After years of writing fiction, Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic segued into writing memoir. Many of the stories about her life on the farm included characters that had been based on her parents and siblings. Those had to be rewritten to conform to the standards of memoir. A laborious process of writing, editing, and rewriting ensued.
For many years family emergencies allowed for only short periods of time to work on this project. But with more time available after her husband passed away in 2014, the author was able to focus on this endeavor. She was driven by the goal of presenting inscribed copies of the finished book to her brothers and sister. At last, the book became a reality.
In Lost Without the River Barbara tells of her life on a small farm in South Dakota as her parents struggle to recover after the concurrent years of drought and the Great Depression. The reader meets the Hoffbeck siblings including Dorothy, the eldest, who has been confined to her crib since birth. As a young woman Barbara leaves the farm, joins the Peace Corps, and subsequently travels throughout Asia and the Middle East. Returning to the United States, she makes New York City her home in order to pursue a career in publishing, but she continues to yearn for the farm and the solace she left behind.
Later, as an adult juggling two young children of her own, Barbara finds herself making the painful transition from daughter to caretaker. She returns home to South Dakota to visit her father at the end of his life, and struggles to reconcile their difficult relationship while there’s still time.
Excerpt adapted from Lost Without the River
His wrists were tied to the bed with white cloth strips. That was the first thing I saw. That and the shades pulled down to keep out the early morning light. I leaned close to his face and spoke more loudly than normal. His hearing had improved after a stroke some years back, but words seemed to blur together for him.
“Good morning, Dad.”
“Barbara.” He breathed out my name, a statement, not a question, so I knew that he recognized me.
I took his hand—all bones, it seemed, covered by pale pink rice paper—and bent to kiss his hollow cheek. He clasped my hand hard. I was surprised at his strong grip.
“You’d still be able to milk a cow by hand if you had to.”
He laughed a slow laugh. “I could do a lot of things if they’d let me out of this damn place.”
I noticed that his eyes were still the color of the sky at noon in January, and, though his hair was silvery white, it was still thick.
“I don’t think that’ll be possible for a time, but at least we can get rid of these while I’m here.” I concentrated on untying the cloth strips. Then I moved toward the window.
I remembered how my father had always been looking at the sky, sensing the air—looking for the first gathering of clouds in a dry summer; a ring around a winter’s moon that would foretell snow; a certain combination of heat, humidity, and stillness that warned of a twister. The air and the sky had been his life’s companions. And his enemies.
“There’s the most beautiful sky this morning,” I said and reached over to raise the shade.
The conditioned air hummed through my father’s room, and, looking up, I saw that his small portion of the morning sky contained no hint of the glorious colors above the horizon.
I turned back to the room. It was the size of an overgrown closet. On a small dresser, a miniature live Christmas tree still stood—green at the top, but with yellow boughs at the bottom. Attached were several miniature candy canes and a small Santa waving a bell.
My eyes turned to a plastic frame holding photos of different sizes and shapes: babies, brides and grooms, graduates, all of them smiling. A picture of my two boys in a brotherly hug filled one corner.
“How’ve you been, Dad?”
“A hell of a lot better than they want me to be.”
“Well, you did give us a scare.”
“I’m tough. I’ll go when I’m ready to go.”
“You always were a stubborn man,” I replied in a teasing manner.
“Not as stubborn as you. Traipsing after a dream, then not coming back.”
I opened my mouth to speak and immediately closed it.
“Way off there. You hardly saw your mother in her last years.”
Tears came to my eyes. He’d hit a nerve. I still felt guilty and bereft because I hadn’t been able to visit my mother more often during her final years, and it had become impossible for us to communicate over the phone.
My mother had had Parkinson’s disease, and she could no longer walk or dress herself, but worse for me was that the disease had weakened her vocal muscles so she couldn’t speak loudly enough to be understood. When I telephoned her from New York, she’d answer my questions. I’d ask, “What?” a time or two, and sense her frustration as she tried to speak more loudly, more clearly, but I heard only scratchy sounds coming from the earpiece. No matter how I tried, I just couldn’t understand what she was saying. I’d pretend I did and then fill in the silence with stories about Peter and Stephen. It would take me days to recover emotionally from those calls.
For what would be our last time together, she was in pain and hallucinating. She told me she wanted to see my father. In a cruel sleight of fate’s hand, he was in critical condition in the same hospital. When I explained that to her, her panic overcame the disease’s effects and, thinking of Dorothy, she cried out, “Do they have him in the basement?”
I heard a rustle down the hall and saw a nurse with a basin.
