20. Describe three significant memories from your childhood.
As I think back to things that happened as I grew up, a few pop out with highly specific details, and it is for this reason only that these are the ones I choose to list here. I could write countless pages about lessons I learned or funny things that happened, but these three incidents stand out in great detail.
In the summer of 1982, we lived in a small house on Cedar Street in Crossett, Ark. We had just moved there a few weeks earlier, and I was about to begin third grade at Anderson Elementary just a couple of blocks away. Mom stayed home with me and my nearly-two-year-old brother, and Daddy went to work every day at FirstSouth Savings and Loan. He came home each day for lunch, and around the time he left to return to work, I watched “Father’s Knows Best.”
One day in particular, we had finished eating, and I was sitting down to watch yet another “Father’s Knows Best” rerun in our tiny living room just off the kitchen. Mom came in and sat on the couch. She said she needed to talk to me, and she turned the TV off.
“This must be serious,” I thought. I wondered if I were about to get in trouble for something and couldn’t recall anything that might be a reason for this talk. As she began to speak, a sickening, why-must-you-talk-to-me-about-this feeling washed over me. The smell of the dingy, red, shag carpet and the smallness of the room were closing in on me, and I swear I thought I was going to pass out. I was so embarrassed that I could almost hear a ringing in my ears, and her words were distant echoes like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s muffled tones.
Wahh, wahhh wah. Wahhh wah wahh, she said. One day you will get your period. Wahhhh, wahhhhhhhh, wahhhhhhhhh.
I spent the next four years driving myself crazy every time I went to the bathroom looking for that first speck of blood. Finally, it happened in the summer of 1986 just before I started the seventh grade, and I don’t recall being any less embarrassed to talk about it than I had been four years earlier.
Thankfully for you, girls, I am over that embarrassment, and talking to you about Life’s little miracles won’t bother me at all. The whole time I’m talking to you, though, I will be remembering that red shag carpet, the fact that I was missing my show and the head-spinning embarrassment of the topic, and I will wonder what part of the experience will stick out for each of you.
On January 28, 1986, it was cold. I was in the sixth grade at Calhoun in Crossett, Ark., and we were all outside wishing we could go in where it was warm. Ms. McCormick, one of the math teachers, came outside to tell us to come in. Her face was bleached so pale with shock that it blended in with her white hair and silver-rimmed glasses.
Clearly, something was wrong. Ms. McCormick wasn’t the most boisterous person, but she was especially soft-spoken when she replied to our persistent questions about what was going on.
“The space shuttle blew up,” she said.
She turned like a robot on auto-pilot and went back in the school. As the word passed through the playground, we filed inside in an equally quiet, shocked manner, and I have no doubt many of us were as pale as Ms. McCormick had been when she had appeared at the top of the ramp a few minutes earlier.
Televisions were rolled into classrooms, and we sat transfixed watching the news coverage of the breaking apart and disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger barely more than a minute into its mission. All seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe who would’ve been the first teacher in space, were killed.
At 11 years old, I was in awe of the space program. The idea that we could leave our own world and travel into the skies in search of knowledge was baffling, but to think that a teacher was going with the crew this time made the launch even more special. At that age, your teachers and your parents are typically the main heroes in your Life, or at least that is how it was when I was growing up. Watching the Challenger blow up and knowing that Christa McAuliffe was on board was a double whammy of intensity – she was a teacher and a parent.
Her kids weren’t much younger than I was – her son was nine, her daughter six. I wondered if they were watching with pride as the shuttle lifted off that day and wondered what they must’ve felt as they realized that when they told their mother goodbye it was the last time they would ever see her.
The main thing I remember from that afternoon was silence. The kids didn’t talk. The teachers barely spoke other than when necessary. It even seemed the creaky old school building stood in respectful silence. It was my first “I remember where I was when” moment, and I still remember it like it just happened. I can only imagine what it must be like for the family members of the crew that died that day.
I remember when the Berlin Wall came down, when Nelson Mandela was freed and when President Reagan was shot. I was alive to see Mount St. Helens erupt and the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. I watched Diana Spencer become Princess Diana. I remember Chernobyl, the Iran-Contra scandal and the standoff in Tiananmen Square.
And those were just the things I actually remember from when I was a kid. There were surely many others that didn’t stick out to me for one reason or another. I can’t begin to imagine what you girls will remember from your childhood and hold up as your first “I remember where I was when” moment, but I assure you that the details will stick out to you no matter how many years or how many other defining moments occur.
