Why is it, once you reach a certain age, that Sundays are loaded with nostalgia? Today, I’m thinking of summer Sundays when I lived on our farm in southeastern Illinois. I’m talking about an eighty-acre plot of land on the Lawrence County side of the County Line Road. Eighty acres of clay soil in Lukin Township that my father planted in wheat, soybeans, and corn. The roads ran at right angles, mostly in straight lines. The fences did the same. A lane ran east from the County Line Road and led to our farmhouse on top of a gentle rise shaded by two maple trees and a giant oak.
I was the only child of older parents, my mother being forty-five and my father forty-one when I was born. As many of you know, he lost both of his hands in a corn picker when I was barely a year old. He was fitted with prostheses, and he continued to farm. My mother, who was a grade school teacher, helped him when she could. I had friends who lived on the next farm to our north, and we played together, but I spend a good deal of time on my own, left to entertain myself.
An oak tree stood beside our mailbox at the end of the lane. Here’s a picture of me standing in front of it earlier this year.
So many days, I stood in the front yard of our home and looked down the lane toward that tree, hoping beyond hope that I’d see a cloud of dust rising up from the road, a sign of a car coming, and I’d hope that car would slow and turn into our lane and come to pay a visit because out there in the country, particularly on those hot days when summer had nearly worn you down, you could get anxious for a change of pace, and a little company, particularly if that meant other kids to play with, was just the ticket.
The flat land sectioned off into blocks of fields; the roads running straight and squared; a tree like this to shade the mouth of a lane that led to a house where on Sundays, after a week of hard work, people were at rest. When I was a boy, this was my tribe: my mother and father, and the aunts and uncles and cousins who came to visit after church services were done. They came bringing angel food cakes, and Jello salads, and sugar pies, and hot dishes of baked beans and chicken and noodles, and cold ones of potato salad and slaw, and we sat down around the table to eat. My childhood was so often a time of hoping that someone might come to call, someone who would break through the fenced in squares of land and jumble things up a tad. I could even get excited when our cows sometimes got loose, somehow got beyond the barbed wire, and ended up in our yard or out on the County Line Road, or over in some other farmer’s pasture. I loved the fact that the ordinary all of a sudden seemed strange. Seeing a Jersey cow by my rope swing that hung from the maple tree in front of our house? Now that was something outside the regular come and go.
My father must have sometimes felt that same desire to break free. One Sunday, toward evening, when it was nearing time for all the company to pack up and leave, he said he bet he could beat me in a race. I must have been six or seven at the time, which means he would have been forty-seven or forty-eight. The numbers of his age meant nothing to me at the time, but I was always aware that he and my mother were much older than the parents of my friends, and, of course, I’d learned the stares people gave my father’s prosthetic hands. I knew that he was an oddity.
Which may explain why he challenged me to that race. Maybe he was tired of the role he’d been cast into because of his accident. Maybe he felt the freedom of a Sunday afternoon dwindling down with evening chores soon to come and then another week of work in the fields. Maybe he wanted, at least for a brief time, to be free of all of that. A race. Something he could do with his legs. Something he could do with his son just the way other, younger fathers, did.
I was delighted. It was, perhaps, the first time my father had seemed like other fathers to me. We raced across the yard. I laughed as I ran. My father lumbered past me, and I laughed to see him run. Then, at the finish line, he slipped. His feet went out from under him and he fell on his back, embarrassed, hurt, and I stopped and watched while my uncles helped him up, and I felt an ache in my throat because I’d caused all of that to happen just by being alive.
Often, these days, I wonder whether young writers know their own tribes well enough. We should all pay attention to our communities, our landscapes, so we can see how our characters act from either their sense of belonging or a resistance to the geography and the culture. We need to understand that our people and the places they occupy are never separate. We need the sort of intimate knowledge of people and places that the nostalgic impulse can bring.
When I was a boy, I lived in the kind of place where a man could try to escape all that yoked him to the land and to the limitations of his own body, the kind of place where his son could feel ashamed for coming to his parents so late in their lives. My mother and father and I and all the people around us: We lived in a place like that.