A couple of times a week, I walk in the neighborhood just south of East Campus, the agricultural campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before I began working on this essay, I would have told you that I walk that old neighborhood because there I find more architectural and botanical beauty and diversity than I do on the newer streets near my house. But now I know that it’s more than the tree canopies, curbside gardens, dignified homes, and run-down student rentals that compel me to walk this neighborhood a ten-minute drive from my house.
I begin my walk near a red brick fourplex, built in the late 1940s or early 1950s. I know the lay out of 3525 Apple Street, the apartment on the lower west side: a living room with a closet; a small kitchen, once a mild yellow, I think; a hallway; a bedroom behind the kitchen. The floors are hardwood. I don’t remember the bathroom. The “MoPac,” a bike and pedestrian trail built on the former rail bed of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, draws the southern boundary of the backyard.
When I was four and five, my family lived at 3525 Apple Street for at least six months that I can verify, though seven or eight is more likely. In the winter of 1960-61, my father was laid off from his job as a laborer at the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad shops in West Burlington, Iowa. He took a similar job at the CB&Q shops in Lincoln. I want to modify the verb “took,” but any adverb I pick – gratefully? grudgingly? expectantly? reluctantly? hopelessly?– would be speculation, though my parents may have felt each of these sentiments in some measure. They found tenants for the Cape Cod house in Burlington they’d recently bought, packed up, and moved 350 miles west. Briefly, they rented a room with a kitchenette in an old house in the shadow of the Nebraska State Capital Building. My only memory of that dark place that reeked of something revolting like cooked cabbage, is of my mother arguing with the gaunt landlady about the saucers of rodent poison on the floor of the room where my brother and I played. Next, we moved into a furnished basement where the kitchen was so tiny that we ate at a table in the living room. Jamie’s crib was in my parents’ bedroom, but I can’t remember where I slept. We lived close enough to the shops that when Jamie and I heard the quitting time whistle, we ran to the corner to pick out in the stream of men pouring out of the yard, each in steel-toed boots and dirty overalls and toting a dinner bucket, our father’s loose hipped, out-toed walk, his brown hair parted on the side and combed over like Cary Grant’s, and his hazel eyes which found us before we found him.
I still took afternoon naps when we lived in the basement of someone else’s house. Before I slept, Mom read poems to me in Childcraft or articles in Reader’s Digest as she and I laid on her and Dad’s bed. This may have been when I fell in love with books and stories. That basement was also a place of sickness. Jamie and I had hard measles there, and I had scarlet fever. One night when I was sick and everyone else was asleep, I laid on the couch (perhaps I slept there every night) and watched Jane Eyre on television. Thereafter, I was terrified of the “fire woman,” as I called her.
That basement apartment was a dispiriting place. Relations between my parents and the owners who lived upstairs were tense. Because Jamie allegedly clogged the washing machine drain with a marble, my parents were forbidden to bring us into the laundry room when they fed wet, heavy clothes through the wringer. There may have been other points of friction. And, our apartment was dark. Thereafter, my mother had an aversion to basements – like the cheap, mildewy one my son and I lived in Illinois while I earned my master’s degree; my son’s bedroom when he was a teenager in Lincoln; the hospice room in Ohio where she died. “I don’t want to be in a basement,” she mumbled between doses of morphine. I turned her bed so she could see that the sliding glass door opened onto a patio; beyond that was a pond and woods. When I told her about the trees, she smiled, though I doubt that I had convinced her that the lowest floor wasn’t a basement.
Compared to the other two rentals, that on Apple Street was a clean, bright, decent place, a relief, even though my parents slept on a fold-out couch in the living room so Jamie and I could have the bedroom and supposedly, an old man had been injured or killed on the train tracks in our backyard. Shortly after we moved in, we went to a stately home on Sheridan Boulevard, even now a grand place where Lincoln’s old money lives, to buy a bed for me. While there, my mother fell in love with an antique Windsor chair and persuaded the owners to sell it as well. It may have been the first of the many antiques she would acquire. I had a sore throat and was sucking on a Luden’s cherry cough drop, a taste that I still associate with that time when I entered the most magnificent house I’d ever seen. While other people lived in our Cape Cod in a town where we had been within an hour’s drive of both sides of our family, we made do in a sparsely furnished apartment in a city where we weren’t related to anyone.
