Memory is a funny thing. It is not, strictly, accountable.
Memory is evocative. It calls up emotions. When gripped by clear and distinct memories, we may easily grasp the emotions they inspire. We may re-live the feelings we felt at the time.
But when we revisit early childhood—fragmentary scenes, half remembered and half dreamed—we may feel vague longings which have no substance but a mysterious and compelling flavor.
Reeling In the Years
Last week, on May 20, my mother would have been 101 years old. She only made it to 74, so she’s lived only inside me these past 27 years. My memories of Mom are mostly concrete and specific. Thinking of her, I re-live my feelings from the midst of life with her.
But now I’m thinking of Georgia McCune, Mom’s best friend from high school. Georgia married a man named Woody Wilson, a few years older. His parents, the Wilsons, had chosen to name him Woodrow. So that gives you an idea when he was born.
Mom lived in Knoxville, a village of two thousand souls in West-central Illinois. Georgia was from East Galesburg. East Galesburg is more like a suburb of Knoxville than of Galesburg—except that East Galesburg couldn’t possibly be a suburb or any kind of “urb.” Even now, it barely forms a hamlet. In those days it was but a few houses along a gravel road.
I do remember the house Georgia McCune’s parents lived in—because we visited there often. But the memory is blurry. I must have been three or four years old.
Theirs was the last or nearly the last house. The road sloped down to a cattail-fringed lake. The lake is no longer there; I checked on Google Earth. But it was an ill-omened lake anyhow, Georgia’s older brother having died there. He dived in headfirst, struck a submerged rock or a shallow bottom, broke his neck, and drowned. This was told to me as an object lesson.
To this day, in all things, I look before I leap.
I do recall walking down to the lake once with Mr. McCune, Georgia’s father. He took out his pocket knife and carved me a whistle from a willow branch. He cut a notch and slid the bark off the willow. I have forgotten exactly how it was done, but it turns out you can find anything on YouTube.
I must have been five or six when Mr. McCune made me that whistle, else I would not remember it so clearly.
But I remember more vaguely once, or perhaps more than once, when I was younger, attending a picnic at the McCunes’. They had a large patio, probably paved with brick or stone, beside their house. There were wood tables and a large brick barbecue. The whole side yard was canopied o’er with two or three giant weeping willows, their branches trimmed just enough to cast a splendid aura over the whole scene.
It turned dark as we ate. But the darkness and the end of supper did not extinguish the evening. Somebody—one of the picnickers, or perhaps a neighbor—had a small pack of hounds. They treed a coon down near the lake. I recall watching and hearing the hounds baying at the treed coon. I do not recall any guns, shooting, or a dead raccoon. Maybe it was not a real hunt, just an exhibition of the dogs.
Later that night, or maybe on another, similar night, Mister McCune took a few of us—men and boys—down the railroad line to see something or other on the tracks. He may have been a Santa Fe Railroad employee—a switchman or yard hand. I recall he lit a red signal lantern and escorted us from the gravel road to the tracks, where we looked at some train cars. Why we did so remains a mystery.
The cars may have been parked on a siding for the brickyard. East Galesburg’s only industry was Purington Bricks. Purington Pavers were famous throughout the Midwest and beyond for their deep purple color and their adamant composition. Some streets in small towns are paved with Purington bricks to this day, long after the brickyard has fallen silent.
The silent brickyard has been overrun with woods. If you know just where to look, you may see a ruined smokestack poking above the trees. That’s about it.
What does this all mean?
That’s just it, Dear Reader. I don’t know.
Perhaps if I did, it would not call me back so. Its meaning would be too plain for further query.
But as things stand, this reverie of summer evenings in East Galesburg is just a near-fantasy—a wisp of truth at its heart, and a swirl of nostalgia surrounding it.
I don’t even know why I thought you might like to hear about it.
Perhaps there is something like this lodged stubbornly in your own memory, Gentle Reader. Some fragment of a long-lost world. Something you don’t understand now because you had not reached an age of understanding then.
Take my advice. Don’t interrogate it too hard. It won’t stand up under questioning.
Just bathe in it for a time.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer