Missouri holds a special place for me. After North Dakota and Minnesota, it’s probably the state I’ve visited the most, the state I heard about the most, and the state I most know something about. I had been going there since I was a boy visiting my grandparents, who worked at the university there. My parents attended the same University of Missouri, and I would later go there for a significant semester for graduate school, in journalism. Even during my undergraduate years, when I made the time to see my grandfathers (my grandmothers had all died by 2012) at least once a year, I would go down there, so that I nearly have the route by heart. Not that it’s hard, you go south from Fargo, and either take a left at Kansas City until you reach Columbia, or take a left at St. Joseph and a right a Moberly.
This time my errand was three-fold: I needed to drop off a package to my grandfather, I was going to visit friends, and I planned to make it down to Mississippi for the aforementioned graduate school visit. The package, obviously, should have gone by mail, but this proves a woeful task for the Columbia post office, who left a sopping, went cardboard thing on my grandfather’s doorstep with very few unbroken contents. I was happy for the excuse anyway, so I went.
I arrived at my undergraduate friends’ house that evening, all known from the fencing club. I was greeted with food, then a shot of some green liquid that one of them had brewed. I took it, and wandered why it was crunchy.
“That’s sugar” said the one serving me. “To cut the taste.”
I found out why momentarily. What I can only describe as a deep bitterness, one that I think coated my tongue and went down to the roots of my taste buds, stayed there and didn’t leave. My friend from Nevada, who by all accounts is a better drinker, and I then proceeded, through curses and screams, to alternatively split a bathroom, in which I would take the sink to spit and he would take the toilet to vomit.
“Look, mistakes were made” said the girl who brewed it. To this day I don’t know what it was, some sort of licorice I think.
I proceed for the next four days to sleep on their couch, alternatively talking with Nevada, who like to drink late into the night, and trying to clear out before the first of them went to class. I saw them mostly in the evenings when I was not busy with other things.
My time during the day was often spent feeling homeless. I had everything in my car, but not as many places to go. I saw my grandfather, who was happy to get his things, but also very much older. He’s nearly ninety-five, so he was always old, but I think he’s starting to feel it. I had old pictures of family members he looked through and identified, but I do not know if he liked it. He said a few kind words about my grandmother though, which was good. Sometimes we worried she was a bit forgotten.
His girlfriend, unfortunately, took up a lot of his time. I avoided her: she was of the “bless your heart” sort of Southern meanness, and she liked neither myself nor especially my mother. Besides my grandfather, no one on that side of the family really treated my mom with anything better than indifference, but usually this wasn’t afforded. They were cold at the best of times, and cruel at the worst, which was far more often. I don’t regret not knowing them well.
I would look up a few other of my old haunts when I was in Columbia. I stopped at a diner early for breakfast in the hope of seeing an old professor who had taught my father. He had invited me out for dinner a few times, and was a very interesting, if not eccentric old man. He was not there, and we had a brief phone call later, but that was about the extent of it. Likewise, my old music friend was not available. He was “high as a potato” when I wrote, and I didn’t get too see him.
I paid one visit to the university. I didn’t leave happy with it; it was a poorly run, bureaucratic institution with not much to offer. The journalism program largely morphed into making connections, and I think the protests showed more of what that particular school practiced in actuality. Nevertheless, I took a walk around town after the diner, and left. I might be the last person in my family to have anything to do with that place, but I didn’t miss it. It was good I was gone.
As usual, I spent a lot of time at Steven’s Park, a small park surrounding a small lake of the same name. I had spent a lot of time there as a graduate student, as I was trying to spend a lot of time away from my apartment; more specifically, I was avoiding a somewhat insane and disturbed roommate, who was convinced (among other imaginations) my half carton of juice took up unneeded space in a mostly unfilled refrigerator. I liked the park because it was quiet, and had a little island one could walk out too. Usually, if I wanted privacy, I found some sort of natural setting to be best for this.
I visited the Katy Trail, a long biking and jogging trail that went for many miles, eventually paralleling the Missouri River. It was quiet and solemn. My mother used to run there, and I did too. It was getting towards autumn, and the leaves were in a timid green or pale yellow, but was about three weeks behind our own.
The nights were usually some television or board games. I ended up staying one day later, and went to fencing. I didn’t do well, but hadn’t picked up a saber in years, except for my lessons with Todd. Not to make excuses, but I also had no grip on the floor. Oh well. It wasn’t so much about fencing as it was about meeting people one last time. I visited once a year since I left, now I was most likely done. When I left I didn’t know if I’d see any of them again. Our goodbyes when I finally left were generally short or nonexistent. It was probably better that way.
I did track down, to some extent, some friends of my mother’s who are very accomplished folk musicians. I was very excited to be there, but also very tired, so I may have babbled more than I meant. I got a lesson on the mountain dulcimer, gave them some chocolates from Fargo, and left. It was a good day whenever I get to talk about folklore for a few hours. Other than Troyd, I don’t get that option much. Certainly not much from my generation, they usually aren’t interested in it, at least more than superficially. Folklore and folk music are similar to what Mark Twain said about classics: everybody wants to say they like them, but no one wants to take the time to do so.
I had been visiting my grandfather throughout this time, at least once a day, usually for lunch, or when I fell asleep while he napped, or once when I stopped into his senior center and ate quite a lot of food. My grandpa is very particular about food, for some reason. He himself wasn’t eating much, and it worried me. I would have stayed with him, but I was avoiding the aforementioned “girlfriend” who insisted on popping around sometimes. I met him for breakfast, and played music, and took my leave. I lingered, partially because I was worried I wouldn’t see him again, and partially because I was tired. He gave me a strong hug and a wave. I broke up a little, but don’t think he noticed. With that I drove out of the apartments, and headed east, towards St. Louis, and eventually southward to Mississippi. There may be one more time left in me, but that will be it. I’ve visited since 1989 or 1990, but no more. It wasn’t a bad chapter in my life, for all the consternation and roadblocks it threw to me, but one that’s almost closed.