The Long Reach of Memory

I was on Facebook the other day, scrolling past political arguments, pictures of cute dogs, homes being made ready for the holidays. It’s funny how you can be brought up short, suddenly frozen in the moment by an image from your past.

It was a photo of a barn in Washoe Valley not far from where I had grown up in Reno. The barn was red, not an uncommon color, the steeply pitched roofline common for the area’s barns which were designed to hold bales of hay thru the winter. It’s nestled up against the mountains and set off by striking gold leafed trees, made even more pronounced by the early dusting of snow. A small fence can be seen in the foreground. (Photo by Sharon Voss, from Facebook group “Only in Nevada”)

I had seen similar barns on a recent vacation in central Virginia. Similar, but not the same. A beautiful horse barn on the Montpelier mansion property had caught my attention and we stopped to get a few pictures of it and the unusual green color of the siding. The barn shape reminded me of buildings I had seen out West, not at all like the many dairy barns we have here in Loudoun County. 

Later that day we found our way to the 1804 Inn at Barboursville Vineyards, our home base for the weekend as we explored the area and vineyards near Charlottesville VA. As we settled in, the afternoon sun was spectacular on the trees and really set off the red siding of the farm equipment structure across the lawn from us. Trees with brilliant tones of gold and orange contrasted with dark limbs. A white fence lead the eye through the idyllic composition. Again, the scene was oddly familiar. 


My stepmother Dorathy and my Dad both passed away within weeks of one another in 2007. He was 81 and had slowly succumbed to the effects of Alzheimer’s. She had predeceased him by a mere three weeks, a victim of respiratory failure. She would have been 97 this year on the 18th of November. We flew out for their memorial service, and later gathered with my brothers and their wives to go through what remained of my folks’ belongings at the home they had lived in for 38 years. I brought back a painting of the Sierra Nevada mountains that I had grown up enjoying. As a young artist it had been a goal of mine to be able to paint as well. There were other paintings of their’s but those must must have gone into storage. 

When I saw the photo on Facebook of the Washoe Valley barn, it all fell into place. The barns we had seen on our recent vacation, and then the photo of the Nevada barn, all reminded me of a painting which had hung in my parents’ home for years. A red barn. Set against the mountains. Trees in autumn, a rail fence. Though strangely enough, a lake curiously close to the barn reflecting the scene. 

And as I remembered it all, the painting had been done by Maxine Peters, my stepmother’s sister, of a red barn in Washoe Valley back in the 1960s. She loved the site but had painted it with Washoe Lake (or perhaps a pond) coming right up to the barn in order to maximize the color in the scene. An artist’s vision had altered the landscape to create something that only existed in her mind, but which had lived on for years in our home. She had some repute as a genre painter, exhibiting at local galleries and art shows, and we were quite proud to have one of her paintings hanging in the living room. 

Dad and Dorathy at the Lake cabin

They are a tricky thing, memories. There are times when I feel I have completely forgotten everything that happened before last week. When I talk with my 92-year-old mother, I am always surprised at how much she can still recall of her childhood. I’ve relied on photos of people and events to jog my memory, and that only recently. I’ve become the family photographer and archivist in part to ward off the eventual dimming of memory. We often say in jest, “if I didn’t take a picture, it didn’t happen.” Some truth to that, though as I found out this week, it can be surprising how long the reach of memory can be.

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