Seven years ago, my wife was invited to Iowa City for an interview. She had little desire to accept the position; however, we eagerly traveled west. Iowa City is a fabled piece of our family fabric. My maternal grandparents were born there, educated there, married there, and eventually left there-but only physically. Even after moving away to Detroit in 1950, my grandparents continued to dwell in Iowa City. So much of what they spoke about concerned Iowa City: the people, way of life, reverence for the Hawkeyes and hatred for the Buckeyes. From our earliest years, my grandparents inculcated my cousins and me with an unwavering allegiance to a land none of us had ever seen; yet, whether we were in Illinois or Michigan, around our tables our family sang, "We're from Iowa, Iowa. State of all the land, joy on every hand. We're from Iowa, Iowa. That's where the tall corn grows."
The interview was called for the end of January. We were ecstatic to go; it was the perfect time to get away. My wife and I were living with our newborn daughter in a rancid apartment on Chicago's North Side. Days earlier, the ceiling above our shower collapsed, flooding the bathroom with plaster, water, and a virtual window to the unit upstairs. On a subsequent evening, we noticed the ceiling fan buzzing on the "off" setting. I unscrewed the device to determine why, and discovered thousands of beetles flowing out from the fixture. Suffice to say, we were ready to go.
My grandparents had just turned 80. Traveling was no longer easy for them, but we asked if they would like to join us. Surprisingly, they agreed. In the six decades since they had left Iowa City, rarely had they returned.
When word spread that my grandparents were going back to Iowa City, my family got nutty. My parents took off work, my brother flew in from New York, my aunt came in from Detroit. Suddenly, our sedan was no longer sufficient. We rented a 12 seater van and headed west on Route 80, all clad in matching t-shirts my father had ordered denoting this quasi-family reunion.
The weather in Iowa was projected to be cold. Chicago, Detroit, and New York had all suffered brutal temperatures, but nothing had prepared us for Iowa. Four hours after leaving Chicago, we pulled into a gas station in Iowa City. As we exited the van, a burst of freezing wind slammed our bodies. My grandmother stood there, beaming beside the vehicle, and declared, "I'm home."
Over the next several days, we traveled around like tourists in a land we already knew.
We saw Agudas Achim, the synagogue where in 1940 my grandfather was bar mitzvahed. My grandmother recounted going to shul, and how the Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur service) appeal consisted of a community member banging on the bima (stage) and saying, "Oof halten de shul." We traveled to the University of Iowa Hillel, and my grandmother explained that this was where she learned Havdalah (the Saturday evening service marking the separation of Shabbat and weekdays). After the first time she heard it, she asked her father why they never did the Havdalah service at home. He told her that in America, every day was a workday for him. There was no Sabbath day of rest.
We saw the hospitals where my grandparents were born, high school they attended, home where they were married. We visited the site of the junkyard, where as a nine-year-old boy, my towering grandfather protected his much smaller father from a drunk, anti-Semitic man. We saw it all, a lifetime of memories, while dressed alike, driving around in a 12 seater van.
Seven years have passed since that trip and much has changed. My dad is gone, my grandmother no longer remembers being there, my grandfather (a scrap man, like his father) is constantly worried about China, trade, and the economy. When I recently asked him about Iowa City, he said, "There's no industry there," and he paused, "It's a good place to be from, not a good place to be at."
I don't know. I think back on our time there, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be.
Adam Reinherz is an Instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Pittsburgh.