On September 12, after nearly fifteen years, my daughter Erin and I returned to Ortonville, the small western Minnesota town where my dad grew up. I had scheduled a reading for my new book at the Ortonville Library but that was only a small part of our agenda.
I had always loved going to Ortonville as a kid. My family made the three-hour trip from the Twin Cities at least a few times every year, including pretty much every Thanksgiving and Christmas. My dad’s parents—Grammo and Grampo to my sister Cyn and me—lived in a wonderful big stone house. That was appropriate since Ortonville is located in Big Stone County.
My sister and I have wonderful childhood memories of Ortonville, and I am grateful that Erin was able to experience many of the same people and special places in Ortonville when she was growing up. Erin hadn’t been back since Grammo died in 1994 at the age of 92. I had been back once, on an overnight trip with my mom and sister.
After the book reading, Erin and I drove up the hill from the library to visit the big stone house that was so much a part of both our childhoods. As the house came into view, the same excitement we had both felt as kids was tempered by nostalgic flashbacks and the stark realization that it was now another family’s home.
I liken the mixture of sadness and joy we felt to running into an old flame whom you had never gotten over but who is now arm in arm with somebody else. The longing to embrace that house, to make it ours once more, washed over us both.
Before making the trip, I had arranged with Ron Thomas, who had bought the house from my dad in the early nineties, to take a quick tour inside. Erin wanted no part of that, preferring to sit on the big stone porch to preserve her memories of bursting in to find Grammo doing a crossword puzzle in her favorite chair. My sister feels the same way. What they saw when they used to step inside the front door will never be tainted by what that view looks like now.
I, on the other hand, relished the chance to walk through the house once again. Much had been remodeled, yet much remained the same. No matter. I saw everything the way it used to be. The ghosts of familiar chairs and couches and bookshelves were waiting patiently for me, welcoming me warmly.
The kitchen cupboards were intact, just as I remembered them. I opened one, and I was nine years old again, reaching for a glass before sitting down at the kitchen table with my family to enjoy a lunch of my dad’s hamburger patties and peanut butter bread.
As Ron and I walked upstairs, I silently repeated to myself, “Up-a-tep, down-a-tep,” the happy mantra that my dad always said as he carried my giggling sister or me up or down those same stairs, often like a sack of potatoes. It was my great joy to carry on that tradition with Erin. In fact, I remember the day nearly thirty years ago when I first carried her up those steps, lovingly whispering, “Up-a-tep, down-a-tep” to my baby girl. The torch had been passed, and I couldn’t have been more proud.
Upstairs, Ron and I walked into the bedroom where my parents stayed, and there it was—the large cubbyhole door perfectly situated under the sloping ceiling. As I ducked my head and reached to open the door, I was once again seven years old, happily sifting through the toys and games and puzzles from the 1930s and 40s that my sister and I loved so much. In my mind, they are there still, as they always will be.
Ron graciously walked me through every room, including the large garage, and I will always be grateful to him for that. The tour ended, Erin and I wistfully watched the big stone house disappear as we drove away to begin our mission—scattering my dad’s ashes throughout his beloved hometown. He had died three years ago, and Erin and I were honored to carry out his request.
Our first stop was the golf course, where Erin and I sprinkled some of Poppa Kent on a fairway. Next stop was the Secret Hiding Place, a magical wonderland in Neilson Park where my sister and I, and later Erin too, spent many happy hours exploring and playing while we were kids. Down the wooden steps we went to the wooded grotto below, making our way carefully down the steep slope toward the little stone bridge that led to a dirt path dotted with granite benches that led back up to the park.
Emerging into the light of day, we sprinkled my dad’s ashes as we walked through the park, which his father, my Grampo, had dedicated at an opening ceremony some sixty years ago. Directly across from the Secret Hiding Place, Erin and I descended down more steep granite steps, passing more beckoning granite benches, before finding daylight again on the street below.
Returning to our car, we drove through downtown on our way back home. Before the book reading, we had stopped at the Pizza Ranch for lunch. While Erin was perusing the buffet, I walked over to the area near the front door. You see, the Pizza Ranch had been a Ben Franklin dimestore in my youth, and it seems almost sacrilegious to think of it as a pizza restaurant. My sister and I had always run to the Ben Franklin as soon as we got into town. Lost in my memories, I reached out my hand and could almost touch the penny candy and baseball cards that I loved so much as a child.
Before heading back home, Erin and I stopped to sprinkle her Poppa Kent’s ashes on the steps of the now-abandoned office building where Grampo had worked as a small-town lawyer. Our final scattering stop was the Welcome to Ortonville sign on the edge of town. Mission accomplished. My dad was back home where he belonged.
As Ortonville faded away in the rearview mirror, I squeezed Erin’s hand and thanked her for coming with me. Of course, the trip was as meaningful for her as it was for me. I feel blessed that I have a daughter who cherishes the same things I do. We are both sentimental fools and I love that.
It was hard to leave, but it would have been harder to stay. It was the same Ortonville it had always been, yet it wasn’t the Ortonville we remembered. All the people we knew were gone, and it’s the people who make a town, not stores or houses or even familiar and beloved landmarks. The Ortonville of today is but a pale reminder of the Ortonville of 1966, of carefree youth, endless summer days and lost loved ones.
The Ortonville of my childhood—Grammo and Grampo’s house, the Secret Hiding Place, penny candy and baseball cards at Ben Franklin, comic books at Rexall Drug, fishing for bullheads with my dad, and running happily into my Grampo’s arms—that’s the Ortonville I remember. That’s the Ortonville I visit when I close my eyes and dream of simpler times.
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
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ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, is a road map for living a more peaceful, beautiful life. It’s the one book that explains how dozens of spiritual principles interact, how to weave them together into a cohesive worldview, and how to practically apply this spiritual wisdom to daily life.
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