While Beth Howard’s scrumptious pies initially drew me to the American Gothic House, there was so much more that kept me there. My initial plan was to stay 2-3 nights, but like most every other plan on this road trip, that idea was quickly scrapped. Living in one of the country’s most famous residences turned out to be such a peaceful, healing experience that I ended up settling in for 9 nights. Breaking one of my top road trip rules (don’t drive in the dark), I arrived after sundown, in part because I was stuck in a 25 minute traffic jam caused by a slow moving tractor on a 2-lane highway. Although I was frustrated, I’ll take this type of farm road bottleneck any day over the gridlock I encounter regularly on 8-12 lane freeways in Los Angeles. Driving in the dark in the country also adds an entirely new dimension of stress because one must always be on the lookout for deer that could run into the road at any given moment. Yet my minor traffic-induced tension vanished the instant I parked Princess and looked up at the celebrated white house in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic. The little girl in me widened her eyes and caught her breath while she silently squealed “I GET TO STAY IN A DOLLHOUSE!” Really, the American Gothic House is about the cutest darned thing you’ve ever seen.
The moment I dropped my bags Beth told me I could stay as long as I like provided I abide by two house rules: (1) I must read for 30 minutes each day; and (2) I was required to unpack. Interestingly, the rule that made me the most uneasy was unpacking. Up until this point the longest I stayed in any location was 3 nights. I have become oddly comfortable with shoving my belongings in their appointed corners of my duffle bag and only wearing the clothes that I randomly grab from the top layer. In fact, by unpacking, I unearthed clothes I had completely forgotten about. Not that it really mattered. The first day I was there we stopped at a tractor supply store and I bought a pair of bib overalls for myself and a John Deer bandana for Yoda. We both proudly wore our new Iowa clothing every single day we were there. Beth further ensured I’d stay awhile by setting up my writing desk in front of the back gothic window. It’s identical to the famous gothic window at the front of the house, but it overlooks the back yard. Really, I can’t imagine a more inspiring place to write… I spent hours each day sitting at my desk, either typing on my computer or staring out of that wonderful, marvelous gothic window.
My introduction to simple everyday rural life was made before I even got out of bed the first morning. I awoke to Beth standing over me in her bathrobe holding a stunned bird that wasn’t moving. Worried, I flashed back to Beth’s blog post the week prior about rescuing an injured bunny, which sadly didn’t survive. We made a nest for the bird and put it in a Tupperware container on the clothesline, and happily a couple hours later it flew away. Later that day while we were walking the dogs we passed the city “kennel,” which consists of a wretched outdoor chain link cage that the city puts animals in for 3 days. If unclaimed, the animals are put to sleep. Armed with this knowledge, it broke my heart to see a miserable caged yellow lab who was blind in one eye and looked like he hadn’t eaten in months. The poor guy wasn’t even given any food or water. The cage was locked, so Beth and I did what we could to make the starving dog’s last hours as comfortable as possible: Beth slid a bowl of water into the cage and I threw him a couple handfuls of dried chicken treats while saying a private prayer for his survival. Imagine our surprise the next morning to find that our homeless lab actually had found the strength to bend the chain link wire and escape from his prison! My heart sang with joy…run free little one and find yourself a home!
There is something so restorative about the simplicity of living in a small country town, but I’m not quite able to put the experience into words. I loved our morning walks through the sparkling frost covered soybean fields. I had forgotten the joy found in watching Scarlet Breasted Robins, crimson Cardinals and Red-headed Woodpeckers that seem to be everywhere in the Midwest this time of year. While walking Yoda past some grain bins, I enjoyed an impromptu lesson in soybean harvesting from two friendly men named Robin and Mike who make their living storing and then transporting the crop. Beth and I both remember the mouth-watering aromas of crock pot dinners simmering all day long in our Midwest childhood homes, so we made a couple delicious meals ourselves that would make even our mothers proud. Then there are the people of Eldon. Like most Midwesterners, they are authentic, honest, friendly and genuinely nice. Those are rare traits to be found in Hollywood, which is why most of my close friends in LA are not in the film industry. Eldon is the type of town where Bill the sheriff hands out Charms Blow Pops (yes, even to the adults), Shirley the mayor will stop by for coffee, Molly the museum administrator will bring you homemade yogurt for breakfast, and a local phone tree results in a group of townspeople spontaneously getting together to make home-made horseradish on a Sunday afternoon.
For the most part, my time in the American Gothic House was quiet. It was that healing sort of quiet where your worries about the future begin to silence, you focus completely on the tasks at hand, and you smile a bit as you enjoy the warmth of a tea cup in your hands. Of course, a universal law is that nothing in life can be absolutely perfect. Yoda made certain of this. You see, the American Gothic House is very much a tourist attraction. Tourists regularly dress in costume to recreate Grant Wood’s American Gothic masterpiece and pose for pictures in front of the house. Most don’t realize the house is a private residence, so often-times they’ll wander onto the front porch and peer into the windows. This, of course, can be quiet unsettling to even the most well-behaved dog. The day before we left, a couple of people who were particularly menacing looking to Yoda (meaning, one of them was wearing a hat) peered into the front window. I watched in horror as Yoda ran towards them, and then (I’ve replayed this moment in slow motion over and over in my head), he jumped up on the window to bark at them and the paper-thin window of this 121 year old historic house shattered into a hundred little pieces. Time stopped. Yoda stood still in shock. I froze in horror. The tourists slowly backed away. The only one who didn’t seem at all upset by my dog’s act of blatant vandalism was Beth. Truth be told, it only cost $53 to replace the window. But STILL…Yoda is a hooligan, and it took a good 48 hours for my simmering anger towards him to un-simmer.
Despite the Yoda drama, living in the most American house in all of America was a treat for my soul. Beth knows far too well how toxic and venomous living in Los Angeles can be, since she has periodically called the City of Angels her home throughout the years. Likewise, she knows the importance of rejuvenating and grounding oneself with the simple yet significant things in life…and our Midwest roots are an important place to start. In fact, when I left Eldon I visited Bettendorf, Iowa to visit both my childhood home, and, in one of those crazy small world coincidences, Grant Wood Elementary School which I attended through the 3rd grade. Over the past few months Beth has been an emotional rock for me as I’ve tried to restore health to my battered and bruised spirit. I’ll forever be grateful to Beth for opening both her heart and home. She’s helping me come back to life.
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