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Forest Park: "The Soul of St. Louis"
September 12, 2010
When I was four, we moved to Hanley Hills. Sixty years later, my mother moved out. On Labor Day my siblings and I gathered to divvy up what she left behind.

I arrived in St. Louis late Saturday morning to find my sister Sharon waiting for me at the airport. We had no plans, except our usual visit to Shaw's Garden. But this weekend 24,000 visitors were expected at the garden for a Japanese festival. We decided to spend the afternoon with Mom at Forest Park instead.

The traffic around the park slowed us to a crawl, giving me time to muse in the back seat. We passed a picnic grounds teeming with people. The name Woods was tacked to a tree. I recalled a similar afternoon forty years ago when McClains filled the spot: aunts, uncles, and cousins lunching on cold fried chicken and potato salad, with watermelon for desert.

Sharon turned left past the Jewel Box, one of Grandma McClain's favorite places, where Tennessee Williams' Laura Wingfield hung out in The Glass Menagerie. The bird cage on the other side of the road evoked ancient memories of the zoo: the outsized walrus and grey hippopotamus, long-necked giraffes, and bears prowling their pits. I always felt slightly on edge walking through that cage.

We passed the Muny Opera, my first - and until I went to college, my only - exposure to live theater. The free seats in the rear were priced right for family excursions, cheap dates, and patient outings from the mental hospital where I worked. Somewhere up in the attic in Amagansett is an old program listing Peter Turgeon among the cast of a Muny show starring Julius LaRosa. My sister Christie played the flute with her high school marching band in the final scene of The Music Man at the Muny.

Finally we made our way to the parking lot. While Sharon prowled for a parking place, I went to the Visitors's Center in search of a wheelchair for mom. A cheery woman behind the desk was happy to produce one for us.

With mom in the chair, we walked past the tennis courts, the golf course, and on to the Grand Basin. Mom told me that the basin had been renovated a few years ago, and indeed it had, restored from its state of seedy ruin to one of regal elegance. From the base of the lagoon we looked up the hill to the Art Museum, with The Apotheosis of St. Louis charging from its front door. As I looked across the water, I recalled a long bus ride home from Ft. Sam Houston for Christmas leave. A young woman fell asleep beside me. Her touch signaled affection. Although I knew I would never see her again, I asked her to meet me the next afternoon in the park - at the spot we now occupied.

As we navigated our way around the lagoon, I imagined the 1904 World's Fair as I have always imagined it - women in hoop skirts and parasols, men with handlebar mustaches and straw hats, children chasing hoops with sticks. Vendor booths would have ringed the lagoon. At one of them a man sold ice cream; next door another sold waffles. Right there - perhaps right where we were walking - the ice cream cone was invented.

We passed the memorial to Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the Father of Gymnastics, which I must I have seen before but never noticed. No time to dawdle, however. Sharon was intent on getting to Government Hill to find a brick inscribed in memory of our father and grandmother. At the waterfall near the base of the hill wedding parties lined up to have their pictures taken like jumbo jets on an airport runway. After a search we found the brick and were ready to go home.

On our way to the parking lot, we stopped briefly at the Boathouse, where people stood in line to rent canoes and paddle boats by the hour. Two days later on Labor Day, as we sorted through the family photos, we found a picture of Dad at the Boathouse. He was smiling.