Memories, the generation gap, and the ties that bind

(Warning: long-winded OP ahead)

I live in Oregon, and have most of my life. The exception was when I was in second grade, ca. 1988. My maternal grandparents lived and farmed a 3,000 acre wheat farm northwest of Havre, Montana. My grandfather’s family had lived and farmed that land since 1910. The day before Halloween, 1987, my grandfather died suddenly. With nobody to take over the farm my parents agreed to move to Montana and run the farm until one of his sons could move back to Montana and take it over. Thus we lived 20 miles down a dirt road, 55 miles from the nearest grocery store, for 9 months.

Because we were so isolated we took every advantage we could to visit with our neighbors and attend community get-togethers. One of these community get-togethers took place in a small church annex at the tiny town at the nearest big crossroads—population 200, at least on a good day.

Fast forward to this past June. My two boys and I found ourselves back in northern Montana so we decided to visit the old farmhouse and, for me, relive some old memories. My uncle who had taken over the farm in 1998 ran it into the ground and had it foreclosed on by the bank around 1997 or 1998. Why this happened nobody in the family (besides him) really knows for sure. The land was sold piecemeal to surrounding farmers and the house and surrounding outbuildings were eventually bought by a distant cousin who lived in the area still.

So on a cloudy, windy Saturday in June I found myself standing on the porch of the weathered old house I had once called home. The porch swing and chairs that had once provided my grandfather a place to sit and watch the sunrise were long gone, and the lilac bush that had provided the wind little whiffs of sweet scent was nothing more than a stump in a weed-filled flower bed. The once-red door was brown, the paint long stripped by the wind. The doorhandle was gone, replaced by a rusty length of bailing wire wrapped around a nail.

“Dad, you brought us 800 miles for this?”

“Yeah dad. You really used to live here? This place is dump.”

I ignored their editorials and opened the door. Inside was, somewhat amazingly, fairly clean. My uncle had gutted the kitchen and replaced all the cabinets, put in a flat-top stove and oven, and relocated the laundry to the basement. I started to understand why he stopped making mortgage payments—or at least, where the money went instead. We continued further into the house. The place had been kept in fairly good repair by my cousin, for which I was grateful. There was no broken glass or torn wallpaper, and the carpet was clean. The benign neglect that had greeted us outside had not followed us inside.

Hesitantly, my boys ascended the staircase while I sat down on the kitchen floor near the entrance to the hallway. Near that junction there was a floor vent for the furnace. When I had lived there, 30 years ago this year, that vent was remarkable because next to it were two worn spots of carpet—evidence of my grandfather attempting to warm his feet after working outside in the northern Montana cold. 30 years later the carpet was gone, long ago replaced with garish and gaudy linoleum in a black and white checkered flag pattern.

“Dad, what are you doing?” My sons had descended from upstairs, their explorations complete. They had turned the corner to find their 37 year old father sitting cross-legged on the floor staring at floor register. I’m sure they thought I had gone mad. But how could I tell them what this place, this very tiny spot, had meant to me? How could I explain the years their great-grandfather had sat in this very spot, warming his feet while listening to the radio? They had no memories of this place; to them it was an abandoned farmhouse 60 miles from the nearest television and 800 miles from their xBox. To me it was a home, a place where some of my happiest childhood memories were formed. I looked around. The shelf that my grandfather had kept his radio was gone, as was the old wall phone that had hung next to it. Both were replaced with a giant mirror adorned with “Praise Jesus!” graffiti. Not my uncle’s finest work. Looking around the kitchen again I realized that my uncle had tried very hard to put his own personal touches on the place and by doing so had erased whatever traces of my grandfather had left behind on the place.

I made sure to wind the bailing wire tight around the nail as we left.

Driving away, I slowed down to look at a cluster of outbuildings—barns, grain bins, calving sheds, an old Quonset hut—that had stood proud when my grandfather had owned the land. Unsurprisingly, that cold June day there was almost nothing left: just an old freestanding single-car garage that had been my grandfather’s workshop. Scraps of rusting metal and rotted wood lay scattered around it. As I stared out the window I heard a click, and looked in my rearview mirror. My oldest son had a camera and was leaning out of the window taking a picture. I followed his gaze and noticed a pronghorn antelope standing on the other side of the spot where an old chicken house had once stood. My kids would never know what was once here, and the magic this place had once kindled. Silently, I put the car in gear and pulled out onto the main road for the 20 mile drive to the next crossroads, and the road to our motel.