As I reflect on how unsettled and discontented my parents were during their sojourn in Lincoln, I feel such love, compassion, and sadness for them. My mother was 25 and 26, the latter, my daughter’s age. For her, the disruption and anguish of moving beckoned memories from her childhood. Because her father was an ironworker who followed the jobs in the southern Plains, he, my grandmother, and mother moved frequently, often as soon as the school year ended. Mom and Granny spent seemingly eternal summers in cities where they knew no one until school started and so filled their idle, isolated days by devouring stacks of comic books. Because my grandparents never owned property and moved frequently their entire lives, my mother craved a permanent home with ballast – several acres of land, trees she’d planted and named, jammed full closets and cupboards, hard to move antiques, walls crowded with framed photographs of her children and grandchildren, and plenty of pets (at one point, five dogs, two horses, a cat, geese, ducks, sheep, and at an earlier point, box turtles with cracked shells and wild birds with broken wings that she’d rescued).
During my parents’ Lincoln Era, my father was 28 and 29, three and four years younger than my son. After serving with the U.S. Army in Korea, Dad hoped that he’d never have to leave home again. He had simple needs: the grounding and familiarity of the place where he’d grown up and where both sides of his remarkably untraveled family lived (it was a rare Knopp or Freiberg, who left the county for anything other than military service), where he proudly worked at “the Burlington” in the Chicago, Quincy, & Burlington, where he had workbenches in the basement and garage. Back home, he fished in the Mississippi and the Skunk, so he found riverless Lincoln to be a deficient place, though for the rest of his life, he praised it for being a clean city. My father, too, was forlorn.
After my mother died in 2016, I brought home boxes of her photographs. Recently, I searched through them for images from my family’s Lincoln era. Since I have stacks of photos that my mother took of her kids with their birthday cakes or Christmas presents and at extended family gatherings, I was perplexed when I only found five. Perhaps someone else has them, or perhaps she hadn’t wanted to memorialize our time in temporary quarters. Two photos show Jamie and me doing acrobatics in the yard outside of a house with white, asbestos-cement siding, a dark gutter pipe with peeling painting, not-yet blooming tiger lilies, and the door that led to our burrow. (How my mother must have dreaded descending those steps!) Since the photos are dated May 1961, this must have been the house near the railroad shops. Two other photos were taken in front of 3525 when my aunt and uncle from Burlington visited. Jamie and I stand side by side, dressed in our Sunday best; behind us are my aunt and uncle’s brown and white Ford and the tailfins on our aquamarine car. In another photo, Dougie, the stout little rough neck from 3521, posed with us. In a wallet size photo, probably my kindergarten school picture, my blond, pixie cut hair has straight clean parts and a white barrette on the left. I wear a red and green plaid dress trimmed in white. My smile is wan or wary, or perhaps it’s wry or knowing, though the last two seem out of place on a child who’d just turned five. I remember my mother walking me to school under a railroad viaduct that is no longer there on a day when dry leaves skittered in the wind. I remember Miss Pardee reading a book to my class in which umbrellas were called “bumpershoots” (actually, “bumbershoots”), a word I loved to say. While writing this essay, I discovered that Bernice O. Pardee retired in 1971 after 22 years at Hartley Elementary. I am consoled and shaken when I find that memories of mine that are from so long ago are actually accurate.
