National Geographic : 2014 Feb
No Place Like Home 67 Tower, the brave little skyscraper of my child- hood, and the university campus with its long leafy mall and stone columns with the inscription about men being ennobled by understanding, which we certainly hope will come true some- day, and the very noble Franklin Avenue bridge, and Fort Snelling, where, starting in 1819, our predecessors brought whiskey and smallpox to the frontier and where, in 1861, the First Minne- sota Volunteers mustered and later took horrible casualties at Gettysburg but held their ground. Where the Minnesota River joins it from the west, the Mississippi does a sideways S through St. Paul, its rail yards, University Avenue with its entrepreneurial churn of storefront start-ups, Asian restaurants, muffler shops, then it crosses town near the great dome of the capitol with the team of golden horses on the roof, and bends south toward Red Wing, Winona, Dubuque, down to Prof. Harold Hill and Huck Finn terri- tory. The cities contain stately lakes—Como and Phalen in St. Paul; in Minneapolis, Nokomis, Hiawatha, Harriet, Calhoun, Cedar, and Lake of the Isles, pools of ease and elegance on the asphalt grid—and Lake Minnetonka, the prairie Riviera, off to the southwest. This geography was imprinted in my brain back when I learned my alphabet from the ave- nues of Minneapolis (Aldrich, Bryant, Colfax, Dupont, Emerson, Fremont, Girard, Humboldt, Irving, James, Knox through Xerxes, York, and Zenith), which I might recite on my deathbed to prove I still have brain function. Superim- posed over that geography, like a Jackson Pol- lock painted on a fishnet, is the geography of a man’s life, the griefs and pleasures of various streets, Washington Avenue along which I had to memorize a Bible verse every Sunday, Nicol- let and the funeral home and the corpse in the coffin, street corners where I used to wait for a bus on those killer mornings in January and February, the landmarks of experience—Loring Park, where I liked to sit and smoke after a ten- hour day in the hotel scullery where I washed pots and pans after high school. At the end of a day in the steam of the dishwasher, a summer evening was blessedly cool, and the smoke was ecstatic. Girls strolled by in loose white blouses and skirts, and some stopped and asked for a light and leaned down, holding their hair back, and the lit match illuminated their faces like me- dieval saints. In that park I am still 18 and in a state of adoration, but driving east on Franklin I feel an ache in my gut passing the building where I helped clean the small dim apartment of my former wife after she died, her souvenirs scattered around, the loneliness of the furniture, the unspeakable sadness of the cupboards full of health food. I drove to the river and sat by the bridge and wept 30 years’ worth of tears. My Minneapolis is the south side: Blocks of stucco bungalows under majestic archways of elms, small well-kept yards, the birdbath, gaz- ing globe, coiled green rubber hose, grape arbor, steel barrel incinerator, and skinny frame garage on the alley where my mother grew up around 38th Street with her 12 siblings, most of whom settled in the neighborhood. And if I walk those blocks today, I feel the old claustrophobia of Sunday afternoon after dinner, the smell of wax and polish, the figurines on the walnut highboy, the good china in glass cabinets, Grandpa and Grandma on the sofa, nibbling on butterscotch caramel candy, George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art.” We attended church at the Grace & Truth Gospel Hall on 14th Avenue South, where a preacher clutched his suspenders and spoke glowingly of Eternity, and I grew up one of the Brethren, the Chosen to whom God had vouchsafed the Knowledge of All Things that was denied to the great and mighty. The Second Coming was imminent, we would rise to the sky. We walked around Minneapolis carefully, wary of television, dance music, tobacco, baubles, ban- gles, flashy cars, liquor, the theater, the modern novel—all of them tempting us away from the singular life that Jesus commanded us to lead. In 1947 Dad got a GI loan and built us a lit- tle white house north of the city on an acre of The Keillor Reader, a collection of stories and essays, will be published by Viking in May. Erika Larsen’s photographs of Sami reindeer herders in Scandinavia appeared in the November 2011 issue.