by Matthew M. Low, Ph. D.
I am sitting in a hospital room in Onawa, Iowa, visiting my grandpa, who has recently fallen and broken his hip. All things considered, Grandpa looks healthy and is in good spirits. At this moment, he is still a week or so away from catching the pneumonia from which he will succumb within a month. Right now, he is sitting up in his hospital bed conversing with my dad and brother about ordinary things — it’s fall, so probably the current state of Notre Dame football. I’m in and out of the conversation, in large part because a painting on the wall of my grandpa’s hospital room transfixes me. The painting depicts a familiar scene for anyone who has passed through western Iowa in the winter: a snowy hillside, at the base of which is a pickup truck and some sort of farm structure, a barn, or a grain silo, or maybe both, along with a few bare trees dotted here or there. The painting is not extraordinary, but it is soothing in the way that most hospital artwork is supposed to be. This is the one and only time that I will see the painting, but the image stays with me, or perhaps more accurately, the impression made by the image stays with me, a confluence of memories and emotions that the painting invokes. As we are talking, and my eyes linger on the painting, I am also thinking of the many times that my family drove from eastern Iowa to this region of the state, often at Christmastime, passing through the snowy Loess Hills on HWY 175 as we made our way to and from Onawa.
Now I am sitting in the middle seats of my parents’ conversion van, my eyes peeled ahead. It is a couple of days before Christmas and we are driving to Onawa to visit my grandparents, all of whom live there (a grandma on my mother’s side, and both grandparents on my father’s side). We are approaching Castana, and the Loess Hills have just come into view. They are dusted with snow, but the browns of trees and taller grasses poke through the white; it is near dusk, so the brown and white of the hills are set against a backdrop of an indigo sky. As we turn onto HWY 175 toward Turin, the Christmas star that sits atop one of the hills becomes visible. This is what I’m looking for, the bluish-white light of the star signaling the close of our long journey, as we are now just minutes from my grandma’s house. Just past the star HWY 175 curves as it rolls into Turin, and as it does so it runs adjacent to the base of a hill, snowy white in the wintertime, surrounded by the typical objects of a small Iowa farming community: pickup trucks and some farm structures, such as a barn, or a grain silo, or maybe both. This is as close to the Loess Hills as we will get. Once in Onawa, we will not venture far from the eight or so blocks separating my grandparents’ houses, the hills awaiting our eastward passage as we set out for home.
The day that this painting made such an impression on me, the three grandparents that I had known my entire life were still alive, and so the nostalgia brought on by the painting was for a simpler time in my life, without the worries and concerns of an adult with children of his own. Now all three of those grandparents have passed away, all buried in the Onawa Cemetery, so my memory of this painting brings on a different sort of nostalgia, not just of a simpler time but a time that has completely passed, my connection to an entire generation. If I hadn’t settled in this region myself as an adult, it’s hard to say if the painting would have impacted me the way that it has. This painting calls back memories both distant and recent, especially of time spent with my parents and grandparents, brothers and cousins, aunts and uncles. But it also makes me think of the present, of the time I spend in the hills by myself and especially with my children. The Loess Hills mean something to me now other than a landmark we passed by, a part of the journey marking the beginning, and the end, of a family vacation. I’ve not only seen that snowy hillside from a car window, I’ve encountered it directly on a hike, struggled against snow and elevation to climb it, and reached its summit to look down the other side.
Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha, Nebraska. He has written extensively on prairie literature and restoration, and enjoys spending time outdoors with his family, especially in the Loess Hills.