My father sits in the passenger seat of my sister Sue’s Explorer while I bounce on the seat behind the two of them, ever the baby in the back. He balances his hat on his left knee and looks out at the Sacramento Valley, humming the same tune he’s hummed for decades. My siblings and I decided long ago that it sounds like Santa Lucia, an old boatman’s song best rendered by squeeze box, but after years of straining to pin down the notes we’re still not sure. It’s in the high nineties outside. The windows are closed to keep out the heat and whatever the cropdusters are spraying. I can see my father’s reflection in the miles of valley crops we’re driving through, sometimes in the luminous green of the rice fields, sometimes in the listless rows of corn. His hair is now concentrated in two white puffs on either side of his head but his jaw is square, his nose straight with flying-buttress nostrils, and he still looks like Barry Goldwater.
“When was the last time you drove through here?” I ask him as we tip into the valley from the mountains east of Santa Rosa, looking out the back window to make sure my two brothers are still following in their car.
“A few years ago.” This spurs an older memory and he laughs. “I took mother over to Clear Lake once to look at some property. We had friends who were getting summer places there, but she wouldn’t have any part of it.” The three of us laugh then, because we can so easily imagine my mother’s face, her blues eyes like warning lights, her lips clamped with disdain at the sight of the campgrounds and trailer parks. She doesn’t have to say anything more when she has that look, but she always does.
My brothers came up with the idea of taking our father to the string of tiny towns where our family lived in much earlier years—Oroville, where I was born and raised, Bucks Lake, Meadow Valley, Portola, and Quincy. (Our mother will stay home and go to an orchid show with my sisters-in-law—she had enough of those places, she tells us, and besides, she isn’t sturdy enough for five days on the road.) The trip was inspired by a more modest jaunt my two brothers took the previous summer. They drove to Bucks, an intensely blue lake bristling with dark pines in the Sierra Nevadas, where our family spent its summers until I was three years old. The road to Bucks is now paved, not a winding track of compacted dust. Aside from that, they found Bucks Lake and even the old cabin we used to lease unchanged.
“It’s almost the way we left it forty-five years ago,” my oldest brother Dave told me. He was so excited that his voice rose to the pitch it would have already lost by the time I was born, when he was fifteen years old. “Even our dining room table is still there. Remember all the great times we had around that table?”
In the months leading up to July, we begin to call this “The Memory Trip,” but we’re also aware that it could be our last. Our father will be 88 in December and he and my mother will celebrate their 65th anniversary in September. He’s been a healthy and active old man—he only stopped his 12-mile morning bike rides a few years ago—but we know that no one lives forever, that death has visited other families earlier and often. More to the point, his memories of recent events have started to slide away from him. The past is still intact, though, and he loves talking about the early days. How he met my mother when she was a waitress with startling red hair and he a shy pantryman at the Pathfinder Hotel in Nebraska; how she almost ran off with a traveling salesman; how her father loaded a crate of live chickens on the borrowed car my parents drove to California after their wedding. How my father lost the assets from his first business in a flood and a stranger in a bar wrote him a check on a paper napkin to underwrite his next business. On this trip, we not only want to give our father the territory of the past; we want to revel in what’s left of his present.
And I want even more. Unlike Dave, Dan or Sue—my closest sibling in age but still eight years my senior—I don’t remember the good times around the dining room table at Bucks Lake. I hardly remember anything from those years. I was born too late, toward the end of my family’s golden era. My brothers and sisters were still children or adolescents then, and it seemed to me that our house and street and even the fields around Oroville were alive because of them. They thought my birth was a gift, the best ever, and they circled me and jostled to hold me and conferred their blessings. Then they vanished too quickly, like fairy godparents. By the time I was six, the older ones had left for college and Sue was in a Bay Area boarding school.
Despite our gaps in age, history and geography, my siblings and I have grown closer than ever in recent years. We’ve taken a few vacations together and sometimes it seems that all I want is to be in their midst. During this trip with our father, I want to gather the sensations of back then, those brief years when we lived as one family. I have the idea that if I look upon the places of our shared past—if I touch the doorknobs and smell the bark of the old trees—I’ll rediscover our life together. That forgotten memories will unfold like a bright paper garland and rope me more tightly to the family I’ve always felt was just out of reach.
The road shimmers in the heat. Silvery patches of what look like water appear several hundred feet in front of us and then vanish just before we reach them. Everything looks the same for miles in every direction, fields and crops in varying shades of green divided by blond swathes of high grass. Oroville lies at the edge of the Sacramento Valley, against the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.
“I have no idea where we are,” I tell my sister. She replies that I’m looking right at Table Mountain, the stark, lava-topped plateau between Oroville and nearby Chico. She points to a yellowish streak running across the foothills. It is low and almost undetectable, and I don’t believe this is Table Mountain until I see a huge white letter set into the plateau’s dark carapace of rock. The letter is still the source of contention between Oroville and Chico high schools. Today, it’s clear that the kids from Chico have been up on the mountain turning the O into a C with a heap of strategically placed dirt.
“There’s the big ‘C!’” I exclaim.
