September 18, 2013

Two Questions for Fargo

When I visit a place from my past, I always carry two questions: What has changed? What remains the same?

This week, I'm in Fargo. So I asked.

My high school now has a water slide, but the strange dome on top of the building remains.

The building across the street, which has been a Tastee Freez, at least two bars, a coffee shop, a health food place, and several other short-lived businesses, is now a used car dealership. It won't be for long; nothing stays open in that spot. I blame all the power lines.

Moorhead Center Mall still exists, oddly, and West Acres now has the biggest one-of-these-things that I've ever seen:

Downtown Fargo is still postcard-adorable.

Zandbroz is still quirky and wonderful, but they have closed the soda fountain with its tulip sundaes and magnetic poetry boards. They've filled the space with books. When I publish my first book, I want to come here and read from it.

My elementary school has replaced the hot metal slide and knee-scraping gravel with a gentler, prettier playground, but it is still the squat, broad, Cold War era bunker where my love of learning took hold.

The streets of my old neighborhood seem bigger, shadier, and much older than I remember.

I remember riding my bike along these streets when they were freshly paved. I remember the black soil of construction sites and the skeleton walls of these houses being built. The original owners have long since left and turned over the neighborhood to new families, but I still remember their names and how many kids they had and their ages relative to mine.

This is the cul-de-sac I zoomed in and out of on my baby blue Schwinn ten-speed (which I bought at a Scheels that is now a hair salon and Papa Murphy's). 

And this is the house in which I grew up. 

My parents built it in 1982, when I was 4. They sold it 20 years later, when my brother and I had grown up, my dad had passed away, and the maintenance and memories were too much for my mom to bear alone. She moved into a senior condo, the house was sold to another family, and life moved on.

I have revisited this place, often in my memory, occasionally in reality - but today I did something I had never done before: I rang the doorbell.

I didn't expect the owner, a 60-something woman wearing a bathrobe, to invite me inside. I told her (and myself) that I only rang the bell so I could explain my strange, peering presence in her yard. But this is Fargo, and she greeted me warmly and gave me a tour.

Much has changed, of course: carpet, curtains, furniture. Flat screen TVs and taxidermy animals have replaced our piano and Polish folk art. Countertops were redone and gardens were landscaped and a handsome deck stretches where our patio used to be. But it was the small relics that gave me pause.  A bit of the wallpaper that once covered our kitchen:

The ivy I stenciled on my bedroom wall in high school, which later was the inspiration for my ankle tattoo:

The glow-in-the-dark stars I put on the ceiling 20 years ago. They still glow. The home owner said her overnight guests are charmed when they notice the constellations. She fears the paint would come off if she tried to remove them. 

Nothing seems the right size. The big, dark woods I played in as a child seem brighter and smaller.

The trees in our yard are huge and ancient.

Fargo is still Fargo. I am struck by the warmth of the people, the chill of the fall air, the distinct smell of sugar beets, the flatness of the land, the symmetry of corn planted in rows, the way clerks pronounce "bag" as if there's a "y" in it.

I have loved this place, I have fled this place with urgency, I have come home to visit and felt the tug of nostalgia mixed with the longing for my other home - the one I've created in places that are not here. 

When I stood in my old house, telling the new owner about the 20 years inside those walls, I recognized myself from the forgotten moments of everyday life: the desk where I did my homework and learned to use my first computer, the dining room where my mom served elaborate holiday meals, the living room where I practiced piano. I feel like I remember what it was like to be that child, in those spaces, though I don't know if that is true since I am seeing everything from today's perspective. What I do know is that this place shaped me. 

Thank you, Fargo, and thank you to the nice lady who invited me into her home. You answered my questions about what changed and what remained. The answer is me.

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