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.

27 thoughts on “Memories are Made of This

  1. I’m your age, and the term ‘elderly’ is one of my pet peeves too! I reserve it for people in their late 80s or 90s! I live in Fountain Hills (east of Scottsdale) where you’ve spoken several times, and I love Arizona, too!

  2. I totally understand about not seeing things. My teacher discovered I couldn’t see the blackboard when I was in second grade. I was moved back to first grade, received glasses and discovered trees have individual leaves they aren’t a blob. Clouds are beautiful.

  3. I can just see you sitting on that horse in a cute cowgirl outfit. When I was about 8 years old, a man with a pony came through our neighborhood and would charge a small fee to take a photo of a child on his pony. He had a cowboy hat available, too. I don’t know why I didn’t get to sit on the pony, but my sister Judy, 3 years younger than me, got to do it and we all loved that photo for many years. I had forgotten all about that. I’ll have to call her today and ask if she still has it. Thanks for the memories!

  4. I have the vest and chaps from the days of wanting to be Dale Evans so I could be with Roy Rogers (late 1950’s?). My mom saved them in a costume box that I didn’t find until I cleared out her house and my daughters were too old to be able to wear them. I will put them in the trunk for my granddaughter (almost one) of clothes I saved that could be period costumes someday.

  5. At my advanced but young age of 77, my younger brother lovingly corrects my memories of our childhood. As a child, I would love to tell everyone of my family’s adventures….often embellishing the stories to make them more interesting. Eventually the embellishments became more vivid than the actual truth. Happily, I seem to have passed my story telling on to my oldest son. I so enjoy your books and stories. Thank you for making my life a rich one.

  6. I feel the same way about describing older people as elderly in the news. And if it’s a woman it usually involves the word grandmother. So in my head I immediately think of Tweety Bird’s granny. To me that is an elderly grandmother. Reporters seem to always put people in the same slot whether they are or not.
    Love the blogs!

  7. It is interesting that you don’t remember much about your move to Arizona. I was reading a memory written by a cousin of my paternal grandpa’s the other day. She came with her family from Sweden to Chicago in 1880. She was 7-1/2 years old and mentioned she had a long grey woolen dress and shoes with brass toes. She wrote “Our trip to America had no particular events to make it interesting.” They took a train from their farm to Goteburg where the ship was. The ship landed in Nova Scotia instead of New York and there was trouble finding the right train to Chicago. I think her parents had a different view of that trip.

    Later in the piece she said the boat landed in Nova Scotia instead of New York and they had a time getting to Chicago where family members who had gone before lived.

      • On the maternal side of family my Great Grandfather Otto Lunbom and his brother Peter left Sweden in 1876. They were masons and builders. Otto settled in Iowa, Uncle Pete in Watertown, South Dakota. They built schools and store buildings. I believe there is a bridge in Watertown that has Uncle Pete’s name on it.

  8. I eagerly look forward to your blog posts every week and when they show up in my email inbox, I delete everything else saving yours for last so I can enjoy it. At 67, I, too, am in that nastily classified ‘elderly’ category and I hate it! We’re in the wisdom season of our lives. I loved this blog, having grown up on a farm with cousins down the road with horses and our barn stored hay; I could have hay bales with the best of them. I always wanted to ride the hay elevator but it was deemed too dangerous. Thanks for the memories!

  9. I was probably in first or second grade when my two older brothers decided to climb up inside the holly trees and then slide down the outside to the ground. They cajoled me until I finally climbed up inside the tree to do the same. My belt loop got stuck on a branch! Luckily Grandpa was there visiting as he could just reach my foot and jiggled me free and safely down to him. My brothers were also quite a bit taller – eventually hitting their high marks of 6’2″ and 6’7″, while I almost made it to 5’5″ – so being younger, and much shorter, I remember being so terrified. Of course, if Grandpa could reach me, I must not have been THAT far off the ground!

  10. Grew up with Janice and Judy. Bisbee or Warren where we lived has many good memories.

  11. Glad to know that I’m not the only one who couldn’t see what was on the blackboard, only it wasn’t discovered until the third grade when a school nurse checked our eyesight. Ah, the 1950s. I never learned the alphabet form the letters posted over the blackboard. Even today I have to say the ABC rhyme to get them in the right sequence.

  12. “… pronounce sixty year-old accident victims as being ‘elderly!’ ”
    My G’ma at 75 had had multiple strokes and walking across a room required the assistance of a piece of furniture, a grandkid or 2 and a door jamb.
    When I was 10, I asked why she didn’t use a walker and she said they were for OLD people.
    At a very wobbly 75 years of age, she said she looked in the mirror and saw a 16 year old who still loves to dance.
    I wanna be like her!

  13. Your blogs are always fun and stimulating. Your piecing together young memories speaks to my recently retired sister’s project of writing/compiling our father’s history as a member of “Operation Deepfreeze” in 1955-‘57, when the US began a combo science-set up-a-military base in Antartica. Her college professor research skills combined with piece meal memories from young children memories have launched a fascinating look into a tidbit of American history for ourselves and our kids.

  14. Your blog reminded me of the cowgirl dress that I got when I was a little girl. I wore it to Kindergarten one day and one of my friends showed up wearing the same dress. I remember us just standing and staring at each other. Apparently, our mothers had gone shopping together. I had forgotten about that, so thanks for reminding me.

  15. Thanks for sharing those memories. Its always nice to hang upside down in somebody else’s chaps to recall and appreciate your own past foibles, now so long ago.

  16. Love your blog. Memories of my childhood wash over mr at times, love it. I have a memory about the age of two, when I was supposed to be napping, I slipped out of the house to play with a neighbor girl. She had a doll buggy I shoes that squeaked this would have been about 1945 or 46. Since I had had Polio, the shoes were much cuter than my orthopedic ones & started my obsession for shoes as an adult.

    I always put you down as my favorite author. Thank for having the ability to share them with us.

    • I remember going to the Dispensary at the Copper Queen Hospital to get our Polio vaccine. Thank you Jonas Salk.

  17. On your journey from South Dakota you must have encountered the aftermath of the iconic blizzard of 1949 which began on January 2, 1949, and shut down much of western South Dakota and western Nebraska for several weeks. I grew up in western Nebraska hearing stories about it. My grandfather was a railroad engineer and had a pilot’s license. He told about trains totally buried and track blocked by dead cattle and how food and supplies were dropped from planes to stranded farm and ranch families.

  18. Could you recommend a good history of mining in and around Bisbee? I’ve never really thought about how and why it is there. I think other folks here would be interested, too.

  19. Love the stories you share with use. When our family was still whole we would go camping with my Aunt and Uncle and the 2 kids, a girl and boy. there are 3 girls and a boy in my family. The boys were older than us girls, but when it came to who could bat who in any game we played the girls won. Well it was 4 against 2 telling the story.
    When I used the word Whole about our families. I meant this. In 2014 my Mom lost both her brothers in Julie and her sister in November. My D lost his remaining brother in July that year. It was a really bad Year for all of us. In 2016 we Lost all 3 of our Dad’s. My step-Dad my husbands Dad and then my Dad. My Mom is still with us, but we’re losing her a little bit at a time. It’s called the long good-by. So JA Jance there’s a story of part of my life. Of course my sister who is 2 years younger would say I didn’t remember it right. She’s the one who’s always right, even when she’s wrong. Thanks you for listening to my story. When I read something I feel like I’m listening to the different voice from the book. Weird, I know. Many Blessings to you and yours. BJ Emmons

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