Beardstown – the town I grew up in from birth to around age 10 will always hold a special place in my heart. Illness plagued my family in the years that followed but these were largely idyllic years. I had moved away 48 years ago and had not been back in over 28. The town has struggled since my departure — clearly there was a mourning period throughout the town when I left but I can’t take credit for the economic challenges of small Midwest towns.
I arrived before sunrise to take pictures, hoping that the gentle light would soften the images while still allowing me to glean old memories and ghosts before night fully dispersed. I plotted a course to see the bridge across the Illinois river with barges passing by; the old grain silos and other buildings in the small port (many now shuttered); the old movie theater and bowling alley where I got such joy – closed many years past; and my first home – so much smaller than I remembered.
While Oscar Mayer pulled out after a labor dispute with the union, others took over the slaughterhouse and meat packing plant that provides the lifeblood for many. It now attracts a diverse workforce that replaced those that fled to greener pastures. In the local schools, students speak over 13 languages and small ethnic restaurants fill in some of the empty storefronts on the town square.
My visit was going to be short since there were no friends remaining. I decided, however to attend a service at the First Congregational Church where I was baptized. There were probably 20 people in the pews when I entered the knave. The minister appeared to be 80 years old and much of the congregation was in her age bracket.
What was overwhelming was that despite not having been in the church since I was 10, it was exactly as I remembered. This congregation is QUITE informal. During the point in the service where you share “the peace of Christ be with you . . . and also with you,” people took 10 or so minutes to walk around to each other shooting the breeze. One man walked up to me and introduced himself. When he asked my name, he beamed – “I know you and your family”.
When he was a junior, my mother taught him at the high school. He was quite a personality, often making vocal fun-loving jibes during the church service (I said it was informal). He pulled close to me to let me know that my mother, unlike other teachers, cultivated his sarcasm and encouraged him to be more creative in his writing. He used to just try to make her laugh with his essays and stories. His memories were a loving tribute, especially since they dated from over 50 years ago and 40 years after my mother died. You never know the impact of the ripples of your life.
Having finished my visit, I headed to Springfield for an Abraham Lincoln tribute visiting the museum, presidential library, tomb and historical district where his house can be toured. The afternoon of sightseeing was wonderful but my heart was back in Beardstown. (But of course I rubbed Lincoln’s nose for good luck.)