I was surprised to realize I was getting nervous to see the place. The woman’s voice from my GPS said, “In 5 miles, your destination will be on your right.”
Since I moved here, it’s been like a buzz in the back of my mind – the knowledge that life put me just three hours and 27 minutes from Osceola, Iowa, where I was born.
I knew I couldn’t live this close without seeing it, not the town but the place outside of town where my mother lived for years as part of something that was then called the Inner Peace Movement.
I talked a friend into making the trip, acknowledging that it would mean seven hours of driving that day with no idea if we would see anything along the way.
As soon as the GPS started counting down those last 5 miles, I became aware of the surroundings. It’s green and lush and hilly in that part of Iowa, more livestock than corn in some places. Farmhouses are tucked in large stands of trees that block out some that forever Iowa horizon.
We pulled onto the property and my friend took an iPhone photo of me standing next to the sign. In the picture, I look as uncomfortable as I felt – a tourist of my own life.
I’ve heard a lot of words to describe this place, depending on your view. Later in life, on the rare occasion my mom would mention it, she called it a cult and a commune. Those who still believe in it and its founder call it a community program, a college, a set of spiritual courses taught on a campus.
I approached the building labeled “Office” and knocked on the door. No one answered and I was both relieved and disappointed when the doorknob didn’t turn in my hand.
There were trailers and a large house on a dirt road in the distance. Stacks of fresh lumber made it clear that something was being built. But waist-high weeds had grown up under the swingset and under the slide in a playground at the center of the property.
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The place was quiet and breezeless beneath the scream of cicadas. Even the sun seemed to be holding perfectly still.
Then I heard the sound of circular saw from a nearby shed. Someone was in there. Should I introduce myself? “I was born here. I learned to walk here and speak. My mom lived here during the one and only time she left her hometown. This was her rebellion, her glimpse into the world outside Wyoming.”
Instead, I let him work. I walked around a little more, letting the imagined images I’d carried with me for decades be replaced by these white wooden buildings.
I don’t remember it at all. My first memory is in Wyoming. I’m catching rain in a paper cup from a child’s seat on my mother’s bicycle. My mom is riding home from church and Iowa is far behind her.
I grew up Baptist – Jack Hyles, Billy Graham, Dr. James Dobson. She had me memorize hundreds of Bible verses and I would recite them to her in the morning, my words in some ways washing away this past.
My mom doesn’t like to talk about that time and I knew as I looked at that patch of ground outside of Osceola, I knew she wouldn’t want to know I was there. I will never tell her.
We drove into Osceola and the day became less about visiting the past and more about exploring the present. It’s a quiet farm town on a Sunday. The only person I saw was a man in the shade outside a Mexican restaurant, holding a phone card between his fingers and talking into his cellphone.
I stopped at Casey’s General Store on North Main Street and bought a copy of the Osceola Sentinel Tribune.
On the way home, crossing one county line after another, instead of talking about the place we’d gone to see, I asked my friend to read the paper aloud. He read every word – a city council debate about the definition of litter, an interview with a coffee shop owner who wanted to show movies at night for families and the hopes of the coach for the high school’s eight-man football team to bring home some wins this season.