As I feel my way back into this time, I retrieve memories of life at 3525 Apple Street that surprise me with their vividness, specificity, and metaphoric potential:
* My mother was captivated by John Glenn’s launch into space which she watched while seated on the Windsor chair directly in front of the TV. She sent the poem that she wrote about “the housewife that soared with Captain Glenn,” while leaving behind “a house in disarray” to a newspaper (Lincoln Journal Star? Burlington Hawk Eye?) that chose not to publish it. Years later, she worked the metaphor of Glenn’s moon launch into her often-told story about why she returned to college and entered a profession, a story that included a recitation of her poem. But when we lived on Apple Street, the meaning of Glenn’s orbit may have been more overt: she wanted to be launched into space where she could escape the gravitational pull of housework, childcare, isolation, boredom, and homesickness.
* After Halloween, I buried my jack-o-lantern under a pile of clothes in the living room closet, so my parents couldn’t throw him out, as they had my brother’s pumpkin. But they sniffed him out. When I saw how wizened and mold-blackened he was, I didn’t mind that Dad dumped him in the garbage.
* Above us in 3527 lived Dee and Arnie Hoffman. The 1961 city directory says that Arnold Hoffman was a typesetter. In parenthesis between his name and occupation is “Delores”; no occupation is listed for her. My mother said that Dee was a graduate student and teacher in the university’s art department; Arnie was a musician and a likeable cad. I have several memories of Dee, but two are particularly clear. Once when my mother and I went to see her, we found her still in bed. When I asked about the frightening bowl of green vomit on the floor near the bed, Mom said that Dee was sick because she was going to have a baby. In the other memory, I was sitting next to Dee on her couch as we looked at photos in one of her big art books. One was of blue mosaic tiles which reminded Dee of those in the mausoleum where her mother’s body was being kept. Dee said that her mother wasn’t in heaven with God and angels. Rather, she was dead. My family wasn’t religious, but we went to Methodist churches in Burlington and Lincoln, ripped through rote prayers before eating and sleeping, and if asked, my parents would have said that there was a God and an afterlife. But Dee was an atheist, a detail that I probably imported from stories my mother later told me, along with the uneasiness I feel about Dee’s cool aesthetic appreciation of her mother’s final resting place.
* When I wasn’t ready for sleep, I studied by the glow of my nightlight, the patterns on the double wedding ring quilt covering my bed that Great-grandma Parris had stitched. I bestowed on the print fabric squares descriptive names, perhaps my earliest search for germs of stories in what I was given. Now when I look at those worn, faded patches, I imagine the names that I might have brought forth for them when I was five: raining daisies and bumpershoots; blue kitty tic-tac-toe; rings around the rosie; candy stripe parade.
After 14 long, homesick months in Lincoln, my father took a welding job at the J. I. Case Company in Burlington, where he worked until he was rehired at the West Burlington shops, this time as a boilermaker’s apprentice. Since there were still several months remaining on our tenants’ lease, Dad lived with his mother in Burlington, while Mom, Jamie, and I lived with Mom’s parents 45 miles away in Keokuk, Iowa, during what was my grandparents’ most settled period. I finished kindergarten at Wells-Carey Elementary with Miss Bertha Paul, who had taught my mother 21 years earlier. I hated going to school, got daily stomachaches, cried for Mom and Granny, and begged to go home. At first, Miss Paul thought that the warmish bottles of milk that we kindergartners had to drink before our naps were making me sick; but eventually, everyone agreed that I was being a baby. “If she says she’s sick, we’ll just treat her like she is,” Mom told Granny, and sent me to my little bed in the room that I shared with my grandfather who read blueprints and erected steel frameworks by day and snored loudly at night. Being stuck in bed while Mom, Granny, and Jamie were having fun downstairs was still better than being away. When I was at school, I preferred painting alone at the easel over playing with other kids. I was so prolific that Granny and Paps papered a wall in their dining-laundry room with my watercolors. But sometimes Miss Paul insisted that I choose a different activity so others could have a turn at the easel. Then, I’d work a jigsaw puzzle.
