My American grandmother, Marian, was always a bit of a mystery. Maybe because by the time I was old enough to have more grown-up conversations, she was quite old herself. Or maybe it was because she was always overshadowed by the legend of my grandfather, Irv.
What I do know is that Marian grew up in the northwest Iowan town of Paullina, in a very strict Calvinist Scottish family where drinking, dancing and other forms of fun were banned. A teaching job eventually took her to Meservey, in north-central Iowa. It was there that she met Irv, an atheist, gambling, master dancer. Well into their thirties, they got married and quickly produced three daughters and a son. The first two daughters were born into a one-room house, with the youngest sleeping precariously suspended over the eldest’s cradle. With the long years of the Great Depression eventually easing up, they managed to acquire their own farm, where my grandfather raised tens of thousands of turkeys.
My memories of Marian revolve around summer trips to the library, her extremely long and angular brown Plymouth, her reading chair tucked away in the corner of the living room and her recipes.
Marian was famous for her cooking, producing amazing white and brown bread every day, at least one dessert at every meal, and of course, countless turkey dishes. Whenever my mother makes one of Marian’s recipes – such as cheese soufflé and Swiss roll – she inevitably says “it’s not as good as Marian’s”.
So, on our way to South Dakota, we took a detour off Route 18 to Paullina, to get a sense of Marian’s earlier years. It’s a tiny town, welcoming visitors with a sign reading ‘Paullina, the best of small town America’.
My aunt Jean had given us a description of how to find Marian’s house: a two or three-story square shaped former farmhouse – older than all the neighboring ranch-style properties - on the south side of town.
We followed her suggestion of asking an older member of the community which home had belonged to R.C. Brown. The first person we saw, a lady tending the gardens of the Lutheran church, was able to show us the white, shingled house adorned with red, purple and pink hanging plants.
Seeing the house made it a bit easier to imagine Marian as a young girl, a daughter of a prominent family in the small town. There remain some of the features that were probably around in that day: the post office, dinette type place, grain elevator and water tower seen in all Iowa towns and the lake just outside of town.
We had lunch at that lake, part of Mill Creek State Park, on a Saturday afternoon blessed by the lingering Indian summer (everyone says the Midwest didn’t get a summer this year, but we were lucky enough to enjoy it once it did finally start at the end of August). There were a few RVs parked, a couple of families sitting by the lake watching their kids swim, and a father and son fishing in the water.
We swam, christened our red camping chairs (Coleman, and very comfortable!), had sandwiches prepared in the Airstream and just enjoyed the quiet afternoon.
Perhaps Marian and her family used to come to this lake.
Claire – On maternity leave from career as editor of monthly finance trade magazines, and occasionally a freelance translator. Half-American/half-English, raised in the suburbs of New York, has lived in London for almost nine years.
Daniel – Furniture designer/maker based on London’s Columbia Road flower market, for ten years, also an aspiring painter and DIY supremo. On one-year career break to reconsider options. English by birth, but mother is half-American and spent part of her childhood in Bronxville, New York.
Sophia – 3.5-year old spitfire who loves school, singing, swimming and being a big sister
Lulu – Born May 8 of this year, a model baby who eats, sleeps and gurgles.
Special guests – American, British and international friends and family who drop in along our trip to see whatever part of the country they fancy. They’re welcome to travel in the car with us and sleep in an adjoining tent.