Don NelsonSome of my memories of growing up remain brilliant and formative. Others are dull, diluted or inaccurately recalled. A few are stuffed away in a place I rarely access. I don’t often haul any of these out for general inspection, although confession — and having been raised Catholic, that’s what it feels like to reveal personal things — is supposed to be good for the soul.

As a writer — and sometimes I think of myself as one — you’re told that directly or obliquely tapping those singular human experiences is the only way to bore down to the broader truth of things. That takes nerve, and sensitivity, because no life is lived in a vacuum. Someone else is always involved, and close by.

I was aware of all these things as I was absorbed by a movie I saw for the first time last weekend. It’s called
Nebraska, and the script was written by my youngest brother, Bob. Nebraska was directed by the Oscar-winning Alexander Payne, himself a Nebraska native.

I say absorbed because I really can’t claim to have watched it in a detached or objective way. While the plot device is something Bob picked up years ago from a newspaper story, the movie’s narrative is largely about our family experiences. So of course I recognized things.

Friends and relatives have asked me (and Bob and my other three siblings and our mother) how much of the movie is “true” or “accurate.” The best way I can answer is to say it’s authentic. The main character, Woody Grant, is modeled after my father and his brothers (he had eight of them, and eight sisters as well).

Like Woody, our dad had his problems with alcohol, he lost his false teeth by the railroad tracks, he had a compressor (and a pickup truck) permanently borrowed by “friends,” he had a failed auto repair business and he was shot down in World War II (in Burma, while serving in the Army Air Corps). The “Chevy/Buick” scene? It happened just like that. For the record, our mom isn’t anything like Woody’s wife in the movie.

I once wrote, many years ago, that place is the anchor of memory, and here I plagiarize myself to make the case again. Nebraska the movie is about a lot of things, but for me it’s fundamentally about Nebraska the place. Almost every scene in the movie resonates with familiarity (of which the root word is family).

George Nelson was an intelligent man, a natural mechanic. I learned only in the past year that he had been promoted quickly in the service because of his aptitude, after his sister (Aunt Kate, the last survivor the 17 Nelson kids) died and our cousins found letters he had written to her in the war.

He had a good sense of humor and maintained an enduring dignity and guileless generosity. But he did not share much. A lot of what we know about him came from his relatives. I miss him not because I knew him well, but because I hardly knew him at all. Bob, seven years younger than me, was barely into his 20s when dad was hit by a car and killed while in a crosswalk.

Jacqui’s observation, after we watched the movie, was that perhaps Bob was using the story as a way to connect to his father and our roots.

Yes, I said. But I also think he was doing it for everyone in our family.


Don Nelson is publisher of the Methow Valley News.