I don’t know what my parents’ marriage was like during the Lincoln Era, but I know what it was like later. My mother was the center of attention, the one in the crowd that you couldn’t stop watching. Her blue eyes were large and expressive; her hair was red and curly; her body, thick and solid, despite her yo-yo dieting. She was smart, witty, and loquacious, laughed and cried easily, and danced often and with abandon. My mother said that she “wanted it all,” though that was impossible given her colliding desires. She didn’t want to be a housewife, a boilermaker’s wife, and neglected many aspects of domesticity and conventional marriage. But she loved her home and her children, and she loved to knit and cook. Throughout my childhood, I have clear memories of her culinary creations, both foods that I loved (iced butterhorn rolls, sweet, limp bread and butter pickles, creamed chipped beef on homemade biscuits, fudge, corn fritters dipped in syrup, fried potato cakes, and her specialty: fruit and cream pies, the latter tall with meringue), as well as those that I didn’t (goulash, pot roast, ham and beans, beef stew, chili). But I don’t remember anything that she cooked during our Lincoln Era. When she was 30, the year in which her third child was born and she kept the medical records at a hospital, my mother entered college so that instead of chasing defiant dust bunnies, she could soar with Captain Glenn. Being a biology teacher suited her: the classroom was her stage; her audience adored her, which made our family rather famous in Burlington. In contrast, my father was quietly, dutifully there. He spent the rest of his working days as a boilermaker at the West Burlington shops. After work, he grocery shopped, vacuumed, swept, did laundry, cut grass, paid bills, tended the animals, followed shifts in the weather, and tried to ignore his wife’s infidelities. He demanded little and got little in return.
About a year or so before she died, my mother and I were chatting about the ways in which the least desirable aspects of my personality – a tendency to be moody, too critical of myself and others, and skeptical of my own power – work against me. She mentioned something, not really to me but as if she were musing out loud, that puzzled me. She said that when we moved to Lincoln, I was a happy, carefree, confident child. But when we returned to Burlington in time for me to enter first grade, I had become the type of person that I am now. Did something happen to me in Lincoln, I asked? Or was it in Keokuk? My mother didn’t know, didn’t even have a theory. I’ve speculated causes, but it feels careless, dangerous, even, like I might be creating or beckoning something that I won’t want to live with but that once unloosed, would be impossible to contain. Since I’d rather live with a gap than with something unbearable and uncontainable, something that might be false or do harm to another, I back off.
I don’t feel this degree of melancholy about other times and places from my childhood or that something essential is missing from the stories I tell or silently carry about them. Nor do my memories of other times arouse such compassion in me for my parents, even though there were periods that were marked by silences and estrangements, betrayals and abandonments, as well as acceptance and harmony. My parents, ordinary flawed people with their own wants and needs, did their best given the dislocations, the financial pressures, and the mismatches in their marriage. I hoped that by writing about my family’s Lincoln Era, I would uncover the cause for the shift in me that my mother alluded to. Yet, my probe of this period and the few months that we lived in Keokuk hasn’t revealed even a shadow of an inciting event. Might I have become this person even if my father had never gotten laid off by the most desirable employer in our hometown and had to leave his home and widowed mother for a place that could never be home? Might I have become this person even if my mother never had to exchange her first real home, the one with chandeliers in the living and dining rooms, her secretarial job, the women she met with to play bridge and discus the fat novels they read, and her family nearby for rented rooms where she was cooped up, bored, and broke? Or was the inciting incident simply this: my parents were unhappy, and because I loved and depended on them, that touched me deeply?
