The VW was what was called, back then, a hatch back, a turtle-looking thing, turquoise blue, a color that was appropos given where we'd bought it--Arizona. It had air conditioning. That I remember. The old orange "squareback," my first car, really, and a car I really loved, didn't. That car I bought in Wisconsin, where, back then, air conditioning was no necessity. When we moved to Arizona, we needed air. Hence, the hatchback.
Seems to me that it was frigid that night in Lakefield, although I may be wrong. Our daughter couldn't have been more than two. Our son was not yet a presence, as I remember.
What I remember is the fading lights out front as we were driving down I-90. Had to be 30+ years ago. The headlights yellowed then nearly died altogether. It was Saturday night probably, and we were still two hours from home, seven hours' of travel already behind us.
I took the exit and went into town. When the Lord distributed mechanical aptitude, I must have been out somewhere with a camera. I'm not one of those who can bury himself under the hood for five or ten minutes, grunt a little, scape a knuckle, and diagnose problems. If I'm not near a garage, I'm in trouble--my wife would say, "we're in trouble."
I don't remember how we decided what needed to be done, only that there was no open garage anywhere--and that we weren't all that far from home. So the three of us went into a restaurant, where the people were delightful. Of course, Lakefield, Minnesota, is Garrison Keillor country, where good Lutheran souls can spot a compassion project a mile off and start serving him/them up warm kindness faster than you can open a hymnal. We had a wonderful time--maybe three hours' worth.
What I remember is calling my father-in-law, who then proceeded to drive out to Lakefield, Minnesota, to the restaurant (there was a bar on the other side, I remember) to pick us up--well, "pick us up" is a misnomer; maybe I should say, "guide us home," because that's what he did. He drove out in front of us on all kinds of back roads so that our just-about non-existant headlights were superfluous anyway.
The two of us made a caravan of sorts, through the back roads of northwest Iowa--a blue VW hatchback, a single driver, following a Chevy Impala, somewhat immoderately close, I imagine. My wife and daughter opted for the comforting assurances of the Impala.
And that's the memory that registers suddenly in my mind whenever we pass the exit sign for Lakefield, MN. It might even have been a Christmas trip, and we were a young couple with a baby, and there we were in distress--feels like a template for the nativity. I'm kidding.
Wistful, my dictionary says, means "characterized by pensive longing." I'm not sure that's what it is I feel whenever I pass Lakefield, MN. It certainly isn't nostalgia either, unless it's a particularly wistful case of nostalgia. Nostalgia warms the soul. Today, so many years later, my soul is not warmed when we pass Lakefield, MN.
What I feel is something closer to regret. I'm somehow regretful when I pass that exit, always. And I'm not sure why. Is it an ache to be young again? Is it some recognition of dreams left unfulfilled, unreached? Is it some cold Minnesota-like realization that whatever I've done hasn't reached the ends I once scouted in my own dreams?
Or is it simply that life, back then, looked so unclouded, as if dimming headlights were the extent of our problems? In some way, I'm tempted to say, remembering who I was back then, that, really, I didn't know beans about the world.
But if that's true--if there's some wistful reaching for an innocence that's long gone--then why would anyone want to go back to innocence, to naivite? Is it because, somewhat secretly, I'd like to take one more run at the whole project, as if life really was something akin to Groundhog Day? Am I pensive or regretful--am I wistful and melancholy right there on I-90 because I read myself as some kind of failure? What is this longing for?--a different life? a second chance? dreams left unachieved?
The fact is, way back then, I'd already made a choice to live or die professionally by way of literature, teaching it and writing it. Because of that decision, I know this much at least: whatever it is I feel, whatever brand of regret, it's verifiably human. I am not alone. Literature is full of similar pensiveness, where it goes by a name, the motif of ubi sunt, which is to say (or so says one definition) "the transience of life, youth, beauty, and human endeavor." I think I learned it from Dylan: "where have all the flowers gone?" But King David felt it too, a far more difficult case that arose from the memory of his own son Absalom.
Ubi sunt. That's what fits at the Lakefield exit: "the transience of life, youth, beauty, and human endeavor." Something like that. It's something you feel in the stomach and in the soul.
Okay, but knowing that won't stop the rush. In March, when I go back to visit Mom again, I'll pass the Lakefield sign and those yellowing headlights will reappear, as will a three-hour stop in a small-town restaurant where good Minnesota people waited on us hand and foot, a young couple with a baby, in very late December.
But that others feel it, and have felt it--long, long, long before I do--that's a joy.
I am not alone. None of us are. Ever.
Even with dimming headlights, and certainly not in Lakefield, Minnesota.