I can’t remember the last time I was in Austin, Minnesota.
I know I visited as a child but I do not remember why we were there. I suppose we had gone to see some relative. Maybe there was a yapping dog during that visit. I remember thinking how I preferred bigger, non-yapping dogs. I remember spending an entire day trying to avoid that dog. These little creatures always seemed ready to bite me.
There was also a doorway with beads hanging across the entrance from dining room to living room. I remember that because I had to go through that veil again and again to keep away from Fifi.
At any rate, I can place the decade but cannot be sure of the exact city nor the people in question. These are my childhood memories, mostly forgotten now and sparely marked at the time.
My father grew up in Austin. I thought I knew that, but I couldn’t be sure.
As we drove into town, I said, “This is where you were born, right?”
He told me that, in fact, he wasn’t born in Austin. He was born on a farm but moved to Austin when he was still a kid. Austin is where he spent the better part of his childhood. He had graduated from high school here.
I saw a big sign that said Hormel.
“Is this where Hormel has its headquarters?”
“Yeh. Hormel made this town,” my dad said as we passed the city limits.
“What do they do?”
“They’re a meat-packing company. They package and sell all kinds of meat products.”
That would explain the Spam museum. Spam was Hormel’s most infamous product, the brunt of many jokes over the years. It is a processed pork product, packaged in a tin can and loaded with preservatives. It was manufactured for military use since it was highly portable and had a long shelf life. Somehow, it had made its way onto the shelves of civilian grocery stores and into the cupboards of homes. Folks prepared it different ways, but in my opinion there was only one way to consume it without gagging: fried in a pan and eaten on a sandwich.
Many people considered it as nourishing as a hot dog, only more disgusting. So, I made a sarcastic comment and chuckled. “A Spam museum? Wow. That’s classy.”
My dad did not find it funny. My laughter suspended in mid-air like a strangled criminal cinched by a noose.
Apparently, he liked Spam.
I attempted to patch up my verbal miscue. “Although, it is kinda neat. I do like fried Spam.”
He agreed, that was the best way to have it.
My niece lost all her softball games that day. Afterwards, we went out for a meal and had a drive around town.
He showed me his high school and elementary school. We drove by the house he grew up in: 611 Something. I got confused about the street name because it had changed since he had been a kid.
The house today looked either condemned or simply neglected. It was a two-story, but relatively small. It sagged on a small corner lot, dominated by weeds, the front steps sinking to the left.
“Eleven kids and three bedrooms.” He said this without a tinge of regret as he described what it was like growing up in that house. That’s just how folks lived in those days; there was no hardship about it, really. As long as there was food and a place to talk and sleep and live, they were content.
We turned east as we drove around the south side of the house and he remarked: “We didn’t have a garage.” The house still didn’t have one. There was a small area between the kitchen’s back door and the neighbor’s fence just big enough to pull a car into. That is where his stepfather parked. His own father had died when he was two.
He drove around the block again and we had another look. I suppose he knows by now my habit of forgetting. Having me look at my past a second time just might be his quiet way of underscoring his part of me.
Maybe these memories get tangled in the veil because I run away from things I shouldn’t be afraid of. Maybe if I slowed down enough to stand strong, legs balanced, the future would seem clearer because the past would be well-marked.
I suppose next year I’ll visit that home again, making sure to distinguish between the street name then and now.