“Looks like it’s time for your bath,” she told my father.
I turned toward the doorway.
“Now, don’t run off just because I tell the truth. Is that all that you know how to do? Run away from hard things?”
“I’ll stop by again this afternoon.” My voice sounded hollow, but my father either didn’t notice or thought the fact not worth mentioning.
I walked down the hall to a small room near the front door, trying to decide if I should leave, as I’d said, or go back as soon as the aide had finished bathing him. I tried to concentrate on the decor and ignore the sick feeling in my stomach.
There wasn’t much to concentrate on. A few beige plastic chairs, a table with the local weekly, some old Time magazines, and several copies of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that huddled together for companionship on an otherwise empty shelf.
Fifteen minutes with him, and I feel guilty. Guilty. Small. Little. That’s it! Little again!
Unable to sit still any longer, I retraced my steps down the hall, past the nun’s desk, and out the door. The sun was warm against my face. I set off down a sidewalk beneath tall trees, walking quickly past small houses with neat exteriors and perfectly tended lawns, not even pausing to enjoy the colorful riot of flowers near their front doors.
I was walking fast, but inside I felt a deep tiredness. It was not yet seven. Everyone would still be sleeping back at the motel. I decided to walk the few blocks to Main Street.
I stepped into a small restaurant. The young waitress was wiping the counter. She looked up and smiled as I opened the door and walked in.
“Have a seat. Anywhere. I’ll be right with you.”
“I’m just going to have a cup of coffee.”
“That’s okay. We won’t be busy for another hour or so.”
She came from behind the counter, drying her hands on her white ruffled apron.
“You must be from somewhere else. Of course we serve our coffee black. You have to add the extras.”
I smiled, remembering how long and how many ruined cups of coffee it had taken me in New York before I had finally learned to say “black coffee.” I had always left untouched the whitish, messy-looking brew Manhattanites preferred.
“I used to live here.”
Just then, two men in olive-green work clothes, the name of their company embroidered on the pockets, came in. I was grateful for the interruption. I needed to think things out. If I was going to return to my father, I wanted to be calm, in control of my emotions. As all of us knew, each visit to him might be our last.
I’d go to the river. I hadn’t been there since my parents had moved off the farm ten years earlier. I couldn’t bear, even now, to see the house, the front porch torn off and the pristine white painted a muddy brown, to see other children in the yard, a different man in the barn, someone else’s mother in the kitchen. But I could reach one portion of the river by a back way, from the highway. I loved that river. It had been recreation, solace, adventure to me.
I paid the bill, leaving a New York–size tip that widened the eyes of my waitress. I walked quickly back to the motel, found the keys to the Avis car, and left a note. My younger son stirred and opened his eyes. I leaned over him, whispered that I had something important to do and that I’d be back soon. I kissed his forehead as his eyes closed again.
I turned off the highway onto an old gravel road, drove a short way, and parked. I remembered that we had never locked our farmhouse at night, much less a car, but my New York habits would not let me walk away from an unlocked vehicle.
Tall branches of sweet white clover brushed my legs, and the scent made me pause. I inhaled deeply. No other flower’s bouquet can compare to the scent of these small, nondescript blossoms that sit along the stem of a rangy plant, progeny of a crop that, at some point, had escaped from a farmer’s field.
Tractor ruts were separated by a center strip of grass and weeds. I could feel the large stones through the thin soles of my shoes. I followed this road until I came to a makeshift gate held shut by heavy chain looped over and over. On each side, three strands of barbed wire enclosed the land.
I slipped through the middle and bottom strands of wire. As kids we’d always helped each other through fences and held bushes and tall weeds so that the person following wouldn’t be whipped by the branches when they snapped back into place.
Then I looked closely at the twist of the wire, noticed its rusted points, its sharpness. The pain. I remembered the day my father had chased me through a similar fence on our property. Why couldn’t he ever have told that little girl she’d done something right? I’d always heard about the others. John’s academic achievements. Bill’s business acumen. Bob’s social ease.
Everything looked blurry. I made myself stop walking. There, across a flat area of short weeds, the river waited, a calm, brassy green. Recent floods had given it a new loop, and the bank was higher. A wide expanse of gray pebbles that had not been there before rested near the shore. Aliens. Unwelcome and disconcerting. My mental image of the river, unchanged for so many years, was stronger than the reality of what I was actually seeing.
