I have just returned from a family reunion in Winona Lake, Indiana, where I spent summers as a child. I blogged about those memories previously on True Stories Well Told…. an essay I’d written in the mid 1990s. Here is a subsequent essay I wrote in 2007 about a return trip… not unlike the one earlier this week.
By Sarah White
“On any summer day I might turn a corner and encounter the scent . . . a gust of carp and gasoline on the breeze. Suddenly I’m eight years old, time is infinite, the world is magical, and I am surrounded by people who love me but have better things to do than watch me too closely.”
That is how the story opened, the one that got published on a website for Hoosier authors of autobiographical narrative, the one my cousin found through Google and e-mailed to my extended family. The story that offended my aunt and put me in the genetic doghouse.
The essay continued,
“… I spent my child’s summers in northeastern Indiana, visiting my relatives in a strange religious resort. Winona Lake was a benign cult headquarters. In its heyday it was the home of evangelist Billy Sunday, famous for his tabernacles and sawdust trails. His first cavernous hall stood at the center of Winona Lake. Spreading out from there were the grounds of his kingdom: an outdoor amphitheater, formal gardens and parklands … I loved the Billy Sunday grounds, so different from the suburbs of the rest of my year. There was a swan pond and a grotto. There were fountains and statuary, to provide destinations for the paths that wound along under the shade trees. All were over-grown, tumbled-down, dank.”
Members of my extended family who read that modest essay, really just an exercise in molding a sense of place out of the clay of words, reacted and let me know it.
My cousin wrote her own essay, describing the same place as she remembered it, fifteen years before. The neglect was not yet so pervasive, the streets and parks still filled with life in her memory.
My aunt’s words, on reading the story, were “It’s disrespectful.” And she pretty much never spoke to me again.
What was it that offended her? I wrote – “The place was rich with the moldy smells of the past. We visited old people there; they smelled of castile soap. “ Perhaps she thought I meant her?
“My relatives congregated on summer evenings at the musty lakeside cottage we called ‘The Brick’, as opposed to the wood-sided house a mile inland where my grandparents lived. The difference in the smell of those two houses is the difference between wet and dry rot.”
That was her house that smelled of wet rot. Maybe that was what she objected to. Or maybe her house-proud nature extended to the whole community, and “dank” was the word that set her spine against me.
What a strange place it was! Methodism had built it, and the stoic, repressive nature of the Hoosier farm people who migrated there gave it its texture. The beach was still posted “No swimming or eating ice cream on Sundays” when I was little. Blue laws governed Indiana but that wasn’t enough for Winona Lake – the entire township prohibited liquor every day of the week. As a child I didn’t notice the repressiveness, only the solitude –I don’t remember ever seeing another child there. It was a dying town, caught in a 1960s cultural shift that put repression out of fashion.
And then in 1994 a miracle came along, a miracle as great as the engineering feat of Billy Sunday’s own magnificent tabernacle.
Real estate developer Brett Wilcoxson – who himself had been a lonely child wandering Winona Lake in the 1960s just as I had – bought the place. Not the whole town, but the best of it — the Billy Sunday campus, the buildings along the main street facing it, and all the houses on both sides of the canal back of that. Over thirty properties in all.
Word of the renovation reached me through the family grapevine. “It’s not like you wrote about anymore,” they said.
One day in 2001 I received a message on my answering machine – Brett Wilcoxson himself had found my essay on the Internet. “It’s all restored!” he said. “You have to come and see, it’s not like you described it at all!”
And so I went back the next summer, for a modest family gathering at the musty old Brick. And sure enough, every aspect of the old downtown was marvelously restored to its original appearance circa 1915. It was as if a toy town had just been removed from its wrappings and set out on the green felt of a pool table. Each bungalow spreading its porch to the park and lake was sparkling with fresh paint; no veranda sagged; no weed emerged from any crack in any of the winding paths of the Billy Sunday grounds.
And it gave me the creeps.
I felt like I had stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone. To make things creepier, strange signs had appeared around the downtown. Brett had renamed his holdings “The Village at Winona.” Pretty green placards politely stated — “These grounds reserved for the enjoyment of our guests who shop at the Village.”
NOTHING was over-grown, tumbled-down, dank. But nothing was right, either. This wasn’t the Twilight Zone, it was The Prisoner!
That visit to Winona Lake was not good. I reacted badly to the narrow minds and numbing self-absorption of my Hoosier relatives; I took secretly to drink. I had a sudden insight into what family visits must have been like for my father, a gregarious drinking man of broad horizons and interests.
One thing salvaged that visit.
I noticed an announcement that a choir would be performing at twilight at the outdoor amphitheater. I hurried back to the Brick and got my mother. We returned just in time to find a vacant spot on the bench seats.
The choir began to sing. Last rays of sun spread their golden fingers between the arching trees. A little girl broke away from her mother and followed a path down to the compass-rose fountain where I had roller-skated forty years before.
I saw myself, and looked back at my mother to see if she saw me too. Instead she was in her own past – the tears pouring down her face. “If only my mother could see this,” she whispered. “Everything restored, alive, filled with music again…”
The past, imperfections and all, is in some sense a perfect place. A bell jar descends and preserves it from forces of change. You can go home again, but don’t expect the jar to raise and let you creep under its lip.
I may return to that place, but it will never again be Winona Lake for me. There will be no future scene in which a child watches me cry at how perfectly it has become “over-grown, tumbled-down, dank.” Much as I love that place, it is gone for good. It would be selfish to wish it back.