In a mock-serious spurt of local pride, my sister scowls. “What do mean, the ‘C?’” she demands. “That’s the ‘O,’ and those creeps from Chico have messed it up again.” We laugh, but this is my first inkling that what I will find, over and over, is a rupture between memory and place, between memory and event, as well as a vast gulf between my older siblings’ past and mine.
What my father seems to remember most clearly now is how much my mother hated going to Bucks Lake. “She dreaded this trip,” he says over and over again, chuckling at the way she fumed through this yearly ordeal. “She’d get everybody’s suitcases packed and loaded in the trunk, but the car would just suck in the dust. By the time we got to the cabin, the suitcases would be so full of dust that she’d have to wash everything all over again, and she only had that old wringer-washer. Then there were all the kids sitting in the back seat with coffee cans, throwing up. They’d take off when we’d get to the lake and be back in a few hours wanting to eat. Mother always had to cook a big meal—breakfasts with pancakes and sausage and eggs—and by the time she’d finish cleaning up breakfast the darn kids would be back, ready for lunch.”
As we get closer to Bucks Lake, Dave and I keep asking my father if anything looks familiar. “Maybe” he says agreeably, watching the forest fly by. We finally reach the road that leads to the lake and I hang between the two front seats, thinking that any minute I will be jolted by memory, that I will remember something I saw 45 years ago while I was sitting on my mother’s lap in the front seat of that dusty station wagon. I wait for a shiver of belonging to seize me, but this doesn’t happen. When we pull up in front of the Bucks Lake Lodge, Dave asks if I remember it. He says, “I got into a fight right there”—he points to a spot near a gas pump—“because some bigger boys were picking on Dan.” It all seems memorable: the chimney of rounded stones and the dark planks of the lodge and the looming pines behind it, the dirt paths patterned with pine needles that wind along the edge of the forest and the pungent sweetness of the air. But I don’t remember any of it.
The next morning, we find the road to the cabins. It is a dirt road, the shrubs lining it bowed down with dust, and I know my mother would hate it still. The lake was never heavily developed and it still isn’t, since all the land is owned by the Forest Service and the electric company. They provide long-term leases to this string of garage-sized cabins around the lake. After all these years, there’s never been much incentive for the lessees to remodel the cabins. They all look the same as when my siblings ran wild through the Bucks Lake summers with their friends. As Dave drives my father and me down the road, he points out the cabins where the other people from Oroville stayed—the Benningers, the Townsends, the VanDuzers, the Thompsons—and he almost misses the cabin he’s really looking for.
We get out of the cars. The dust is thick and soft, the expectations huge. Dan hangs a camera around his neck and takes a deep breath. “I still have dreams about standing right in this place,” he tells us, then turns to my father. “Look familiar, Dad?” My father laughs in an embarrassed way and says, “Not really.” We walk down a little path to the cabin and my father puts his hand on the brick chimney. I think he’s lost his balance and reach out to help him, but he bends down to look at one of the bricks. “I think I fixed this once,” he says, a little triumphantly. My siblings scatter to look at their favorite spots while my father talks to Tom, the current lessee.
Despite the blankness of much of those early years, I believe I have arrived at Bucks Lake with three memories. I remember sitting on someone’s lap in the back seat of the car, reaching for my mother, and throwing up all over her neck. I remember being a toddler on the front porch and picking up a black ant that sank its pincers into my tiny pink mushroom of a finger. And I remember standing on the beach holding my mother’s legs while she called into the wind that blew off the lake. My siblings were splashing far out in the water, planning to swim all the way across, and my mother was trying to summon them back. I remember being afraid that something terrible would happen out in the dark, churning water.
My mother has long insisted that the first two aren’t even my memories; they’re what I remember from what other people have told me. As I stand on the beach, I wonder where the third memory comes from. The beach in my memory is broad and stark, so far away from the cabin that it took the little me a long time to run to the water. In fact, the beach is only a strip of colorful pebbles on the other side of a break wall, and the cabin itself is set into a green, fern-lined cove, not a rocky hillside. As I stand there, I start to suspect that this memory is also false. The image of my mother standing there, her hair whipping back, her hand cupping her lips, her dress billowing around her bare legs; isn’t that suspiciously like Auntie Em bracing herself against the wind, searching not a barren beach but a vast prairie, hollering for Dorothy as the cyclone approached? I ask Dan if the group of them ever tried to swim across the lake. “I don’t think so,” he says.
Tom invites us into the house. To the left is a kitchen no bigger than Sue’s Explorer; to the right is a slightly larger room with a few narrow couches built into the walls and a long dining room table covered with Tom’s papers and books and a laptop. The table draws cries from my siblings: my father had it built in a local sawmill some fifty years ago. My father smiles, but he’s much more interested in the kitchen. “Mother just hated this tiny kitchen!” he says, laughing in disbelief. He leans into the narrow avenue between the two walls of cupboards and examines the way the opposing doors bump handles when they open. “Can you imagine her cooking all those big meals in here?”
