Returning here takes a toll on me.
It was a thousand times easier when I was younger – it was something I looked forward to each moment I had to spare a daydream. Now, it is still something I look forward to, but in a far more somber way.
I’m only 21, so if you are gathering that the extended traveling is what weighs me down, you’d be wrong. Although I’m more prone to fatigue in warmer climates, the memories and accompanying stories of everything here is what exhausts me, or at least my mind the most quickly.
Despite my one or two-week stints here every other year, I somehow believe many of the integral parts of my childhood manifested in this place. It is sometimes odd to think that here, essentially in the middle of the “sticks” has impressed me as much as it has. This place and all the moments I’ve carried with me from this place has become the subject of many a poem and prose, and the setting to many frontier/prairie-type books I illustrated in my mind as I read.
This is where I was applauded for losing some of my last few baby teeth. The north pasture is where the cousins built teepees out of dead branches and fall leaves (long before iPads and the like became the chosen way to pass time). I caught my first fish in the riverbed somewhere past the Mark Twain National Forest. I’d driven there too, in the Dodge pickup truck I’d had my first driving lesson in.
It all comes back to haunt me when I am away, but even more so when I’m not. Everything I store is kept in a mental suitcase of sorts – each item I add I’m afraid will make the suitcase more likely to burst open when I try closing it again.
Perhaps I’m afraid of forgetting anything, so I subconsciously “pack” everything. I suppose this is both literal and figurative.
I felt him slip two crisp five dollar bills into my seven-year-old palm before we left for the airport that morning.
“What’s this, Grandpa?”
“You and your sister have worked hard around here,” he said matter-of-factly.
**”You know I’ll never spend these, right? Never.”
Those two bills I have stored in my desk drawer to this day. I also still have a tube of chapstick he gave me during the winter of 2008 I have not yet parted with.
Every sight, every smell, tree stump and picture frame I can’t seem to let go. I memorize where picture frames are placed and which ones have moved to another part of the wall during the time I’ve been absent and was unable to keep record of.
Photographs of the grandkids are replaced at each of their annual milestones – baby portraits turn to grade school picture day shots, which turn to high school prom poses and ultimately become grad school graduation or “It’s a Girl!” announcements.
Likewise the photos of estranged or otherwise missing members of the family tree change their leaves.
Two are constant, however.
Front and center is the grandparents’ wedding day portrait. A simple black dress suit for her and a U.S. Air Force uniform for him – something tells me a quiet City Hall ceremony was as good as a full-fledged wedding party for them. I quite like that thought.
The other is also a black-and-white portrait. It’s of a young, bespectacled woman, circa 1930-something, whose identity was always unknown to me until recently.
“Who is she, Grandpa?”
**”What happened after you and your brothers and sisters were separated after she died? Do you suppose she would she have liked me?”
The horses have since dwindled in numbers – over the years, two were sold at an auction and three succumbed to old age. These days, I converse partly to myself and partly to the five remaining ‘stangs, attempting to match my heartbeat to one of theirs and secretly try to predict which one’s will have stopped by this time next year.
“Soft as velvet,” Grandpa remarked, moving my hand towards the mare’s nose.
**”What was the war like, back before you bought the horses?”
I’d like to think the fact that my dad never had any sons was not lost on him – we’d had proper introductory courses in marksmanship (target practice only), wood chopping, tractor driving and similar stereotypical activities you hear in an overplayed country song.
Breaking in a horse had been an occasional pastime – or at least watching Grandpa break in one. We’d seen our grandpa fall off and accidentally be kicked by certain spirited horses, but something called a “stroke” had put an indefinite end to his horse training days.
As part of his physical therapy, he walked to and from the mailbox each day, all the way across the grazing field and back to the house.
**”How about us go for a walk Grandpa, you and I?”
I’ve learned how to remember and remember WELL. I never wanted to incorrectly recall the beginning book pages because I was too engaged in the following chapters. Passing time and distance naturally make consistency difficult for the times I am here. But declining health and advancing age make it near impossible.
Dad handed me the phone.
“It’s your grandpa.”
I heard a few coughs over the receiver before Grandpa greeted:
“Well hello there!”
“Hi Grandpa,” I replied shyly, “How are you?”
“Oh fine, just fine,” he uttered slowly. “Just waiting for you to come visit.”
A comfortable, familiar silence ensued.
“Better let me talk to your sister Suzy, then,” he offered.
“You mean Cee-Cee?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s who I meant.”
**”How old am I, Grandpa? Do you remember how old I’ll be in August?”
I have seen three generations of mutts bred here, one of which I lovingly dubbed “Nana” at age seven. As faithful as she was fat, she too become stored in my trove of memories when she died twelve years later.
Of course most animals have shorter life spans than humans. I learned this quickly, and learned to be less mournful at the death of a cat, rat or pup.
But humans aren’t immortal either.
We dropped our suitcases in the kitchen. In the corner, an unfamiliar hum from an oxygen tank filled the room. The tubes from the machine trailed from the kitchen in two directions: One went down the hallway towards the bedrooms and bathroom while the other snaked its way through the sitting room to Grandpa’s recliner where he was currently sitting.
“Why do you have those tubes, Grandpa?” I wanted to ask, knowing perfectly well why.
**”How long will you need them for?”
I heard Grandma talking about putting down one of the old horses before Christmas at dinner tonight. He’s getting too old and his ribs are starting to show, she said. I’ll have to remind myself to stroke his mane before I leave again and before he does too, for good.
I think I’m a vulture. In a way, at least. I collect up the remains of whatever moments I feel are worth scavenging to sustain my need to hold on, hold on, hold on. I’m not sorry I stupidly tried to stow a jack knife into my luggage several years ago, simply because Grandpa had shown me how to cut open a bale of hay with it.
The veins in his hands are more pronounced. Like road maps showing where a journey was taken, the red and blue lines whisper musings of where the man now of very few words once traveled.
He commented on my long fingers, which are oddly disproportionate to my short stature.
**”Do you remember the jack knife?”
I smiled politely and went to retrieve something from my suitcase and unknowingly put something else into my “other” one.
**”How about us go for a walk, you and I?”
**Things I never asked