I struggled through tangled brush and came to a small open area. Ahead I saw a rivulet, its miniature banks covered with emerald-green grass, running toward the river’s edge. I’d come from the opposite direction, but I knew this spot. This was where I had come each summer as a child to look for buttercups. I slipped as I hurried toward it and then bent down to take off my shoes. The mix of rough grasses and weeds hurt my tender feet, but it was cool, and as I neared the tiny stream of water, mud oozed up between my toes. I couldn’t find any buttercups.
Moving away from the river, I followed the little stream a short way. Then I saw them. The small, shiny flowers, each petal enameled a vivid yellow, held aloft by slim green stems. I started to pick a few but was forced to pull, then tug, at the stems. I became annoyed at their resilient strength. And then I became annoyed at my own impatience. After all, their strength, not just their beauty, was what they were.
I sat down, then lay back, closing my eyes. Smells of sweet grasses and pungent weeds enveloped me. A bee advanced, its purposeful tiny motor running at top speed, then retreated. A meadowlark praised the morning and the lushness of this one small parcel of land. A breeze wandered through the grass near my head, rattled the leaves on a nearby tree, faded away. The sun soothed my face, comforted my body, dried the mud on my feet, binding my toes together.
There was still time, time for the two of us to heal.
I sat up quickly, put my shoes on over my dirty feet, and ran back to the car.
He was lucid today, knew who I was. We would talk. Maybe even laugh. I unlocked the car, backed out the dirt road, and drove fast on the broad, almost deserted highway. The rising sun glinted off the rearview mirror.
Back at the nursing home, I hurried down the hall. I heard strange moans coming from my father’s room. Something was wrong.
When he saw me, he cried out, “Myrtle! Quick, get some sandbags! The water’s coming up fast!”
I stood, unable to move. My mother’s name. He had always called her Mother. Had he reverted during their last, painful years together to calling her by her given name, the two of them once more young sweethearts?
“Oh, God, help me! Don’t stand there! Hurry! There’s no time! Help me!”
His plea to me echoed mine to God.
I dropped the sprigs of buttercups that I’d brought for him on the dresser near the Christmas tree, went to the door, and closed it. Then I hurried to his bed, took the light blanket at the foot, and rolled it into a tight bundle. I ran to the door and wedged it firmly against the bottom.
My father watched me closely. “The window. Hurry! The water’s coming in the window!”
Rushing to the window, I pulled the shade down as far as it would go.
“There’s still a space—the water’ll come in there!”
Glancing around the room, I saw some towels hanging on the side of the dresser. Quickly I rolled them up, rushed to the window, and filled the space between the shade and the windowsill. Then, catching my breath, I came around the side of the bed, released the rail, and sat beside his thin form.
“We’ll be all right now,” he said.
I took one of his hands in both of mine and felt his pulse gradually slowing. His face looked foggy to me, and I felt a dampness on my cheeks.
“Do you know who I am?”
I thought of him searching his memories, trying to remember the women in his life. His mother and grandmother, the first of the caring, capable women. His schoolteachers. His brothers’ wives. The neighbor women, especially Heinie’s wife, Hattie, perhaps pausing to savor her raised doughnuts again. His beautiful, dark-haired daughters, Helen and Patt, and the disappointment that was Dorothy. My mother’s gracious sisters, always willing to listen to his stories one more time. His sons’ wives, who came into his life, bringing laughter and children again. And, of course, the only woman whose presence or absence really mattered: Myrtle, my mother. Remembering his life with her and maybe unwilling, or unable, to face the rest of his life without her.
“Dad, do you know who I am?”
“Of course. The blond one. Barbara.”© Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic 2019
Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic began her writing career as a reporter for The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She now lives and writes in New York City. Visit her at www.barbarascoblic.com.Photo of river ice courtesy of Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic
This excerpt is beautifully written and very touching. It must have been painful for Barbara to revisit her life. She she did it with great warmth and without mawkishness. Congrats.
Hi Elizabeth, Thanks for your thoughtful response. At times, writing about my parents and my childhood was difficult, but after taking time to contemplate the events, it became a healing process. I’m so happy that you enjoyed reading the excerpt. Best, Barbara
What I find fascinating is that not only this excerpt but practically any part of “Lost without the river”, long or short, sets the stage for Barbara’s experiences and feelings so perfectly. Barbara Scoblic is a first class narrator who doesn’t need many words to depict the world she lived in. Can one call it “Literary Impresionism” ? I am not sure but a few strokes of her pen without superfluous details send you right at the heart of how she felt.
Dear Pierre, I’m so happy you appreciate my writing style, and I especially love the “Literary Impressionism” label you bestowed upon it! Thank you for your very kind comment.