Arkansas and the Vagaries of Memory
A Snort of Derision
My sister and I have worked out a division of labor, as far as childhood memories. I ask questions, and she provides answers. It’s assumed that she remembers it all correctly. But recently, as we were talking about our Arkansas memories, I made an assertion about the past that generated an actual snort of derision from her.
Let me explain.
In March of 1971, we moved to Arkansas so my dad could begin his career in the Forest Service. Booneville is up in the northwestern corner of the state, in a region that’s below sea level. I think. This is what I was told and I’ve never done any research to back it up. The hot soup of humidity we swam through was evidence enough for me.
It certainly felt like we were living underwater.
On arrival, we stayed in a motel; three kids in one room, my parents in another. I was just barely 11, my sister was 13, and my brother was 16. It was too hot to breathe without air conditioning, so we kids stayed in our dingy little motel room and started fights with each other while Mom and Dad went out each day to try to find us a place to live.
They couldn’t find one. That same spring, a small toy factory had opened, and it lured in workers from around the state. All the rentals had been taken.
We were used to moving at that point, I guess, but we’d always moved from one house to another house. Motels were never involved. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a motel in Booneville, Arkansas, pop. 3200 or something like that.
My parents were desperate.
They finally drove us all out to see a tattered little farm in the country with a house on it: a one-story six-room rectangle that had sat empty for quite a while. It appeared to be right on the verge of falling over. There was no obvious sign of vandalism, but it was filthy. There was (biggish) poop in the kitchen sink, and invasive greenery growing around the window frames and into the rooms.
Six rooms, no hallway. This is not the house, but it reminds me of the house. Good times.
To give you an idea of how desperate my parents were to get out of that motel, they rented this place. They rented it despite the fact that it was miles out of town on a red dirt road. They rented it despite the rotting outbuildings that included an outhouse. And, most importantly, they rented this dump despite the fact that in just a few short months, they’d be welcoming a newborn baby.
The rent was delivered, the keys were ours, and we all pitched in to make the place habitable. Understand, my parents could transform anywhere into a home. Even this place. They weren’t ever going to buy it, so this was basically just a cover up job. Paint over the peeling plaster, lay down indoor/outdoor carpet in the kitchen and bathroom, deep-clean the linoleum floors in the rest of the house. What couldn’t be painted was papered. Somehow, they made this leaning, crumbling little wreck of a house into a place we could live.
Even though that house was tiny and terrible, I found interesting things to consider about it. I was fascinated by the idea of a home with no hallway. If you came in via the back door, you entered the kitchen and began your circuit. Counter clockwise, it went: kitchen to bathroom to first bedroom to second bedroom room to living room to dining room and back into the kitchen. Or you could go clockwise and go kitchen, dining room, living room, second bedroom, first bedroom, bathroom, kitchen.
And if you’re a kid, which I was, you can’t wait to make the circuit while running, even though running in the house was verboten.
The farm itself held places of additonal interest. There were the outbuildings, which we were forbidden to enter. I explored them at length. One shed was full of empty moonshine bottles and wasps’ nests. I picked up a lot of bottles in there, and kicked my way through rotten hay in a tiny building that was possibly a barn, and I avoided the outhouse.
There was a stock pond that I was forbidden to go near. I picked my way to it through fields of ancient cow pies, to stand at the bank and consider wading in. Those cow pies made me squeamish about what the bottom might be like. There was a clear creek, where I spent hours watching water bugs skate on its surface, and trying cross it by walking on fallen logs. It was shallow and swift. I could walk across it without getting very wet, but those logs were always beckoning me. I fell into that creek a lot, that first summer.
The photo below is not that creek, but it’s how I remember it.
We also had neighbors.
It was these neighbors my sister and I were discussing the other day. We were remembering how, during a visit from her Minneapolis friend, Salle, we climbed out our bedroom window and walked across acres of pasture to a neighboring farm, where we picked up our friend Deena (who had also climbed out her bedroom window) to join us for a terrifying midnight walk.
I’ll save the full story of the midnight walk for another time, but my sister started talking about Deena’s family. “God, they were trashy,” she said. “Just utter trash. They had those milk cows, and they’d get into skunkweed, and I remember sitting at their table during dinner, dreading when I’d have to drink that horrible milk.”
I was puzzled. Yes, that milk was awful, but I remembered this family very differently. I started talking about what I remembered, like how their ranch house had three levels and two hallways, and a dining room where we were periodically invited for glasses of icky fresh milk. Their barn was huge, and full of cows. I watched the kids milk those cows and strain the buckets into big milk containers, to get the flies out. And there were horses, because the kids all rode.
