By Kris Woll
Our blue Ford extended van, a rental, broke down about 10 miles outside of town. We—my big brother, my three older sisters, my mom and dad, our temperamental terrier, and myself—were on the way home from our second and final vacation as a family. It was the summer of 1985. The big kids were 19, 18, 16, and 13; I was the 7-year-old baby of the family.
The van had carried several coolers, stacks of suitcases, piles of pillows, and a steady stream of Mom’s Salem Lights across South Dakota, into Wyoming, through the Rocky Mountains, and back through Nebraska and along the edge of Iowa. We’d just made it into our little corner of Minnesota when it broke down—in the dark, in the heat, the shimmering lights of our small prairie hometown visible, so close, but so far away, on that vast horizon. My father swore. My sisters complained. My mom smoked. I am pretty sure I cried. The dog whined, and my brother took her for a walk in the ditch to go pee.
On that night, in that moment in time, home seemed to be a pretty clear-cut place. From the vantage point of that broken-down rental van, it was somewhere in the middle of the low row of lights shining in the distance: the white two-story with brown shutters in the center of town, with crab apple trees in the yard and a basketball hoop on the garage and a blue metal swing set out back and wood paneling in the hallway and crowded upstairs filled with kids. It was the place where we all lived, together. A bum engine might delay our arrival, but we all knew where we were headed.
And thanks to a kind soul who stopped and brought Dad into town and to our garage so he could pick up our Caprice Classic station wagon and come back to get us, we got there. That night my brother and sisters and I climbed, tired and relieved and one by one and as we had for years and years, up the soft brown carpeted stairs to the second floor filled with bedrooms, four for the five of us. We all brushed our teeth crowded around the one small sink the bathroom we shared, littlest in front, five strikingly similar faces—those cheekbones, that nose!—gathered in the medicine cabinet mirror.
And then summer turned into fall and everything changed. Well, not everything. The stairs still had soft brown carpet; the second floor kept all four bedrooms; the metal swing set remained firmly cemented in Dad’s neatly mowed backyard. But the oldest two—my brother and one of my sisters – packed up their (Billy Joel) records and (Toto) posters and moved away. To college, two hours away. I was asleep in my bed—the top bunk, in the room I shared with the sister closest (at 6 years older) in age—when they left. My brother stopped into my room and kissed my cheek. I pretended to be asleep, too sad to say goodbye.
Despite vacated space just across the hall, I refused to change my sleeping arrangements. My parents tried everything—new bed linens in pastel plaid, a relocated Barbie Dream House and bookshelf for my Little House on the Prairie books—but I would not comply. My Cabbage Patch Kids rested on my undisturbed comforter each night while I wandered back into the room I had shared with my closest sibling, a sister 6 years older, since my parents set up my crib in her corner. She kindly put up with my presence. For years. For her teen years. I filled my sticker book with scratch-n-stiff stickers and snuggled my stuffed Smurf while she studied the periodic table and wrote papers on Fahrenheit 451. We listened, together, to the “Top 9 at 9” on her clock radio by the twinkling light of the reading lamp clipped up behind her bed.
Two years later, the next sister left for college, leaving behind yet another mostly-empty room.
I continued to cross the hall to share a room come bedtime.
Until one day, five years and two months after the van broke down south of town, my roommate left for college. I helped my parents move her into her dorm room, carrying in her new comforter and a mauve plastic milk crate filled with microwave popcorn and towels and apple-scented shampoo into the low brick building where she would now live. On the ride home in our four-door Buick—a downsize purchase when our Caprice Classic hit the skids—I had the whole backseat to myself. That night I slept on my own, surrounded by empty bedrooms that I would, eventually, colonize and then, six years later, leave.
My parents sold that house a few years ago. By the time they did, we all had families and houses of our own; the old house’s upstairs filled only on a couple holidays each year. Its rooms featured minimal furnishings—cast-offs from downstairs, the few items that none of us pillaged for our first apartments, the bike and treadmill Mom and Dad bought for the free time and space they had after we all left. Even that one back closet—the one that once held a vast collection of old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses and piles and piles of dyed satin shoes—was empty, thanks to a big donation to the high school drama department. (Now you know why every production there looks remarkably like a 1990s special occasion.)
Before my parents moved, they hosted one last family cookout. I expected it to be an emotional event. The 20-and-a-half (I was 6 months pregnant at the time) of us gathered—some from close by, others of us from a bit further away—in the big back yard on a hot, sticky June evening. We said our goodbyes to the place in a rush when a summer storm blew up quickly, as they often do in that prairie town. We didn’t have time to walk back up the soft brown-carpeted stairs together one last time. Instead we abruptly gathered our bags and our Pyrex bowls of coleslaw and our children, and ran through the wind and thunder to our own cars—vans and sedans parked in a row in the driveway. I teared up a bit as we drove away that night, as my childhood home faded into a blur of rain and night, but my sadness only lasted a few minutes …
Which was about how long it took us to drive to my brother’s house, a recently restored old gem in the center of my hometown where he now lives, and where my siblings and our partners and our children reconvened. We sat on his porch and watched the lightening and wind. We told stories, like the one about the blue rental van that broke down at the end of our second-and-final family vacation, the summer before the oldest kids left for college. And we were, on that summer night, as at home together as ever.
Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer. Read more of her work at kriswollwriting.com.
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