At first, it just seemed like a big adventure. "We're moving east; Daddy has a new job in New York." New York! To a little girl on the high plains of
As our old Chevy pulled away from the stucco bungalow on Willow Street, I waved excitedly at my best friend Jane, who smiled wanly at me from her own front yard across the street. "We're off!" Mommy said, a little too loudly. In the back seat, Bobby and I leaned against the curved rear window of the Chevy for a last look at North Platte.
A year later, in my bedroom in our new home, I sobbed at the memory of the Willow Street house, with its lilacs and rhubarb plants. I thought of Jane and cried even harder, berating myself bitterly. "I smiled! I smiled!" How could I have been so stupid, so blind, so ignorant of what "moving away" would mean?
Nebraska was so far away, and New Jersey was so different. Bobby was sent home from school for wearing jeans. My classmates teased me for my clothes, my accent -- everything, it seemed. I learned quickly never to mention Nebraska or North Platte, which would set their eyes rolling as they mimicked her flat nasal tones. The family had arrived just before Christmas, and so I'd been left out of the class gift exchange. Even worse, I was behind in arithmetic. We'd been just about to start column addition in North Platte; in New Jersey they were already passed it. My teacher, Miss Saneska, had been teaching the children to play the recorder and speak French, but hadn't counted on having a new student arrive midyear. So three times a week, I was sent to the library to read while her classmates sang "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" or played their instruments. Life in New Jersey was miserable.
By three months after the move, I had added a line to my bedtime prayer.
"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
And please let me wake up in North Platte."
But it wasn't a dream, and I never went back to North Platte. I moved again and again, from New Jersey to Connecticut to upstate New York to Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to Rhode Island and finally to Maryland. I learned to relish being "the new girl", and having the chance to reinvent myself with each new home. I took on the role of welcomer, helping other newcomers to settle in.
Through all those moves, I never shook the feeling of being a newcomer. I also never let go of my dreams of going home to Nebraska. I fantasized about going to Midland College in Fremont. At night I fell asleep, I would retrace the route from Willow Street to downtown North Platte, never wanting to forget the way to the library, the movie theater, or the newspaper office where my dad had worked. But instead of Midland College, I went to Syracuse University, fell in love, and lived my life, year by year, in the east. Maryland has been my home for over forty years, yet when people ask, I still say I am from Nebraska. Am I lying to them, or to myself? It’s been nearly sixty years since I left North Platte. (I’m not counting the two days we spent there on a road trip when my kids were little —little and bored. That was just an appetizer, not the meal I craved.) The eight-year-old has grown up and is approaching seventy. I still wonder what would have it been like to stay in North Platte? What part of me really comes from there?
In the spring of 2016, I was approved for a research leave from my university for the coming fall — my last sabbatical before retirement. I had unused research funds I needed to exhaust, and was working yet another book on gender on fashion. The surface reason for the trip was to interview women in my age cohort about their relationships with fashion and clothing over the course of their lives. But the real question was “Who would I be if we hadn’t moved away?”
I wrote a few emails in advance, attempting to make contact with old classmates and friends. They all started the same way:
I am planning a three-week visit to North Platte as part of a research project about women and aging in America. It's a personal journey as well; I lived in North Platte as a child, from 1950-1957, when my family moved to New Jersey. I want to now who would I be if we had not moved away. In the nearly fifty years since we left, I have only been back once, for two days in 1994, and met with some of my father's old co-workers at the Telegraph-Bulletin and a few of our neighbors from South Willow Street.
I began with the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, sending a photo to help jog some memories:
I was a student at McKinley School from kindergarten to the very beginning of third grade (1954-1957) and would have graduated from North Platte High School in 1967. I will be arriving on October 26 and staying through mid-November. I have no idea if anyone from my generation is still there, but hope you can help me make the connection.
I wrote to the North Platte Public Library, offering a sweetener:
I have very fond memories of walking to the library with my big brother, and playing with the Legos and View-Masters in the children's room, and we were avid readers of Dr. Seuss. I would like to return the favor by donating a copy of my book, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America to the library. I'd also be delighted to give a short brown bag talk, if you want; my schedule is very flexible.
Bingo! I was contacted within a day by the library director and soon had made arrangements for a book talk.
My last attempt was an email to the editor of Telegraph.
Since my father worked at the Telegraph (then the Telegraph-Bulletin) as the "boss of the job department", my first thought was to contact the paper for help in finding former classmates and neighbors. I will be arriving on October 26 and staying through mid-November. I will be happy to speak to a reporter in advance of my visit, and also contribute short reflections on my visit to the paper or the website. Let me know what you think of the idea,
Again, success! The editor suggested I submit my query as a letter to the editor, which was promptly published:
In early October, 1957, my family drove away from our white stucco bungalow on Willow Street and headed east to a new life in New Jersey. Since then, I dreamed of coming back to North Platte, but was only able to stop for a couple of days over twenty years ago. This year, I will be “coming home” for a longer stay, from October 26 to November 17.
While I look forward to visiting my favorite childhood haunts (Cody Park, especially), my real purpose in coming for an extended visit is to answer the question, “Who would I be if we had not moved away from North Platte”? This is a central piece of a research project I am doing on “Baby Boomers” and their lives. To answer that question, I need your readers’ help. Are you a member of North Platte High School’s class of 1967? Did you go to McKinley Elementary School between 1954 and 1957? Did you attend the First Lutheran Church in the early 1950s? If you answer yes to any of these questions, please contact me. I would love to talk with you over a cup of coffee!
On the remote possibility that someone might remember me, I am enclosing a photo taken the year before we moved away.
Jo Ann Barraclough Paoletti
I included a photo of myself, to help jog memories.
And the adventure began.