As Thanksgiving nears, writer wrestles with feelings about hometown

Helen Johnson/The Miscellany News.

This year will be the first time I spend Thanksgiving with my family since 2016. 

I’m from Iowa. When getting home takes an Uber, a train ride, a flight, two airports and then three hours in the car, it’s just not worth it just for four days—especially four days that fall right in between October and winter break. So, during my time at Vassar I have always opted to spend Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. It’s fun, but just not the same. The same might be true for other Vassar students, who live far away and for whom the trip home isn’t feasible. After three straight months without setting foot off campus, I am happy and relieved to be going home. Although that relief is partially from looking forward to a week of break, which every exhausted, overworked and burnt-out Vassar student desperately needs right now. 

Home is Decorah, Iowa, a little town of just 8,000 people tucked away in the very northeastern corner of the state. It sits in what is known as the “driftless region,” which refers to the area that the glaciers missed when they moved through the Midwest and made everything flat. Consequently, Decorah is surrounded by beautiful bluffs and rolling hills, unlike the rest of the state, which is comprised of miles of flat corn and soybean fields. There are 23 parks and recreational areas—more than any other town in Iowa—and a beautiful 13-mile bike trail that circles the town. It’s also a college town, home to Luther College, a small liberal arts college known for its music programs and phenomenal ensembles, especially the choirs. Decorah also has three breweries and three locally owned coffee shops, as well as numerous small businesses and restaurants. Topped off with a strong flavor of Norwegian heritage, Decorah is the quintessential small Midwestern town. It would fit quite nicely as the setting for a Hallmark Christmas movie.

That atmosphere is compounded by the fact that I live on a Christmas tree farm. Every spring we plant hundreds of baby trees by hand, which will take approximately 10 years to grow. Then in the summer, we shear the larger trees, which basically means taking a long knife and swinging it at the branches to shape each tree into that classic triangular shape. Our farm opens for business the weekend after Thanksgiving: Families drive out to our house, walk out into the forest of trees, pick out which one they want, cut it down and drag it back. We tie it to the roof of their car, and off they go. Living on a Christmas tree farm also means we usually have at least three trees in our house. One year my dad even mailed me a baby tree to Vassar. We also have cows, sheep, chickens, cats and a dog—and I used to have two horses.

Growing up on a family farm in a small town in northeastern Iowa really shaped who I am today. I was a real farm kid, raising chickens, planting trees, doing chores and riding horses. I went to Decorah’s public high school of about 600 students, which was the only high school in town. It wasn’t until I got to Vassar that I realized in big cities some people actually apply to high schools. This notion was absolutely foreign to me, considering that where I’m from there’s one school for every district and that’s it. We had a football team and I played in the marching band. At the end of every school year we had a Drive-Your- Tractor-to-School-Day. (My family has a tractor, but I never drove it to school.) Many of my peers came from farm families like myself. The town is so small that to this day I cannot walk downtown without a family friend stopping me and asking about college. Not many people leave Iowa, even fewer leave the Midwest and almost no one goes as far away as I did.

Once I did leave my hometown, coming to the East Coast for college was exciting. I knew I wanted to leave Decorah, even though many of my teachers and friends expected me to go to Luther because I was so heavily involved in music. Music has always been an integral part of my identity; I’ve been singing since I could talk, and I also play piano and guitar. Growing up in Decorah means I grew up alongside Luther and the music culture the college emanates into the town. I took lessons from Luther professors, attended the Luther summer music camp and went to Luther concerts—especially the renowned Christmas at Luther, an annual spectacular holiday concert performed by the symphony orchestra and all six college choirs. Even my high school choir director had graduated from Luther and sang in the top choir there. My high school choir experience was extremely rewarding and shaped me greatly as a musician.

But I knew I didn’t want to go to college in the same place I grew up. I was thrilled to attend Vassar; the prospect of going to college on the East Coast, at one of the original seven sister schools, and a mere two hour train ride away from New York City was enthralling to me, a Midwestern farm girl.

Now, I can add my years at Vassar to the list of the many places and experiences that have contributed to who I am. But even after four years, I still feel like the girl from the Christmas tree farm. As they say, you can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the girl. My time at Vassar has made me appreciate aspects of the Midwest and my hometown that I either didn’t notice or didn’t like before. “Midwestern nice” really is a thing, and it doesn’t exist here. I have also found myself sticking up for the Midwest or needing to explain aspects of the region to my peers at Vassar. Many people from the coasts look down on, don’t understand the region—or both, which I believe is detrimental to nationwide discourse surrounding politics and social change.

I’m excited to return to all of these things for a couple months before I come back to graduate in the spring, and move to who knows where. Even so, I have some conflicting emotions about going home this November. The recent election confirmed my worst fears and doubts about my home state, and as a political science major who is constantly studying, reading and writing about the implications of politics for millions of people, I cannot set them aside. Donald Trump won in Iowa by eight points, even though the polls suggested it would be a tossup state. Iowa’s open senate seat was also one of the many Democrats were aiming to flip this year, but the incumbent Republican, Joni Ernst, beat Democrat Theresa Greenfield by almost seven points. Additionally, the House seat in my district flipped back to red, with incumbent Abby Finkenauer losing her seat to Republican Ashley Hinson. My own county went red, despite the outwardly progressive appearance lent to the town by the college and outspoken liberals. On top of all that, our governor, Kim Reynolds, has proven herself a loyal ally of Trump and has exhibited a disastrous mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic—she refused to even mandate that children wear masks in school. It is not surprising that cases have been on the rise in Iowa, and the safety of my friends and family—including all four of my grandparents who live in Decorah—has been a source of constant concern for me this semester.

Thus, it is with a troubled heart that I return home on Saturday. Decorah is so small that in many situations, I know exactly which people voted for Trump. It is hard to imagine how to reconcile or rebuild when after four years of one of the most vile, catastrophic presidencies our nation has ever seen, so many people still support him. It is hard to even want to reconcile when what little common ground there is left is rapidly disappearing and it seems as though I have no shared values with many of these people. It is difficult in a small town because these people are your neighbors—but how do you act neighborly when they have voted against your and so many of your loved one’s basic human rights?

I don’t have the answers. I know that I love my town and I love the Midwest, and as someone who grew up there and understands it in a way that most people who haven’t experienced it do not, it’s my responsibility to help make change. I was hoping that this year, Iowa would prove the coastal elites wrong and flip back blue. I was disappointed. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying, because too many people’s lives depend on it.

I don’t know where life after Vassar will take me, and it probably won’t be Decorah. But for now, I’m excited to revisit my favorite coffee shops and walk down Water Street. The weird semester means I get to be home for all of Christmas tree season, and I get to watch a virtual version of Christmas at Luther, which I haven’t been able to see since high school. Will I get bored after a couple weeks? Probably, but if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be home. And I can’t wait for Thanksgiving.

One Comment

  1. Helen, I have some identity to your Decorah upbringing after a year plus living here. What you grew up in/with is the major reason we chose to move here. Your comments about red and Trump resonate deeply. It is all I can do to keep from exploding in anger. Your writing draws me quickly into your narrative. Thoughtful and creative in expression. Tomorrow we will see you at your birthday cake celebration. I, do though, think you missed a unique experience in not driving the tractor to town and back. Love, Gramps

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