The summer of 2004 was a great time in my life. I was 27 years old and single. Interestingly, an acute and intense breakup had opened up a new phase in my life full of beauty, promise and hope. It was a strange dichotomy. My best friend was living in California that summer and ended up house-sitting for a few weeks in Malibu. An entire house to herself, complete with a pool and ocean views. Obviously I came and we partied like the single Mormon girls we were. Which is to say, with a lot of dancing, talking and chocolate. I came the week before the 4th of July. I had plans to fly back to Utah and then drive 8 hours to western Nebraska to spend the 4th of July with my Grandparents. However, my friend was planning a big 4th of July party at the Malibu pad with a bunch of old friends from college who would bring their friends. Many of them were attractive young men I knew or wanted to know. I wanted to stay. Badly. Malibu. Huge house. Pool. Party. Guys. Fun. Music. Dancing. I contemplated how I could make this happen... surely my grandparents would understand if I cancelled last minute. I could drive out another long weekend. They certainly weren't going anywhere. Nebraska or Malibu? The choice should have been easy.
Nebraska. For most Americans I imagine that name conjures images of cornfields, flat barren landscape, hicks, and just someplace in the middle where nothing important ever happens. For me Nebraska is a romantic place of peace, tranquility and golden childhood memories. As a child it was simple, quiet and beautiful. If I had to describe Nebraska in a word it would be safe. Not a boring, negative, limit yourself kind of safe. But a comforting, warm, secure kind of safe. The kind of safe that invites you to stretch your wings and explore your world, which was an especially important part of my childhood. It was walking out the front door without telling anyone where I was going or when I'd be back. It was sitting around the kitchen table every night to a home cooked meal, often times being sent out to the large garden to pick some fresh vegetables for that evening's meal. It was walking to school--7 blocks mind you--by myself in kindergarten. (I went to the same Elementary school as my mom--in fact, my brother had the same 4th grade teacher as our mom... for crying out loud). It was riding my bike all over town--to the pool or the bakery or my grandpa's optometry office where I'd sit and play games with my Aunt Connie who happened to be my grandpa's assistant and receptionist. It was walking a block from my grandpa's office to visit the floral shop that two of my other aunts co-owned.
my grandparents house in Gering, Nebraska
It's no wonder I thought I lived in the 1950's. In all seriousness I was confused about that point until I was a bit older. My grandparents' house was a great place for a kid to grow up. Surrounded by a big lawn, trees and a healthy garden in both size and content. Not only that, but my other grandparents lived on a beautiful farm just outside of town and we spent many wonderful days there as well. As I'm racking my brain for stories and memories, it's the snippets that come to me most often. My grandma hanging sheets on the clothesline out back. The simple but adequate set of red monkey bars that I must have played on for hours on end. My grandpa watching The Wheel of Fortune every day after work. Kickball in the side yard. My uncle and grandpa pulling us through the snow on a sled hitched to the back of his old Scout. Going to my other grandparents large farmhouse and always waking up to a double chocolate dream of Cocoa Pebbles and hot cocoa. Playing with the the 10+ dogs on the farm or jumping off the large hay stack. As I look back the whole thing had a very "Wonder Years" feel to it, which is probably one reason I loved that show fiercely.
Personally I find the landscape to be really quite lovely. In fact, many of my paintings are landscapes of Nebraska. Perhaps it's because my Nebraska roots run deep as 3 of my 4 parents (step-parents included) were raised in that region of Western Nebraska and I lived there from ages 4-10, but I have always found farm land particularly beautiful. Although I was born in Utah, my mom moved herself, my brother and I back to Nebraska when I was only 4 years. My parents had already divorced and she was having a hard time making ends meet. I still remember driving in the middle of the night to get to Nebraska. I know now that I had no idea this was going to be a permanent move, but life can just be confusing as a kid. As an adult I completely understand why my mom moved us back to her hometown, under the protective shelter of her parents' roof. And the truth is, I'll be forever grateful she did. I often refer to those years as the golden years of my childhood. I'm also grateful we moved to Denver a few years later as that was the best place for my adolescence. But nothing could ever take the place of those early Nebraska years.
One of the reasons my grandparents wanted me to come out for the 4th of July so badly was that my grandpa had suffered a stroke months before. It was a minor stroke and initially while he was in the hospital doing physical therapy we expected a full recovery. But then he stopped progressing and because of that, so did the therapy. It took a while to sink in, but eventually we knew he was never going back home. Thankfully, he was in a nursing home that was very close to their house. So close we could push him home in his wheel chair. But it was a nursing home just the same. I was now in a position to do something for them, for the people who had done so much for me my entire life. I wasn't doing anything grand or extravagant--their request was simple. Just come. Be present. While it wasn't actually said, I think they hoped my presence would help still the shifting ground of this new reality by just being there. No matter which way I sliced it I could not, would not stay in Malibu that weekend. I think it was the first time I ever really felt that my grandparents needed me and I couldn't let them down. There was something so poignant about that drive and that visit. I think I had only made the drive by myself one other time. I was usually the daughter, the little sister, the passenger. Making this drive on my own was symbolic of my status in the family shifting from one of the younger needy ones, to someone older, more responsible and able to give.
Nebraska farm road 2004
That weekend was one of the better choices I've ever made.
I will always love Nebraska.
So you can imagine what a pleasure it was taking my own family--my girls--there last week to get a taste of my childhood Nebraska family vacation recap coming soon.