Okay, I’m not 100% sure that is true. Maybe it’s just something I dreamed up along the way but I do know for sure that I went to school in this big house in Buffalo County, Nebraska. It was called Alfalfa Center and there were only a few dozen students all the way from kindergarten to sixth grade, but for a while it was one of my favorite places. It’s hard to remember all the different schools I’ve been to, as our parents had quite the wanderlust gene and moved us all around the states into many small towns. We never stayed anywhere long, barely long enough to remember anyone or anything about the places.
However, this school is linked to a childhood tragedy, which is probably why I remember it so vividly. They say your strongest emotions set your deepest memories. But before we get to that, I’d like to reminisce about Alfalfa Center. I remember our music teacher, not her name but the songs she taught us as we sat on the old hardwood floors around the piano she played. One song, Orion, visits me on nights when I look up into the sky full of stars. And the food! Oh my gosh, the home-cooked lunches there were to die for. We’d start smelling lunch cooking mid-morning and it was so heavenly that it was hard to get any more work done until it was in our bellies. I say we, because my twin sister and older brother accompanied me there. I’m sure they also remember the food, the music class, and maybe even the teachers.
There were only a couple and Mrs. Cernik comes to mind well. She was a large bleached blonde woman with long kept fingernails that she used on the back of our necks or on our arms when she was displeased. I can recall dreading the moment when she walked around the classroom, peering at our work over our shoulders. I got those fingernails a time or two myself. But my poor brother was her frequent victim. I specifically remember my mother having “a talk” with that teacher once about what she’d do if her kids came home with any more bloody trails down our arms.
But back to good things. The bookmobile was a part of this time in our life and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. My sister and I always read at a level higher than others in our grade and we also left that bookmobile each time with stacks of books so high we could barely see to walk. Reading and my books were everything to me. Our family didn’t have much, but when I could escape into a story, I didn’t care about much else. We lived in the country and I’d take my book and find a haystack, or climb into the loft of my neighbor’s barn, and be content for hours.
We all had a few friends at Alfalfa Center School. I remember my class only had 5 or 6 students, but there was one girl who I considered my best friend. Her name was Tracy and everyone loved her. She was eleven years old and just full of smiles, laughter, and energy. Big brown eyes and blonde hair, she just lit up a room.
Tracy’s parents were stricter than mine and it took a while for them to agree to let her ride the bus home with my siblings and I to play after school. The day finally came and we arrived home and spent an hour doing chores. Then we asked Tracy what she wanted to do. It was her idea to walk up the dirt road and cross the highway to go explore a huge abandoned home that everyone called the haunted house. I remember she thought she was the only one out of all our classmates who hadn’t gotten to see it up close.
We lived near a very rural highway with not much traffic back then. It was a cold day and Tracy and I traded coats, but we all bundled up and headed that way. At the highway, my brother crossed first. When he did, I looked right and saw a car just peeking over the hill coming at us. I yelled stop and held my hand out to grab Tracy before she stepped out into the road, but my fingers just grazed the material of my coat she wore.
She was almost to the center line when we looked left and saw a car coming that way, too. Tracy had hesitated in the middle and saw it too.
She called out, “I can make it!”
With my sister and I on one side of the road, and my brother on the other, the driver really had nowhere to go. He hit the brakes but there wasn’t enough time. Tracy was only inches from making it to the other side when his car hit her. I won’t paint the picture here but it was a horrific scene. My brother ran away in one direction, and my sister went screaming in the other direction. Later I learned she was running to the gas station to call for help.
With them gone, I knelt beside Tracy, sobbing and begging her to get up. My eyes saw the damage, but my psyche wouldn’t accept it.
I was still there kneeling beside her when the first person arrived on scene to help. I was led to a neighbor’s house where I was told to call Tracy’s mom and tell her what happened. I remember that call so vividly. First she hung up on me, thinking my sobbing and incoherent blabbering was a prank. Then I called again and handed the phone to my neighbor, Miss Charlotte, and she verified that Tracy was enroute to the hospital.
She later died. Or maybe she died there.
I don’t know for sure.
We weren’t allowed to attend her funeral. My siblings and I suffered with guilt. I had recurring nightmares for years.
At the little quaint school I loved so dearly, we were suddenly outcasts.
“You killed her!”
“If she hadn’t known you, she’d be alive!”
Kids can be cruel. And at only ten years old, I believed everything they said as they made us retreat away from them at recess, or told us to go away, that we weren’t allowed on their team or at their birthday party, or whatever. I really wished it could’ve been me, to end everyone’s grief. I was just a poor kid from a family of four children. I wouldn’t be missed. I really thought that. The taunting and ostracizing confirmed it.
Eventually our parents decided to move again and we left it all behind.
But did we?
I can’t imagine the pain that Tracy’s family went through to lose their daughter so tragically. I’m sure they’d find it hard to believe, but Tracy has been with me all my life. In the moments when I am terrified to cross a road. Or later when I think of my children near a highway. Or when I was pregnant and thought for sure God would take my child because Tracy’s family didn’t deserve to lose theirs.
I always wanted to do good things to make up for Tracy being taken and me being spared. I felt I needed to prove that I was good enough to have been salvaged. Probably twenty-five years after the fact, I found Tracy’s sister on Facebook. I poured my heart out to her, and wrote Tracy’s mother a letter. I told her how sorry I was and how Tracy’s death had plagued me with guilt for my entire life. I wanted her to know I was a good person. That I had always taken the right path. I guess I needed to prove something to her. I’m not sure what.
But isn’t it crazy how tragedy can mold us into who we are?
About a week or so ago I was in a bad emotional place. That day in a group I’m in, someone asked if we thought their grandchild should attend the funeral of her estranged drug-addicted parent. I was a strong advocate for letting that child go and have that closure. I was thinking of Tracy and the closure that I was never given and the years of nightmares and guilt. Forty years still wasn’t enough to take away the pain.
Later that night I was talking to a friend about my emotional state. I didn’t tell her about Tracy, just some other things. She told me I needed to find some peace and to get out my Bible. I promised her I would, though honestly it had been a very long time since I’d done just that.
Do you know that later I was climbing into bed when I remembered my promise. When I got out my Bible and cracked it open, I turned to a page at random and there, staring back at me was the only picture I have of Tracy, along with the newspaper clipping about her accident.
I think Tracy was telling me to be at peace about her death. Yet I don’t know if that will ever happen. I still see every tiny second of the accident replayed in my mind when I think of her.
But I also still love that little white schoolhouse.
Despite the trauma it reminds me of.
I’m not sure why I felt led to tell this story. It’s painful. Yet some of it is bittersweet. I was reminded of the bookmobile today by reading someone’s post. Then it made me think of Alfalfa Center. I reached out to a friend who was there then. She sent me the photo. Then we talked about Tracy and she was shocked as I told her about our experience. For she went through her own grief when Tracy, also her friend, died so tragically. She doesn’t remember the taunting and I don’t think she was a part of it as I remember her always as a kind soul.
Yet through our conversation and across many miles, she said she wanted to hug me. Quietly, I was crying on this end. She didn’t deny my memories. Instead she comforted me. And I feel bad that I never knew how much she suffered either.
We are all fragile, y’all. And we all have emotional baggage.
But if you are still holding guilt from some long ago tragedy or trauma that was not your fault, I see you.
I hear you.
And I wish you peace.