Thursday, June 23, 2016

Return to Nebraska resurrects special vacation memories

In December 1935, my father left depression-ravaged Nebraska to join the Navy for three square meals, a paycheck to send back to his mother and a chance to see the world beyond the flat prairie where he had lived all his life.

During his many years in the Navy my father saw a lot of that world.  And then, like millions of other war-weary vets after World War II, he and my mother headed for California, the land of opportunity.

However, as he was a dutiful son, we returned to Nebraska every summer to visit his family.
The trips we took required that we cross the desert in the blazing heat of summer — in the days before air conditioning was standard in cars. I remember my dad installing this weird metal contraption that hung on the outside of my mother's window. It was allegedly an "air cooler," however, if memory serves me correctly, it just ended up blowing hot air everywhere. I still have memories of sitting in the back of a 1956 Chevy for hours with my two sisters, jockeying to avoid the hump in the middle of the backseat floor and my mother's dog drooling on us.

In those days, there were no interstates. Instead, country roads and highways led us through the small towns and farms.   The towns were so small that myy sisters and I would chant, "We're in, we're out!" as we motored through towns that were only a few short blocks.  

As with every trip, our final destination was my grandmother's house in Lincoln, which is on the eastern side of the state. It seemed as if almost every city along the Platte River, in fact the entire width of Nebraska, had one of my father's aunts. We visited all of them. And no matter what time we pulled up to their modest homes, we would find them dressed in their Sunday best, chicken and mashed potatoes on the stove, ready to feed us.

The culmination of our trip was arriving at my grandmother's house. She lived in a big, roomy place close to the University of Nebraska. My cousins also lived in Lincoln, and we spent our time catching lightning bugs and eating ice cream. We would munch on my aunt's famous German potato salad, runzas (hamburger and sauerkraut wrapped in bread dough) and German chocolate cake. I didn't like coconut, so whenever she wasn't looking, I would scrape off the frosting. I'd kill for that recipe now that she's gone.

The last time I went to Nebraska as a kid I was about 17. My parents uncharacteristically bagged the usual trip back and went to Europe, leaving me in the care of my aging grandmother. Unfortunately for both of us, I had just fallen madly in love — a summer romance that I thought would last forever! (It didn't.) Needless to say, I was considerably less than pleased to be shipped off to Nebraska in the midst of all this.

What could have been priceless time with my grandmother, instead was two weeks of excruciating phone calls to my boyfriend and a really bad attitude on my part. Little did I know that the years would roll quickly by and that my grandmother would die before I realized what a treasure she was.
This past Fourth of July I returned to Nebraska. Before I left, I thought little will have changed since my childhood. But things were different. I was told that my grandmother's house, belonging to someone else now, is in poor repair.

My parents weren't there with me — my mother has Alzheimer's and doesn't even know who I am, and my father's been dead and very much missed for more almost 40 years. My cousin and I are now in our early 60's.   I doubt if she's up for catching fireflies now.  Regardless, I can still remember the sound the wind makes as it drifts through the corn fields and the smell alfalfa in the air, all these years later....

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