As we drove through the hills of Missouri, I felt a certain sense of anticipation. We were going to my mother's 20th year class reunion, and she was going to show us some of her old haunts. She was also going to take me to several places we had frequented when I was just a little girl, so I was especially eager to get there.
Salem, Missouri, is a small town surrounded by farm country. Mom had gone to the high school here while her parents worked on their own small acreage. My mother has told me many stories of what it was like to live and work on a farm. Granny and Grumpa were known as "gentleman farmers." They weren't doing it to survive, but simply because they loved it. They had bought their little farm when Grumpa retired from the Air Force, and lived off of his pension while they raised cattle.
When I saw the Village Inn restaurant, I knew we had arrived. Mom's best friend from high school, Gail, was going to be at the reunion with her five kids, and it was her parents who used to run the restaurant. I remember that I had my first cup of coffee there. I was only four years old and I was curious how it tasted. I didn't like it. Whenever we were in town, Mom would pitch in to help and when I got older I would go with her. I got to know the cooks and waitresses pretty well. Gail would take me back in the kitchen whenever I came to say "hi," and whoever was on duty usually had some kind of sweet for me.
We were going to be staying at a motel in town, but Gail's parents had invited us for supper. When we got there, another set of memories presented themselves. When I was growing up, I had considered the Polks to be another set of grandparents. I had spent countless nights at their house, roamed all over their farm with their other grandkids, and basically made a nuisance of myself. I remember once when Gail's mom got so mad at me because I had been in the pasture with the bull! At the time I didn't understand why she was so angry, but I do now. That same visit, Gail's dad showed me how to skin a squirrel. It was rather disgusting.
The next day we had a picnic in the park, but before that my mother took us to the farm. My grandparents had sold it long ago, so Mom really couldn't show us around. As we drove to it, I realized that I had no memories of it. I was just a baby when Mom and I lived there after my parents divorced. It disturbed me that I couldn't remember anything. As we got closer, I saw the contrast between the white house and the green pastures on either side of it. It looked so peaceful, especially with the horses quietly grazing in the pasture on our right. It made me want to ride so that I could feel the wind in my hair and the power of the horse as it ran under me.
We went all the way up the drive to the house and I could tell Mom was feeling nostalgic. When we stopped the car, I thought we were just going to look at the house while Mom told us more about the farm. Instead, Mom got out and walked right up to the door and knocked on it. The owners were home. They graciously allowed Mom to go in and see her old room and reminisce a little with the owners about how things had changed.
While Mom was inside, I was watching the house, willing it to give me a memory. I just needed one. I peered around the house to see if there was a vegetable garden. I used to "help" Granny and Mom in the garden. No memory. I looked out to the pasture where the horses were and tried to imagine myself in front of my Grumpa on the tractor. Mom had told me that he used to give me rides and let me turn the wheel as if I was the one driving. Wait a minute! There's a glimmer…yes! I couldn't have been more than two years old, so a lot of it is hazy. There is one thing that is astonishingly clear. It's so clear that everything else around it seems black as if I had tunnel vision. This is what I remember…
Mostly, I remember things as something I just knew. For instance,
I knew I was on a lap because I could feel arms around me. I knew we had company because we were in the sitting-room. I knew that it
was past my bedtime because the table lamp was on. I knew I had
better be still or someone would take me to bed. However, there is
one thing that I remember with perfect clarity. My grandfather, whom
I call "Grumpa" now (he's gone through several grandfatherly name
changes over the years), was sitting across the room from me. He was
turned to the right, holding the bowl of his ever-present pipe, which was
also clamped between his teeth, and laughing at a comment the person
next to him had made. He was wearing a white button-down shirt with
dark pants and there was a little table to his left with the lamp that was
sitting there turned on.
My grandfather had always been a love in my life. He was literally been my first father-figure. He was my first best friend. When I was sad, all I had to do was curl up next to him and everything would be okay. When I was scared, his strength made me know that I would be safe. To realize that he was my first memory was enough to take my breath away.
It's amazing, isn't it? It's amazing how one little memory can change how we feel about a person, place, or thing. Once I had recalled that tiny little memory, the farm became precious to me. It became a place to come back to time and again. A place to retreat. A place to call home.