Blurred Memory


Highway 111, eastern North Carolina, 2015.

When I was a young boy my family would take trips to the beach in Florida. My father insisted we leave early in the morning to beat the DC traffic and the afternoon heat of southern summers without air-conditioning. We would drive on Highways 1 and 301 through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

I liked riding shotgun and my memory is of my face pressed against the side window, making imaginary pictures of the blurred, yet coherent landscape with a simple blink of my eye; images fixed in a particular spot while seamlessly moving through it.

Traveling through eastern North Carolina this past week, on Highway 111 between Tarboro and Oak City, documenting the lives of farmer advocates for Farm Aid, my mind drifted back to those drives almost sixty years ago. What’s changed since then? And what hasn’t? What remains familiar? And what is now foreign? The sky, the smell, and the open and expansive topography are as if they’ve stood still in time, the same as I remember. But those constants are but a background to a new and changed landscape with fewer people, boarded up towns, and huge farms, one unlike my memory of a faded past.


Mom and Dad on Their Wedding Day

 February 25, 1945, My parents - Robert Warren Amberg, Catherine Galeano Amberg,

with Anthony Vitto and Mary Mastromarino Galante. 

Today, had they lived, would have been my parent’s 68th wedding anniversary. As it was, my father died in February 2002 as they were approaching their 57th anniversary and my mother passed away in 2008.

My parents married in a bit of a rush. Mom had been dating Ralph for a couple of years – a career Army officer – and my father was Ralph’s best friend. When Ralph broke off the relationship, my father stepped into the void and he and my mother were married within two weeks of their first date. Part of the rush had to do with World War II, which was coming to a conclusion in Europe, and after a couple of weeks of marital bliss Dad was shipped off to Italy where he stayed until the end of the war.

But part of the rush to marriage also had to do with my mother’s sense of rebellion. She was a first generation American of Italian and Sicilian ancestry who was clearly ready to move away from that old world way of living. My grandparents, however, were not quite ready to let go of her or their traditions and my grandfather, especially, was so displeased with the marriage that he didn’t attend the wedding. It wasn’t just that my father wasn’t Italian, let alone not Sicilian, but nobody knew anything about him, his family, or his prospects. My mother’s two young Italian cousins –whose families were also from Gioia de Colle in Puglia, Italy - stood with them at the wedding as symbols of friendship and love, but also as kind of sanctioning agents who recognized and accepted that the old world was changing. The marriage was a leap of faith for my father as well. He was a mid-westerner, a meat and potatoes guy, a quiet man steeped in good manners and efficient organization, who was marrying into a large, loud, and emotional Italian family that loved to gamble, drink, eat, and party. 

 Mom and Dad, Ormond Beach, Florida, 1978. 

By 1978, at the time of the bottom picture, my parents had four children, one grandchild, a house in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and thirty-three years of marriage behind them. By that time, as is the case with most relationships, the romance and the rebellion had worn off and they were faced with not only the good things they had built together, but also their differences in temperament, belief, and culture. My father had taken early retirement from his government job and was ready to move to Florida where they had bought a lot in a subdivision. But as time went on, it became increasingly clear that my mother would never leave her family or the place she had always known as home.

They stayed together until the end and I, for one, often wondered why. But my parents were of the generation that stayed together and honored their commitments, no matter the differences that arose later in life. It’s a lesson many of us could well learn from.