And swimming! “They had that lake,” I said to my sister. “Don’t you remember that private lake they had?” It was small, and Arkansas green, but that water was cool enough to make the heat bearable.
I described the six kids; two (now nameless) older teenage boys who struck me as impossibly alluring and breathtaking. They barely said a word to us, but when they did, it was indulgent and kind. Deena, at age thirteen, had long dark hair and a perfect figure, though her legs were a little bowed because these kids were always on horseback.
Those were the original kids, and then there were three adopted kids; Stacey, Mark, and Donna. Stacey was 12, Mark was 11, and Donna was somewhere between eight and ten (too young to hang out with us). They were nice-looking kids on the cusp of looking like whatever they were going to look like; a trio of siblings who had found a home with our neighbors.
I remember the boys explaining that they’d been adopted fairly recently. We’d also been adopted recently by my mom’s third husband, but our mother had forbidden us to tell anyone. Mom didn’t need to put the fear of God into us about it. I never mentioned being adopted, not because Mom wanted it that way, but because I was ashamed. The pride that my new father wanted me was overshadowed by the fact that my other father hadn’t. I’d been given away, which left me feeling unwanted, defective, and deeply ashamed.
And here were these boys, proudly talking about how they’d been able to choose new names as part of their adoption.
I try again.
I reminded my sister of all this. Well, I didn’t mention that shame part, because I assume she carries as much lifelong trauma as I do, but I did remind her about the neighbor kids picking out new names.
“And do you remember that even though we lived on neighboring farms, they went to school in some other town?” I asked her. “And in that town, wherever it was, the mom had a clothing store that she called ‘The DeenaDonna Boutique’? Don’t you remember that?”
“Oh my God, the DeenaDonna Boutique. I do remember.” My sister stopped laughing, and went a little quiet. “You remember more than I do,” she said. “That’s not how it usually is. I’m the one who usually…”
I interrupted her, “Of course I remember them. Stacey was my first boyfriend.”
My sister let out that previously mentioned snort of derision. “He was not your first boyfriend!”
“He sure was. Don’t you remember? I liked Mark at first, but Stacey was the one who asked me to be his girlfriend.” I went on to describe how that summer, Stacey and I would tie up the party line. Irritated older women would pick up and scold us to get off the phone.
My sister seemed to remember most of these details, but she still searched her memory for the idea that I’d had a boyfriend. She brought up the horses. “We rode horses with them all the time. You and I rode on the back, behind Deena.” Her voice was trailing off at this point. I could feel her remembering.
“No, you rode behind Deena, and I rode behind Mark or Stacey. Remember when I was alone on Mark’s horse, and it started for the barn and I slid right off the back?” He’d gotten down and left me sitting behind the saddle, and I couldn’t reach the reins and didn’t know to grab the saddle horn. I was so afraid of horses after that, and I still am. “And don’t you remember that Stacey would ride over on his horse, and we’d ride out together, just him and me?”
I could hear her voice change, as those memories were resurrected from wherever they’d been hiding. No one in the family could forget my falling off that horse. “Maybe they weren’t as trashy as I remember,” she said.
I don’t think they were trashy at all.
For me and Stacey, that was the extent of our young romance; a summer of swimming, horseback rides, and tying up the party line with awkward, giggling phone calls. We never so much as held hands. It was pretty perfect. When school started, I stopped hearing from him. He probably found a new girlfriend at his school in whichever little town that was.
Later that school year, we moved out of the farm and into Booneville proper, where we crammed the six of us into another absolutely stupid living set up. I’ll save that for another time. I had a new boyfriend that year, and another after that, but I’ll save those boys for another time, too.
For now, I just want to talk about yesterday, when my sister finally accepted that in this case, my memories were correct: My first boyfriend, at age 12, was a boy named Stacey, who lived on a neighboring farm with three brothers and two sisters. His father ran that farm, and his mother owned a clothing store. Their home was large enough to hold six kids. Their barn was huge and full of valuable livestock. They had five farm dogs, chickens, a private lake, and more wonders than I probably knew, because I was eleven years old and didn’t pay attention to campers and boats and the like.
My sister, who was my daily companion on that farm, didn’t remember Stacey or anything else about our neighbors besides their stinky milk. I think it was that milk that made her remember this family as trashy, even though at the time, they lived like they lived, while our family of six rented a decrepit two-bedroom farmhouse where my parents slept in the dining room with our new baby brother.
Memory is a strange, strange thing. I’m glad that between the two of us, my sister and I can patch together our shared past. But it definitely takes the both of us to sort through and figure out what really happened.