July 7, 1990, I boarded an airplane in Kansas City to head home after being at the John R. Kirk Honors Institute for four weeks in Kirksville, Missouri. Thanks to a few well-timed bats of my eyelashes and a sugary Southern drawl, I had sweet-talked the ticket agent into changing my flight so I could travel the first leg of my trip with a friend I had made that summer. Before boarding, I had called home to let my parents know I would be getting into Little Rock sooner than expected.
The call seemed to be met with a little frustration, but I shrugged it off, boarded the plane arm-in-arm with my friend and chatted happily with him until we landed in Little Rock. As we went our separate ways, I saw my Dad waiting for me but didn’t see Mom or Jake. Dad seemed tense, and when it became clear that my flight had been changed but my luggage had not made the switch, we went to the baggage claim counter to find out what could be done.
“Where’s Mom,” I asked as I saw Pap-pa and Uncle Mark walking up.
Dad told me that Grandma (your Nana’s mom) had passed away that Thursday, and they had held the funeral earlier that day. He had made the three-hour trip to get me and left Mom and Jake at home to visit with guests and tie up loose ends. They hadn’t told me because I was finishing up my time in Kirksville and didn’t need the stress of being there by myself when I got the news.
Grandma was gone.
They had already had the funeral.
On the same day I came home.
The same day.
The. SAME. Day.
Never in my Life before then or since has time, space and sound stood as still as it did at that moment. So many feelings coursed through me that I wasn’t sure which to process first.
Grief that my sweet, wonderful Grandma was gone and that I would never again look into those brown eyes and see them speak volumes with a single twinkle.
Frustration that my Mom wasn’t there to hold me and tell me Grandma knew I loved her even though I had been a complete teenage loser and hadn’t appreciated the last time I saw her because I was too filled with selfish thoughts of my upcoming four-week adventure.
Anger that the funeral couldn’t have been postponed a single day so I could be there.
Head-spinning nausea that it was all happening without warning.
Uncle Mark and Pap-pa barely spoke. I could tell by the looks on their faces that they could tell by the look on mine that there weren’t many words that would’ve sufficed right then. Even now, 23 years later, it stings like it just happened, and I am teary as I type these words.
It’s a wound that is still fresh and bleeding and viciously painful. I can feel what it was like to stand at that counter, to hear that my luggage was missing and to speak to the baggage claim clerk with hatefulness-tinged words as if it were her fault I would never see Grandma again. I can feel every bump in the road from Little Rock to Crossett. I can feel the pitying eyes of everyone in our home when I walked in the door and saw some of the people who had the blessing of being allowed to take part in my Grandma’s final farewell while I had been left out.
We had a graveside service just for me. Bro. Emil Turner said a few words, and even though he was someone I respected greatly, every word he said felt like acid being poured on an open wound.
He was there, and I wasn’t. He barely knew her. How can he stand there and tell me that I should find solace in knowing that Grandma is with her Heavenly Father? I want her here with me, her Earthly granddaughter, you jerk! How dare you stand at her grave and tell me how I should feel? You have no idea how much I’m hurting and how much I resent being kept in the dark!
I was fairly close to a mental break the whole time we stood in the blistering heat that day at Hickory Grove Cemetery. I had visions of crawling into the ground to be with her. I wrapped my arms around my shoulders in an effort to hug myself into reality and keep from falling to the ground and weeping until the dirt around me became so soggy with tears that the freshly packed grave turned to mush and swallowed me. I tuned out Bro. Emil and talked directly to God.
“Take me, too,” I said to Him in my mind. “Don’t even let these people know what happened. Just take me. Now. They won’t miss me. I need to see her one more time, and I know You have the power to do it. PLEASE.”
Clearly, I did not burrow into the grave, and God saw fit to keep me here a while longer. Obviously, I got past my typically teenagery angst/frustration/resentment and realized my anger was not with the people – it was with the situation. My parents made the best choice they could considering the circumstances, and I know that now.
But just knowing that doesn’t make me feel any less like I missed something important. As I type these words, I can honestly say it is the first time I have shared this story in such great detail with anyone, and sharing it does not make it easier to process. You are probably questioning how I can remember the details of what I felt and exactly what thoughts went through my mind.
The first time you lose someone you genuinely love, you will understand.
And years later, I have no doubt, you will unfortunately remember it like it just happened. If I could suffer that pain for you, I gladly would.
I still miss her.
And it doesn’t get any easier.