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Jessie Veeder, Published November 22 2013

Coming Home: Childhood homes bring back ghosts no matter how long we’re away

It’s just a ribbon of asphalt. Yellow lines swish and break, swish and break on the other side of the windshield in my dad’s little white Ford.

There was a time when pickups didn’t have back seats. Kids like me, we would sit on the passenger’s side of the bench seat, or in the middle where our knees would bump and move to make room for shifting into reverse, our bodies barely tall enough to lift our noses up over the dash so we could see the landscape roll out in front of us.

We might have buckled up or we might have laid our heads down on laps, stretched our legs across that seat and wondered out loud about how many more miles, as if miles mean anything to a 5-year-old on her way to see her gramma.

Sixty miles an hour.

A hundred miles to go.

How many more minutes then?

I spent many hours on that passenger’s side in the time between 4 and 7 years old, when a kid might absorb enough to recall in adulthood what it was like to be that small, wondering if that road could drive us right off the world and into the hot blazes of the orange sunset.

It looked like we could as my dad drove us west on Highway 2, and I watched the white line as it separated our tires from the tall brown grass in the ditches.

I wondered who could paint so straight.

I wondered if we were going to stop for gas and if I might get a Laffy Taffy.

I wondered if we were there yet.

And when that asphalt turned to pink dusty road, usually long after I’d drifted into a wandering sort of dream, my head against the door of that pickup with no back seat, my young dad’s voice might break through the darkness and wake me.

“We’re almost there now. Wake up. We’re at the pink road.”

Or he might have just carried me in when he pulled up to the old brown house at the end of that pink road, the yard light illuminating the red barn and casting long dark shadows under a quiet sky.

His mom would have left the porch light on for him, and I would have woken a bit as he lifted me from the seat, my head flopped over his shoulder as his boots crunched on those scoria rocks. And then I would know, without being told, that I was at gramma’s.

I was at the ranch.

Some days out here feel like a walk through a memory.

Some days I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts.

I suppose a childhood home will do that to a woman, tap her on the shoulder with little triggers, familiarities that remind her that once she was a little girl and once she had a grandma with silver hair who sewed her a rag doll and lived in a brown house by that red barn she walks by every day to check the horses.

Yes, once there was a brown house here, and once my father was a younger man, and I was his sidekick as he drove west on Highway 2 from a reluctant home in Grand Forks to hunt deer or help haul hay at the home he vowed to come back to someday.

I’m used to these ghosts around here – that red barn, my old car, the rusty combine I used to pretend was a ship. We’re familiar.

But I drove Highway 2 again last week, heading east and back again, yellow lines swishing and breaking as I passed hunters in pickups with blaze-orange hats on the dash and the long grass in the ditches, and I couldn’t help but notice those ghosts followed me.

As we grow older we gather things. Books and news, fine china and broken-down cars.

I gather memories.

Because at the end of it, all I want to tell you is how miles were once mysterious and pickups with no back seats drove kids like me off the edge of the world to a place where the porch light was always on.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.