We often think memories are made through grand gestures. But for Kassandra Montag, it’s the simple tasks that resonate.

By Kassandra Montag
Updated September 20, 2019
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WIND SCOURED THE MUSEUM grounds. My 4-year-old son kicked the back of my seat as I parked, humming along to the Cars soundtrack. An old-fashioned pink fire truck squatted in front of the museum, an old red hose still wound round the metal reel. My son squealed and reminded me we’d seen a different fire truck “just ’esterday.” We’d actually seen it a week ago, but to him, anything in the past occurred “just ’esterday.”

Wandering past the one-room schoolhouse and homesteader cabin, we paused before an old train. My son pointed out the engine, caboose, and coal car, elaborating on their functions.

In recent months, he’d lost all his baby weight and developed a thinner, more serious face, framed by hair no longer as wispy as corn silk. As we rambled about our house together, nostalgia occasionally hit me—that ache in the gut about time passing, slipping through the neck of the hourglass. I would wonder, “How can I make memories strong enough to capture this emotion?” I’d cup his face in my palms, and his ageless eyes would peer back at me.

I’d brought him to the museum because I wanted to show him something special from my past. When I was in high school, my mother and I were volunteers on an archaeology restoration project at this museum, cleaning dirt from mammoth fossils. She and I did this a couple of times a month over the course of a year, and now, 17 years later, was the first time I’d returned.

Inside the museum, I led my son up to the glass cases displaying the mammoth bones. He wasn’t impressed. He twisted away from me, in the direction of the Model T car.

Larger than I’d remembered, the bones looked like pale, shapely rocks. A tusk spanned six feet. My mother and I had been so careful, so delicate, laboring over them. Why were we so gentle? These looked like they could withstand eternity. But of course, looks are deceptive. Bones are both durable and vulnerable—not unlike our relationships with other people.

THE COLUMBIAN MAMMOTH roamed these grasslands roughly a million years ago with rhinoceroses, camels, bison, and saber-toothed cats. The mammoth bones had been found on a farm nearby in south-central Nebraska, preserved in the sandy soil. Giant boxes filled with bones and dirt sat in the back room of the museum, which looked like a warehouse and hummed with an overactive furnace.

My mother heard about the opportunity on a field trip to the museum with my sister. I was 15 at the time. My best friend had gotten a new boyfriend, and I’d become a dour cocktail of insecurity and boredom. I’d painted a mural of the African safari in my bedroom, complete with dangerous animals I’d never find in my backyard. I’d read books about girls coming of age in the Wild West. On the drive to the museum, I gazed out the window at passing fields and tried to imagine myself into another life. A bigger life.

I’d walk through the museum looking at the quilts from homesteads, the Model T, and the memorabilia of frontier life: a butter churner, a horseshoe, a kerosene lamp. All these objects were relics, reminding me of past lives. They felt more significant to me than objects in my home—the electric fan, digital clock, computer—purely because they were historical, because they had belonged to people who lived interesting lives as they settled on the prairie. These things held stories. My things belonged to a teenage girl in rural Nebraska at the turn of the 21st century, whose biggest event to date might be having been born.

I wanted to be part of that larger story, part of history—that communal memory of things not experienced. I didn’t realize I was craving something that couldn’t sustain me: to be a memory rather than to create memories of my own.

When my mother and I worked, we sat side by side on metal folding chairs and brushed dirt away until we uncovered the curve of bone underneath. Our heads bent low over the pallets, matching auburn hair slightly frizzy and curly. Sometimes my mother’s lips would lift in a slight smile at something I said, her jaw soft and relaxed. Her crisp scent of spring and blooming plants collided with that stale air and dust, creating an unforgettable fragrance.

Centuries had packed the dirt against bone until it held fast, but our rhythmic brushing broke it away inch by inch. Sometimes we chatted as we worked, but more often than not we enjoyed one another’s company in silence. Often all that could be heard was the soft swish of our brushes in the dirt boxes before us, almost meditative, as though we were monks transcribing letters. It became our special time, when I got to be alone with her, without my father, brother, and sister vying for her attention.

An archaeologist showed my mother and me a rotten spot in the jawbone where the mammoth had suffered a toothache. We joked about an Ice Age animal in need of a dentist and the strangeness of time. How much and how little changes.

On the phone the other day, I asked my mother why she had spent time cleaning fossils when she already had a packed to-do list. She answered, “How could I pass up spending time one-on-one with my daughter?” She said it so naturally, as if it hadn’t been a choice so much as a tradition she’d grown up with. Which made me think of her mother, who, when I was growing up, had taught me to sew my own clothes.

My grandmother and I altered the hems of pants, designed a skirt, and used a pattern to make a polyester blouse. I followed her hands across the fabric as we sewed a cotton dress for summer. Pins slid through fabric. Shears cut thread. Her knuckles swollen with age, my fingernails covered in chipping yellow nail polish. Together we guided the cotton under the moving needle, belonging to each other in that intimate silence.

WATCHING MY SON prance through the museum where I’d spent hours with my mother, I thought of a poem by Seamus Heaney. It captures a moment of closeness between a mother and son sharing a mundane task: “I was all hers as we peeled potatoes….I remembered her head bent towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives— / Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”

The poem reminds me how my most vibrant memories don’t come from big events or even impressive accomplishments. They come from simple, quiet chores done in the company of a loved one. Dusting fossils. Sewing a dress. They are my legacy, linking my family together, as much a heritage as the objects they produced.

After my grandmother got Alzheimer’s and forgot who I was, I still remembered how she grappled with fabric as if it were an unruly pet. My memories carried a part of her identity otherwise lost and preserved our connection until it spanned across time.

Becoming a parent has shown me how children sometimes express loneliness in their need to be special. They show you a drawing not just for the compliment but because, in showing you what they’ve done, they can be seen. Loneliness lurked under my yearning for a big life. My mother and my grandmother soothed it by simply sitting next to me.

At the museum, my son pulled me away from the bones and my reflections. He tugged me toward a long corridor lined with life-size dioramas of frontier life: a dining table set with china plates, a bedroom with a rough-hewn cradle, a rocking chair next to a kerosene lamp. Running ahead of me, he passed each scene in a whir. Racing through history, he skipped through decades and centuries.

SO MY SON WASN’T terribly interested in my brief foray into amateur archaeology, but that was OK. We’d make our own memories together.

Back home, my son and I planted herbs. Elbows-deep in dirt, we filled pots one by one until we could transplant the seedlings. Occasionally my son would pause and wipe sweat from his brow with the back of his hand like a weary farmer. A trail of dirt smeared across his forehead. Then he would lean into our task again.

Just as in Heaney’s poem, our heads bent close, and his breath mixed in mine. Dirt fell in soft thuds; our trowels scraped the bottom of the bucket. The moment held the echo of my other memories: the swish of a brush dusting bone, the whir of a sewing machine stitching cotton.

Maybe the way I remember the bones, my son will remember this dirt. I think so, because even months after that day of gardening, my son reminded me about when we planted herbs, “just ’esterday.”

Kassandra Montag is a poet and the author of the novel After the Flood ($22; amazon.com). She lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband and two sons.