Thursday, February 5, 2009

Trip to the Heartland, Part II

(Part I is printed in the post below this one)

Judith Deem Dupree

It happens soon enough. "Welcome to Dupree -- home of 550 people and one old grouch." It's a decidedly home-made sign, tongue in cheek, the kind of off-road humor you don't see along the freeways. We hoot with pleasure; it looks promising.

The town is minimal, with signs of a livelier past. At the Post Office we are directed to the Court House, for this is the county seat. The staff person is waiting for us; a quick phone call had alerted her to these strangers with their quirky mission – to "claim their town." She grins. It's not an everyday event, someone dropping in from the mainstream of life, from the fast lane. We are welcome, and we end up buying a book on Ziebach county and its small-town histories. She directs us then to the newspaper office – a regional weekly – and we are photographed for a front-page feature! The volunteer editor and her husband are our kind of down-home folk; we chat delightedly and leave reluctantly.

Time for that cuppa and something sweet to wash down, to commemorate this small coincidence of names and maybe, some time long past, genes still buried beneath this soil.

The cafe is like any very small-town cafe. Dim, a bit down-at-the-heels, redolent with ham and eggs at this late morning hour. We settle in, skirting the long table that consumes the center. Three old fellers are draped over the chairs, owning their usual spots. They eye us, friendly enough.

It is more than I can resist. My coffee cools while I explain our visit, and hubby picks up the pace. We all banter back and forth for a spell, I inquiring if their table is "the liar's club," and they guffawing with obvious pleasure and agreement. They swap memories, interrupting and correcting each other easily. We learn more history, the written and unwritten kind. We inhale it all, swallow it with the bear claws and coffee. Yes, Our kind of folk, decidedly.

Reluctantly, we wave our farewells and climb back into the van, wanting to hang out a while yet. But they have their lives, and their life, and we are not a part of it. We take a few more pictures, hanging out the window, and slowly ease onto the blacktop. I look back until it's only a dot on the map again. Why do I feel a sudden twinge of homesickness?

This tiny burgh is not our home town. It is probably not even a part of my husband's ancestral roots, as far back as can be determined. But it doesn't matter. It is a bed-rock part of who we, the two of us, and we, all of us, are as a people. It is a part of home and family and what that means to us, a sense of who we are that we must tuck away beneath the trappings we wrap ourselves in.

With no fanfare, and despite the incongruities and disparities – between their stinging black brew and our Starbucks way of life – we did go home. Something shifted inside, and we found room for a chunk of reality we'd both needed. A slice of community, of history, of neighborness that gets lost in the rush of existence that is America today.

We have learned nothing "of substance", except the fact that we are all related, not by birth-names, nor geography, but by living. I think, in a way, that we are lost – or never quite found – unless, until we make this kind of stop, this kind of discovery, somewhere along the back road of life. A memory of something we never knew, waiting to be renewed.

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