While archiving a bunch of family photos, I came across the above shot of me standing where my childhood home used to be. Several years ago, we took a family vacation detour through western Nebraska to show our kids where I spent my earliest years: a farm located just outside Lyman, Nebraska, a small village situated less than a mile from the Nebraska/Wyoming border.
Since it’s been nearly forty years since I’ve lived there, I have only traces of memories of the place. I remember the upright piano that I’d climb up and jump off, pretending I was a diver. I remember splitting my head open and seeing my arm covered in blood. I remember the basement bedroom I shared with my brother, and even the look of its white flooring. I remember watching Looney Tunes on our black-and-white TV. I remember the old dentist’s chair in our living room. I remember the Popeye mask I wore when we went trick-or-treating at our neighbors down the road.
I remember the sound of the cottonwood trees in our back yard, their leaves rattling in the slightest breeze. I remember sitting on top of the fence post, staring off in the distance or watching the graders fix the dirt road running next to our house.
I remember our dogs, Luke and Duke. (I was a big fan of The Dukes of Hazzard back then.) I remember bringing all of the farm cats into our house, something my parents had strictly forbidden. I remember playing with our goats, especially Brandy, which was “my” goat. Or maybe her name was Nanny. There are holes and uncertainties in my memory, and therein lies a problem.
I have a very clear memory of a birthday party with a chocolate cake on the table, and a bright red toy airplane — a Fokker triplane like the one flown by the Red Baron, to be precise — perched on top of the cake. It’s one of the most vivid memories from my early childhood… and it’s also completely false according to my parents.
I’ve had many toy airplanes and my childhood contained a lot of chocolate cake, so apparently several memories got scrambled together. Which calls into question all of the other memories I’ve listed above, and more. I know some of them to be true, like the goats and the dentist’s chair and splitting my head open, because my parents have talked about them, too, or I’ve seen photos. But what about other, more personal/random memories?
I remember getting an Eskimo pie with my dad at Lyman’s grocery store, which was a pretty big deal to younger me, and what I’ve always considered the start of my love for that particular treat — but did it really happen the way I see it in my mind’s eye? Were our dogs really named Luke and Duke? Did any of this stuff ever get written down somewhere?
Scientists tell us that our memories are changed every time they’re recalled. Which, for a moment, makes me wax existential and lament the fading of memory, the impermanence of things, etc. Or, if I’m feeling particularly philosophical, melodramatic, and/or nerdy, wonder if we’re all just brains in vats. But it’s also a humbling experience, and a reminder that I often need others, like my parents and other family members who saw me grow up and documented those early years, to remind me of what’s true about myself and my history.
I also wonder if my kids will experience similar memory “issues” since so much of their lives has been documented with photos and videos — I’m pretty sure my wife and I snap photos of our kids every day — and been archived via blogs and social media. Will they ever experience memory ambiguities about, say, their birthday parties or their soccer games when they’ll be able to pull up Facebook and see all the photos of the events in question?
As we approached Lyman, I had to call my dad to get directions to the old house. So much had changed about the Lyman area, and not surprisingly, my five-year-old memories were even less reliable than I’d assumed they’d be. We eventually worked out directions and arrived at the open field seen above. There were absolutely zero traces that a house, much less a farm, had ever been there.
I wasn’t sad, exactly. After all, nearly four decades had passed since I was there last, so what did I really expect to see? And yet, it’s undeniably odd to discover that your very first house, something that played such an important role in your formative years, has been completely removed from the face of the earth. All I have left are memories… memories that may or may not be filled with holes.
I’ve always been a pretty nostalgia-prone person, and part of nostalgia is impermanence, that unsure-ness of what really happened — which frees the imagination to run a little wild. This can certainly be dangerous and deceptive if indulged too much. However, it can also cause one to appreciate the keen beauty of those moments — even if it’s an idealized beauty that will be impossible to find once again, however strongly one might yearn for it.
I experience this every time I return to the Nebraska panhandle. As I’ve written before, no landscape resonates with me quite so much as Nebraska’s sandhills. I’m quite content living in a city, but looking at even a photo of the place where my childhood home used to be, and seeing the openness and vastness of it all, evokes a longing that I’m not sure can or should be fulfilled this side of eternity. But perhaps someday, it will be fulfilled, and in ways I can’t even imagine today.
Update: Shortly after sharing this on Facebook, my mom commented that I did, in fact, have a chocolate cake with a runway and a bright red airplane on it for my third birthday, but it was a biplane instead of a triplane. Also, Luke and Duke were our dogs’ names — they were Collie/Irish Setter mixes, for what it’s worth — and my goat’s name was, indeed, Brandy. So maybe my memory’s not as patchy as I thought it was… or maybe I’m just fortunate to have a mom who can remember all of those things for me.