There is one living who can answer my questions. Yet the emotions I feel as I write and that cling to me even when I’m not directly working on this essay offer clues. Psychologists tell us that when we store memories, we store both the event (receiving the hoped-for typewriter for Christmas) and our mood at the time of the event (delight). But the type of mood we experience affects which memories we can access. We more easily and reliably recall a memory when the mood within that memory matches our mood at the time of recall than when there’s a mismatch. So it’s easier to remember details about the events surrounding an expected and desired invitation that never arrived and our subsequent devastation when we are sad than happy. Mood congruent recall, it’s called. Likewise, we more easily and reliably bring forth memories when our mood at the time of retrieval matches our mood at the time when the memory was stored, regardless of the content of the latter. I remember coming home from middle school to find my mother waiting for me on the front porch wearing her new glasses. While the content of this memory is neutral and seems insignificant, it arrives packed in pleasure and contentment, though I don’t know why. (Was I delighted to find my mother at home waiting for me when usually I came home to an empty house? Had I had a really good day at school?) And so, I’m more likely to retrieve it when I’m happy than sad. Mood or mood state dependent recall, it’s called.
When I reenter that long ago time, memories arise that I didn’t know I had. Perhaps so few of them are happy because of what I feel now: sorrow over the recent death of my mother and the more distant death of my father; sadness and bitterness about the divisions between my brothers and me over matters related to the settling of my mother’s estate and the revelation of the identity of one brother’s biological father, a secret that I’d held for too long. Also contributing to my melancholy are my ruminations about whether, after I retire, I should remain in this hometown, where I have good friends but just wisps of family history, or return to my first hometown, where I have few present-day connections but thick layers of family history and plenty of ghosts, some of which are quite pleasant to encounter, others less so. How I envy those who have both of aspects of home in one place and don’t have to choose which they’ll do without.
But there is another reason why I remember what I do. Psychologist Martin A. Conway says that one of the important functions of what he calls the “working” or “conceptual” self, is making more accessible memories of experiences that are in harmony with one’s current goals, self-image, and beliefs, while making less accessible memories of experiences that threaten, contradict, or undermine the coherence of one’s “self-system” or that would require substantial changes in it if those memories were to be accommodated. This process is one of the reasons why we remember some moments in our past with clarity and detail while others are hazy or accompanied by the disquieting sense that we’ve forgotten something essential. So, when I remember myself at four and five, I am a younger version of the angsty, self-doubting person that I am now rather than the easygoing, self-assured child that my mother described, since I prefer seeing my personality as constant rather than changed for a reason or reasons I don’t know.
I don’t mind gaps, surmises, or uncertainties in the autobiographical stories others tell if the teller acknowledges them. In Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, Amy Tan explains that at age 65, and without conscious choice on her part, “my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.” While writing her memoir, Tan was aware that much of what she thinks she remembers “is inaccurate, guessed at, or biased by experiences that came later.” If she were to write the same book years later, she’d describe some events differently, “either because of a change of perspective or worsening memory – or even because new evidence has come to light.” The latter occurred when Tan’s mother told her about the guilt that her late father felt for having loved a married woman. Such a revelation calls into question one’s long-held perceptions of one’s family.
Tan, the author of The Joy Luck Club and other novels, sees striking similarities between fiction writing and an aging memory, in that both are “impressionistic and selective in details.” Her “fictional mind” required that while writing her memoir, she let go of “logic, assumptions, rationale, and conscious memory.” Rather than “sticking to what really happened,” she embraced “whatever [came] to mind” and was guided by her intuition as she created her story. And yet, while examining photos, letters, and other artifacts, Tan was gratified to learn that many of her childhood memories were largely accurate and in many cases, returned to her in full. Because Tan is frank about the gaps in her story and how she fills them, I am sympathetic of her methods of reconciling her memories and the facts with her conceptual self.
But when the teller neither acknowledges nor explains her omissions, I feel excluded or deceived. In The Gastronomical Me, written shortly after the deaths of M. F. K. Fisher’s second husband and love of her life, Dillwyn Parrish, and her brother, David, Fisher withholds consequential details about the suicides of both men. As much as I love Fisher’s fresh, insightful reflections, sumptuous prose, and zesty spirit, I am frustrated by these gaps. In Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M. F. K. Fisher, Joan Reardon explains the conspicuous omissions of details about Dillwyn’s and David’s deaths in The Gastronomical Me by quoting from Fisher’s journal about this devastating time: “There are too many things that I cannot write yet. They’re in words in my head, but I am afraid of writing them. It is as if they might make a little crack in me and let out some of all the howling, hideous, frightful grief. It is difficult to know, certainly, how to live at all.” How much more trustworthy Fisher’s memoir-in-essays would be had she acknowledged that she wasn’t yet ready to open her wounds and tell the whole story. But instead, she withholds.