The next day, as we left for our return drive to Oregon, we stopped at the old church annex. I had heard through the grapevine that a friend of my grandfathers had turned 90 and the community was coming together and throwing him a birthday party, Uninvited, we pulled into the gravel parking lot. After sitting a moment and suffering more protestations from my boys, we hopped out of the car and walked inside. Amazingly, the old man recognized us, as did two of his kids—which was incredible, as I had no clue who they were. I had been in second grade the last time I had seen them and here I was, a fat, balding, and bearded man with kids older than I was in 1988. We hugged, talked, talked some more, exchanged recipes (because that’s a thing up there apparently), talked some more, hugged some more, and finally we left them to visit as we headed west for Oregon.

I realized after we stopped in Ritzville for the night that my memories of the church annex, formed in 1988, were gone. I simply could not remember what I had been able to remember for so long. Even now, whenever I try to summon them, I can picture is the building and the people in it that I saw in June, 2018. Try as I might, I just can’t remember what it looked like in 1988—although 6 months ago I could have described it in detail. When I think back to the farmhouse, I can remember it as it was in 1988. I can remember sitting on a naugahyde sofa watching Duck Tales as clearly as I can remember the ugly linoleum installed years after I last called the place home.

I don’t know if we’ll ever be back—hopefully we will, as it holds a very special place in my heart. I don’t want my memories formed in 1988 to fade, or worse: be replaced by memories of a falling down wreck. But it was my family home, albeit briefly, and I hope someday that I’ll be able to come back, and this time prepared for what awaits me.

Now that I have that out of my system, I’m left wondering: how is it that I simply cannot remember the church annex as it was in 1988? I had not seen it in 30 years—probably a few months more than 30 years. And yet, up until I saw it again this year, I could remember it in detail. Now, there are only the 2018 memories remaining.

Memory really is a weird thing.

My sister came by to visit yesterday - to see my granddaughter, mainly, but we were talking about family and old memories. She had very vivid memories of our cousin Joe coming to visit at our paternal grandparents’ place and going bowling with him. My sis is just a year younger than I, and I have absolutely no memory of this ever happening. Maybe she’s hallucinating, or maybe, as you say, memory is a weird thing - what stays and what goes? Who knows??

Yesterday I took my daughter and her boyfriend on a drive through the old neighborhood. My grandparents house was razed 20 years ago for an assisted living facility. I can remember every inch of their house. The smell. The feel. The sound of the sliding door into the kitchen. Grandpa’s little radio, next to the sink, quietly playing. I close my eyes and I am there.
Then we drove past the house I grew up (until age 13) in and I had to pause to confirm that the house I pointed at WAS the right house.

One gone, I remember thoroughly. One there, I couldn’t immediately confirm.

Some comments on the OP.

  1. Especially for the kids in rural areas, outsiders showing up for a while is something they really remember.

  2. Be thankful an old building is still around at all. In the area of my farming relatives they are rapidly being razed. The main reason: taxes. Any fixed structure gets taxed. If it’s not being used, get rid of it. So one grandparent’s old dairy barn got torn down a couple years ago. Their house was “converted” into storage for horse gear to get a lower rate.

Outsiders with money are buying up the old farms in bulk. Tear down all the structures. Bring in a trailer, put someone in it to be the “farmer of record” for irrigation allotment purposes, profit. (Things on wheels don’t get taxed.)

Time’s an arrow, for sure.

I live ~20 miles from the relatively small (though not as distant as midwest small towns) town I grew up in. I drive through rarely enough to really notice the changes, but frequently enough to experience them piecemeal.

My folks sold the house in 2001, so it’s been 17 years for me. It’s an odd, almost spiritual sensation to both see the new construction in town, as well as the things that have closed or been torn down. Or, the houses that were old then, some of which clearly haven’t seen a touch of paint since I was a kid. Brand new expensive homes in a neighborhood where a pasture used to be right next to falling-down farmhouses where I’m sure one of the lunch ladies and her grandmother lived in the 80s, or where I’m pretty sure a class mate lived.

Rarely do I go into my old neighborhood, but when I do it’s such a strange feeling. There’s the house. Someone else lives there, but I still have so many memories of the place. I wonder if there’s any evidence of my family still there. Not only my house, but others on the street. I know their internal layouts. I know what color the carpets and paint is (or was, in 2000). I know where the furniture is, and where people’s rooms were, and what things they had in them.

I never feel the tragic impermanence of human endeavors and the beautiful journey of loss that is a life so strongly as when I visit my hometown.

A very charming and moving story!