air in the same states. But then, there they were, scattered across the tops of hills like creatures from another dimension, Quioxte’s challengers, their blades turning against the sky. Not whole armies of them, but just enough to have personalities.
I reached the edge where Iowa meets Nebraska on Friday night and stayed in a Motel Six in Council Bluffs, a small room with a lot of plastic. It looked and felt like the inside of an I-phone. The same ambience. Next door was a Mexican restaurant where the jalapeno sauce tasted like Italian marinara. Perhaps this is what happens to Mexicans who go to Iowa?
I got up early to go to Lincoln, Nebraska. I was excited: I was heading back into the world of my grandparents, Volgadeutsch, Germans from Russia. Lincoln was at the center of that emigration.
Of course, I got lost. The town wasn’t large, but it had become clear to me by now that any place even vaguely urban was a place where I would lose my way. But Lincoln is also straight forward place with streets called by the letters of the alphabet and eventually I found D Street in a really very lovely neighborhood with trim and porched turn-of-the-last-century houses on shady streets and the Evangelical Lutheran Friedenkirche.
Of course, when my grandparents lived there the trees would have been smaller and the sun more intense.
I almost immediately found the Evangelical Lutheran Friedenkirche where they were married and where my mother was christened. For years, and until her death, she had the framed certificate on her wall. I’d admired it and put it in a book I’m still writing. It names the minister and the godparents, as well as Jesus and the Holy Spirit (or at least there’s a picture of the Holy Spirit in his guise as a dove and a Jesus wreathed in grape vines). The Dreieinigen Gottes (Three in One God) is prominently mentioned but there’s no picture of God the Father which is just as well since, I suppose, he would have had an impressive beard like Michelangelo’s God and leaned over the whole document the same way the Sistine God leans over creation.
I snapped a couple of pictures of the church from across the street. It was a handsome structure and looked well-tended. That’s when I spotted the minister going in the side door. Clergymen aren’t like priests; they’re not usually around, certainly not on a Saturday morning, but there he was—my unlikely Virgil, or more likely Beatrice–there to fix a loose hinge or something like that. I told him my grandparents’ last name (Wacker) and he assured me that I was in the right place.
He took me through the building, explaining where and when the choir loft and the organ had been moved, what had been changed and what hadn’t. It was very much the same place but the congregation only did it all in German once a year. And that, of course, changes the very essence of it. But the same Jesus was still in the nave, presiding over everything.
Nearby, was the Museum where the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia has its home, and in front was the memorial to the Pioneers. I had seen pictures, but the real thing was much more moving. It was a picture of my grandparents, or at least my grandmother who looked very much like the woman of the memorial–who had once lived on these same streets, a refugee from the Russian steppes, an immigrant to the Great Plains.