Memories are Made of This

Blog readers who have attended one of my live events—back in the old days when we still HAD live events—may have heard the story of my family’s move from the farm in northeastern South Dakota to Bisbee in southeastern Arizona. For those folks some of this will be a rerun, but there are times when it’s fine to chew your cabbage twice, and this happens to be one of them.

In 1948, our father spent six weeks bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis. With a farm to run, seventeen cows to milk, and three little kids to raise, that was not a good situation. A doctor in Milbank advised my father that he needed to move to a high, dry climate. The way I remembered the story, my mother looked in her tattered geography book, found a map of Arizona, pointed to Bisbee in the lower right hand corner of the page and announced, “That’s high and dry. We’re moving there.”

According to my version of things, we left the farm at the end of January 1949 when the temperature was 28 degrees below zero, and they had to use a team of horses to haul our car and heavily loaded trailer out to a plowed county road. I have no conscious memory of the frigid beginning of that journey. We evidently spent five days snowbound in Enid, Oklahoma. My selective memory has X-ed that out of my personal recollections as well.

I know that once we arrived in Arizona, we spent a week or so in Douglas before moving on to the Shady Dell Trailer Park (still in business, by the way) in Bisbee. We stayed there for a little over a month, and I have one tiny fragment of memory from our stay at Shady Dell. A kid from the trailer park owned a bright red pedal fire engine. He let my older sisters ride in it but not me because I was “too little.”

That prohibition may have been my first experience with “age discrimination,” but it’s certainly not my last. Now I find myself wanting to go over to the TV set and smack the smiling fresh-faced young whippersnappers who, in news reports blithely pronounce sixty year-old accident victims as being “elderly!” Elderly may be coming your way at age sixty, but in my humble opinion, you’re definitely not “there” yet!

During many of my in-person presentations, I’ve told audiences that my memory of our move to South Dakota has never been of leaving the farm in bitterly cold weather but of the day, six weeks later, when we moved into the house on Yuma Trail, the place where I grew up. I remember hanging on the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the yard, looking up at the bright blue sky, and feeling the sun all over my body. I’ve always said THAT was my first conscious and indelible memory. It’s also the beginning of my long love affair with Arizona.

Unfortunately, I’ve recently learned that I have a different but equally vivid memory that predates that one. The problem is, it ended up being filed in an erroneous time frame. Here’s how the filing error came to light.

A number of family members—brothers, sisters, a niece or two, and a cousin—maintain a group-grope email chain that is updated several times a day. Last week in a series of messages about Highway 80, my older sister pointed out that before the family’s move to Arizona, our parents and another couple took a long road trip, crossing the country from New Orleans to San Diego before my parents finally settled for sure on Bisbee. While they were gone, my two older sisters and I stayed with one of my mother’s sisters, our aunt Alice and her husband, Ernest Johnson.

In telling the story, my older sister took a sibling style jab at me by pointing out that during our stay, I often mistook Alice for our mother. In my defense, the Anderson sisters, like the Busk sisters who followed in their footsteps, could easily have been poured out of the same mold. Not only that, I’m sure that even at that age, my vision was already bad. I didn’t start wearing glasses until second grade, but I remember sitting in the front row in Mrs. Kelly’s first grade classroom and struggling to see the blackboard.

So I’m giving myself a pass at confusing Aunt Alice with Evie, but hearing about our stay with the Johnsons on their farm reminded me of something else. Alice and Ernest had two daughters at the time, Margie and Polly, who were close in age to my older sisters, Janice and Jeannie. I was four years younger than the younger two, Jeannie and Polly. As a consequence, I was regarded as more of a nuisance than anything else.

At that age Polly was already something of a cowgirl and even had her own horse. She also had a much-loved cowgirl outfit, complete with leather chaps. She had outgrown it by then, so one day Aunt Alice dolled me up in it and sent me outside to play. The four older girls were on their way to the barn where they loved jumping out of the haymow into a haystack far below. Naturally I wanted to do the same thing, but at the last minute, my nerve failed me. I hesitated for a long time. Then, when I finally jumped, one of the leather chaps caught on a nail protruding out of one of the joists. I remember dangling there upside down for what seemed like forever although in reality it was probably nothing more than a few seconds. Eventually the leather gave way, and I tumbled into the hay. When Polly saw that I had wrecked her chaps, she was utterly furious.

I remember seeing black and white photos of that day. In one of them, before the haymow incident, I was dressed in the chaps and sitting proudly in the saddle of Polly’s horse. In my mental chronology, I always assumed that photo was taken on one of our family trips back to South Dakota after our move, but I realize now that that was in error. For one thing, I wasn’t wearing glasses!

So now I understand that my first conscious memory is of hanging upside down on that nail in the barn as opposed to hanging on the fence looking up at Arizona’s blue sky overhead.

Just for the record, I prefer to focus on memory number two.