Over the past several years, I watched helplessly as you began to lose your memory — memories of the last 50 or so years.
You said, as I once again drive you around the Fresno downtown, that so much has changed and that you just don’t remember the streets and buildings this way.
It’s the same when we drive by Fresno State, where you worked, and the Clovis countryside.
You taught at Fresno State for 15 years and after that, you managed the irrigation water for Fresno County for another 18.
It frustrates mom when you can’t recall much of her life with you. She remembers those years fondly. I know it frustrates you as well.
You have been losing your hearing for a while, too. You won’t wear a hearing aid, so talking with you face to face is challenging. Talking with you on the phone works better.
A few years back, I decided that I would just talk to you about the present.
I would call you from my home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and ask about the rainfall or the snow pack in the mountains. You would tell me very accurately how things were, because you had just read about it in the morning paper.
I would ask you about how your stocks were performing, and you would update me, sometimes reading something from the business section.
“Anything in bloom in the yard?” I would ask. “There is still snow on the ground back here.”
We have been pretty successful with these “in the present” telephone conversations. At least you can hear me, and we have real conversations, although they tend to be short and soon you hand me off to Mom.
I am always amazed that you recognize my voice when I call, or maybe it’s just my habit of announcing my name as I greet you. You do remember the names of my children, though you often forget what they are doing. That’s OK. I’m not very current on what they are doing either. You always ask about your daughter-in-law, Louise.
Mom says that you often repeat the names of your neighbors so that you don’t forget them, and maybe you do the same with your children, their spouses and your grandchildren. That’s a good strategy that I’ll tuck away for later.
Last year, you turned 92. One morning, as I watched you reading the paper, I came up with the idea of writing a letter to you that was an account of our life together — our family memories. It was my point of view, of course, but a fairly balanced account. It went back to when you, mom and your 1-year-old son moved from San Francisco to take a teaching job at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas.
A year later, we moved from Lubbock to a new ag college in Fresno. I did not actually remember those events, I was too young, but I know they happened. I recounted our living for a few years in Fresno, then renting our house and moving to Davis, where you completed your master’s degree at the University of California, Davis. After you moved us back, you bought some land east of Clovis on East Sierra Avenue near Del Rey Avenue — a place to build a future house.
You and mom designed the house; you drew up the plans, and the three of us helped the contractor construct the house. It really was like settling the early West. There wasn’t anything on that land except a new house with a gravel road, not even a tree, but there must have been some greater vision in your mind.
A UC Berkeley graduate and a San Francisco city boy, you enjoyed creating your farm, building your house, plowing and planting your fields.
Your city-girl wife raised your three kids, Leann, Tim and me in the country, while you spent your days teaching at the college. Country life for her was very different from the San Francisco she grew up in. She loved every dog, cat, horse, cow and sheep we had.
We all did. That first meal we had when the steak on our plates was Big John was a hard one to get through. We eventually found ways to rationalize butchering our own steers. It took time, but never really got easier. You preferred growing crops to raising animals, so later there would be acres of olive trees.
When we first moved to the country, vast rolling fields surrounded our house and views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains filled our windows. In the summer evenings, we would sit on the patio and watch the lights from the cars drive down the mountain on Old Tollhouse Road. Now on summer evenings in Wisconsin, Louise and I sit on our patio and watch the fireflies. Not much different.
You read my letters and wrote back a note thanking me for reminding you of an amazing life. My letters reflected how your love of the country, of growing things and building things shaped our lives. Though you did not teach us directly, you instilled in each of your children the idea that we could create an oasis out of a prairie, that we could teach ourselves to do anything and that we could accomplish anything we really wanted to.
Lately, I’ve reread these letters and decided that I should keep writing memories for you.
But I will keep them safe. There may be a time when I will need a little help remembering.