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  • My family had never been on a real vacation. We'd done day trips up to Flagstaff or Prescott, but never the whole thing-- with airplanes and hotels and travel-size shampoo bottles. My dad told us it was because my younger brothers and I would argue too much. But it was because of money.

    I'd grown past the point where I longed for family vacations, anyway. I had my own trips, my own friends, people who would never dream of wiping boogers on me in the backseat. I was on the beach in LA, collecting seashells and jumping over waves and singing songs with my friends. I didn't want to leave. I told myself it was because of so many things-- because I would miss my boyfriend, because the Greyhound trip back to Phoenix was eight hours, because I didn't want to pack another suitcase and go to another state without some rest in between.

    But it was because I didn't want to say goodbye to my grandma again.

    The first time my family ever got on a plane together was for my grandma's funeral. It was held in her five-square-mile hometown in northeast Minnesota, but my dad made it into a five-day tour of the Midwest.

    Day one: I get off a bus in Phoenix and into my mom's van. We stop at my apartment in Tempe. My roommate's much older male friend is sleeping on our couch, but my mom asks no questions. We get on a plane, where my 12-year-old brother Cooper and I sit together and laugh too much at nothing in particular. No boogers. We land in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and I recognize the airport and the street names from when I was here two years ago to visit my boyfriend at the time. Life moves you in strange circles.

    Day two: I wish my boyfriend could see how many trees are behind this Wal Mart. We stop at an abandoned house in the middle of more corn than I've seen in my life. My mom and 8-year-old brother, Tucker stay in the car and talk about farms. My dad, Cooper and I go in-- everyone but dad terrified of ticks. The house is straight out of a horror movie, with peeling paint and an old Boba Fett mask and a left boot and a rusty stove in the middle of the living room. My dad and Cooper can't stop laughing when my foot goes through the stairs as I flee from a bird that flew in the house. The sun keeps shining through the windows like it doesn't know everyone moved away.

    We finally get to Lake Okoboji, Iowa, where my dad grew up. I've seen him cry twice now in the past week, but these ones might be happy tears. Things are almost how he left them. Parents of childhood friends offer him food like he's still six years old. My late grandpa's new wife is indistinguishable from Gloria on Modern Family. A man on the dock reveals that my grandpa wasn't really my grandpa, a detail that shocks Cooper more than me. This lake is the most beautiful place I've been in my life. My dad says he used to swim to the amusement park on the other side. I hope I can come back.

    At 9 pm, my parents make the brash decision to drive north. They didn't book any hotels ahead of time. Cooper and I listen to Broken Social Scene and look out the window at more stars than we can comprehend. Some moments change your life in ways you can't explain.

    Day three: We wake up in Wilmar, Minnesota, the eerie town where we decided to stop around midnight. A couple clearly having an affair parts ways out back. It's weird-- places make cameo appearances in my life, while serving as entire universes for others. For the second day, Cooper and I wander down to hotel breakfast while the rest of my family sleeps. I'm so happy he loves free food as much as I do. We drive a lot more. Where? I honestly can't remember. It's a blur of corn fields.

    Day four: It's still dark outside. I ask my mom to untangle the dragonfly necklace my grandma gave me two birthdays ago. "I wanted to pick out something for you myself. It's okay if you don't like it, but I would have loved it when I was your age," she told me. I've never worn it until today, the day of her funeral. I always told her I loved her. I sure hope she knew.

    The whole family grabs hotel breakfast this time, and Tucker can't believe he's been missing out-- another breakfast partner! We drive for a long time and only my mom and I are in our funeral clothes. We have no GPS, no smart phones, and my dad has to call for directions because the paper map isn't cutting it. My mom isn't feeling well. We're late.

    But the funeral waited, even while my brothers and dad put their suits on in the mortuary bathroom. I guess we made up half the attendees. Tucker and my 7-year-old cousin and I all refuse to look at my grandma in the casket. I meet Artis, a friend from the stories she told me while she smoked on the porch. "Joyce and Artis," she always said, but Joyce was dead now, too. My grandma was never old, really-- just from another time.

    During the service, people say vague things about my grandma and heaven, but nothing too religious. We all cry, unashamed. She was the only person who wholeheartedly supported my outlandish endeavors when I was younger. One Halloween, she helped me make a haunted house in her backyard shed, and even invited all her friends. My parents thought I was crazy. I guess she was crazy, too.

    It's sunny and green at the cemetery. My grandma would have loved it. My dad makes a joke about the process by which the gravediggers will lower the casket. "She was working on a better contraption to do that, but she still hasn't finished it." Everyone laughs, because she really was always halfway done making some clever device. No wonder she understood my ambitions.

    We pose for a photograph by her casket. No one really wants to, but we should, right? I can't remember whose idea it was. No one smiles. Amid the days driving through corn and and the jokes and the laughing at each other, this picture captures the core of everything we were hiding from.

    We drive back to the funeral home for "cookies and bars," a phrase as delightful to me as the actual treat. Then we follow my great-aunt and uncle into Grand Forks, North Dakota. It's like all the nice people decided to live in this part of the country. My uncle buys five $0.50 cups of lemonade from a little girl's lemonade stand with a twenty, and tells her to keep the change. Everyone waves at my brother and I as we wander through the neighborhood. A guy my age invites me to look at his apartment in a building converted from an old schoolhouse because I'm so enamored by the concept. No wonder my grandma was so friendly.

    Day five: My mom feels worse and worse. We're in Fargo, North Dakota, home of that movie I didn't like very much. It looks different in the summer. We drive back to Iowa to take pictures at the playground where my dad used to play. I sit in the front and navigate while my mom sleeps in the backseat, because maybe the rental car seats are causing the pain in her lower back. I'm good at maps. Later, I found out that my mom just had a kidney infection, treated by some cranberries and water and pills. But at the time, I was so scared she was next.

    On the plane, my mom throws up. We fly in circles around Phoenix, watching the most surreal monsoon storm take place. Lightning forms in the rain clouds below us. Turbulence hits us again and again, straight out of a plane-crash movie. Every once in a while, we catch a glimpse of the city through the clouds. When we finally land, the storm still hasn't let up. After my repeated begging, we finally pull over at a gas station on the drive home because we can't see anything through the dust and sideways rain. I was so scared we were all next.

    We made it home safe, but I'm still a little scared.
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