I won’t fictionalize to fill the holes in the story I tell about the first time I lived in Lincoln. Nor will I ignore them – if I’m aware of them. But I will speculate about what my feelings reveal as I walk past 3525 Apple Street. I am sad about my parents’ circumstances and even sadder about their having left Lincoln. Because they were deeply unhappy, longed to flee, and finally did from the place that has been my home for almost thirty years, I feel betrayed and abandoned — an illogical, childish response, since they couldn’t have known that one day, I’d settle in the place of their exile. But feelings aren’t rational. Theirs is a different type of truth.
My mother, who craved hilly, wooded landscapes beneath smaller skies, never understood my commitment to this flatter, drier prairie place. “Why on earth would you want to live in Nebraska?” This from a woman who built her retirement home in rural Ohio. In truth, there are many places that I find more desirable than a riverless city on the Great Plains. But surely, my family’s early interlude here influenced my decision to settle in this place far from my hometown and birth family. Perhaps I returned to Lincoln because I hadn’t yet integrated that slim chapter about the time when my parents and brother also lived here into the story I was constructing of my life. Or perhaps I found a welcome measure of continuity in knowing that I have at least a trace of family history in this place, even if it isn’t a comforting or grounding one.
The practical reason why I settled here is that the only doctoral program that I applied for in 1988 and that offered me a teaching assistantship and tuition remission was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Once in Lincoln, marriage and children more deeply and firmly attached me to this place than I realized. After I divorced, I took a good job in Illinois, where I experienced the anguish of living in a place that wasn’t home. Three homesick years later, I returned to the place that was foreign, hostile soil to my parents. Now, I have weighty reasons for staying: diverse friendships; a dynamic church; a son who lives nearby; a faraway daughter who “comes home” to this place; a house that I love; a job that is too good to leave, especially at my age. Or perhaps I chose this place over all others based on what rarely results in a sound decision: an act of rebellion. I am here because my parents found it to be an alien and antagonistic place. I have proven them wrong.
When I walk the MoPac Trail, I can’t see the back of 3525 Apple Street, because of a new rental complex near the trail. But when I walk on the street, I see our former residence clearly. For a long time, I only glanced at it and let the memories it beckoned pass quickly. But now when I look, I muse upon what the girl who lived there long ago has to do with the woman walking past. Sometimes, I glimpse my beautiful, spirited mother stepping out the kitchen door to hang wet clothes on the lines or to shake the dust mop with a vengeance. Or I see my handsome, stolid father sitting on the front step smoking a cigarette as Jamie and I pedal past on our tricycles. I watch us on payday tote bags of groceries from Hinky Dinky into the place that wasn’t home, while my mother playfully sang what I now know is a risqué, World War I drinking song, “Hinky Dinky Parley Voo.” These images move me beyond words. I want to embrace and assure each of us that all will be well, and for the most part, it will be. But sometimes, I see us carrying boxes, suitcases, my bed, the crib, couch, quilt, TV, and Windsor chair from 3525 Apple, fit them into the rental truck and our aquamarine car, and lock the apartment door for the last time. My father returns to double check the lock as he would with any door that he locked for the rest of his life. I want to call out and ask us to stay. But I know not to interrupt. At that moment we are happy and hopeful. Finally, we’re going where we’d rather be.
Conway, Martin A. “Memory and Self.” Journal of Memory and Language 53 (2005): 594-628.
Fisher, M. F. K. Gastronomical Me. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989 (originally published in 1943).
Tan, Amy. Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. New York: Ecco Press, 2017.