Then everyone seems to turn to me all at once. “Do you remember any of this?” Dave asks, so eager to share his delight. I shake my head. With Tom’s permission, my siblings pull me through the cabin to show me where I used to sleep. There is a tiny bathroom and behind that, two bedrooms. They tell me that until a third bedroom was built on the second floor, I slept in one of these bedrooms; before that, I slept in a tiny alcove where there is now a mini-washer and dryer. They look at me expectantly, but nothing seems familiar. I even drop to my knees and crawl around the rooms like Al Jolson doing his “Mammy” routine, eyeing the underside of the table, the smudges beneath the door handles, the mournful knotholes in the pine siding, everything that might have been seen by a three-year-old. I crawl and they laugh, but I finally have to stand and shake my head. Even at that level, whatever I saw all those years ago I’ve long since forgotten. So the memories of summer at Bucks Lake are only for my siblings, after all. I pout a little and feel left out, then resign myself to nothing more than everyone else’s past and a nice vacation with my family.
There are still Meadow Valley and Quincy ahead of us, but I don’t expect to remember anything there: I wasn’t even born when the family moved through those towns. I stretch out in the back seat and admire the scenery and wait for fresh stories to pour from my father about his early years in the lumber business and life with my mother. But the stories don’t come until the trip is over, when we’re sitting around the dining room table at my parent’s house at Lake Tahoe and my mother is there to augment his memory. And as I write the stories down then, it strikes me that I’ve heard almost all of them before; I’ve just forgotten them. They barely fill one of my notebooks. It bothers me that after so many years of living together, my parents have relatively few stories to tell. I had hoped to emerge from this trip with a more complete picture of their lives and vast new knowledge of them. I had hoped each bump in the road would jar a story from my father, but this didn’t happen for him, as it didn’t happen for me. He was just happy to enjoy the time that was now, not then, with his children.
And even though he loves to travel, he was ready for the trip to end. On the final day of the trip, he was the first one out of bed and into the shower. When I went down the stairs of the rented condo, his suitcase was already packed and tilted against the front door, his hat perched on top. We drove through beautiful and remote country, stopped for a big late breakfast, meandered to Lake Tahoe on roads that were strange to us. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry, but when we arrived at the house he reached for his suitcase quickly. He walked to the door with more than his usual alacrity and grabbed my mother in a mighty hug.
“I missed you so much, Dolly” he told her as his hat toppled away. “I never want to go away from you again.” I think that what he was remembering during our trip was my mother. He loves the old places because he was there with her. Now he wants to be wherever she is, which is in the life they have now.
But I want more than the life I have now. I want the past to reach for me; I want the missing pieces.
After we left Meadow Valley, we spent our last two days at a condo in Graeagle, an old logging town with a new life as tourist destination. The men golfed and Sue and I hiked. We mixed weird drinks at night and suffered through bad coffee from the gas station in the morning. For dinner, we went to two restaurants that friends of Sue had recommended. One was at a charmingly rustic resort at the end of a dirt road that wound into a meadow. As we drove in, I told my family how much I love places like this: the little cabins spread among the trees and boulders, the old bark-sided lodge with a huge fireplace and windows that look into the mountains. You almost expect a friendly bear to seat you at your table, I told them. Between the salad and the main course, I excused myself to look for a pay phone in the lodge game room. I wanted to call my husband and tell him how wonderful this place was. As I walked into the game room, two teenagers stopped what had been a noisy game of ping pong and appraised me, then continued in a more decorous and watchful way. I had the impression that they were cloaking something, some hidden hilarity, some secret activity. And suddenly I was jerked into the past.
My Aunt Helen and Uncle Ken have children who are close to my age, and they took me on two of their family trips years ago. The first time we stayed in real woods and real tents. They made a little campfire and propped a radio the size of a Volkswagen on a nearby stump so that we could listen to the Giants play the Dodgers. The second time we went to a mountain resort with woodsy-smelling cabins and a huge campfire ringed by stones and a lodge with a cavernous and smoky game room and a dining room with white tablecloths. My much-older, married cousin John held court in the game room and said outrageous, funny things that none of the other grown ups would have said. I was barely a teenager, and my aunt and uncle had brought along another girl-relative for me to share a cabin with. There were boys in some of the other cabins and they’d tap on our window at night and we’d sneak out to see them, the dying campfire glowing like watchful eyes. I had always been afraid of the dark, but this was a new kind of darkness and I felt like one of its creatures. All these years, I never knew where this second place was. Maybe I never wanted to make it less than magical by asking. But this was the place.
The memory was a physical sensation—it was as if it took me in its mouth—as the teenagers lobbed slow arching shots across the table and a log in the big stone fireplace shifted. I remembered the darkness surrounding the cabins and the seething mystery of the campfire and none of my siblings did, because I hadn’t been with them. They were far away and forgotten, not just because they had left home but because I had gone away, too. Not long after my aunt and uncle took me to the lodge at Graeagle, I would leave my parents’ house for boarding school and never live in the same way with them again. How odd, I thought, standing in the game room, and sad even though I felt the old exhilaration of this place. I had come on this trip to be joined to my family by memory, but all I remembered was what it was first like to be really free of them.