We’re back in my hometown this week.
Hometowns are funny things. In mine, there is a playground that still holds the swings that helped me touch the sky. The streets are worn with the tire tracks of my hurting and happy teenage self. It’s the place that I survived school, fell in love with Riley and learned to say goodbye. A simple little suburb with too many gas stations and not enough bookstores. I didn’t think it was special when it contained my whole entire world.
I guess I still don’t.
I’ve been back many times since that morning I drove away from home for good. Every return has held nostalgia and the kind of ache you feel for Christmas mornings with presents that appeared from nowhere. This trip is different. I knew the first time back to the topography of my childhood after Dad’s death would be hard. I expected the memories and the low lying ache. I didn’t know the sidewalks would be full of ghosts.
Not real apparitions, although in my heart hurt state, I’d nearly welcome that kind of thing. No, rather it is a feeling of time meeting time. Today, I drove my girls past our family favorite breakfast spot. I had to gather my breath and hold my words out to keep them from shaking.
“This is where Papa took me to breakfast every time he let me skip first period of high school. We both always got bacon and eggs. He sopped up his egg yolk with sourdough toast. Did you know he called egg yolk ‘liquid gold’? That always made regular eggs seem so special. It isn’t everyday you get to eat gold.”
And both girls laughed and asked more questions. I answered them but the words I spoke were different than the ones my heart thumped out.
I know you don’t understand this, because I am out here with you in this car full of crumbs and cupholders. But I am in there, too. I am fourteen and my dad is telling me about a book he just read on the golden ratio and I am pretending to understand even though I’ve never even thought about the concept one day in my life. The bacon is crisp and I am sipping my soda slowly so that I can be just a little later to school. Even then I knew there was nothing they could teach me that I couldn’t learn better over breakfast with my dad. I think if I slow the car down just enough, I’ll see the two of us in there. His black hair meeting silver and my frizzy pony tail against a striped cotton shirt.
Instead, I turn my head to the road.
A few stoplights and then the two lanes up to the home that holds the years that changed me. It is smaller than I remember and the yard is a little less green. Zuzu wants to go in and I tell her we can’t. Really, I won’t. Stepping into a memory is a bruising business and my black and blue heart can’t stand up to the pummeling.
If you go back down the hill past a dozen houses that look the same and turn right, you can drive until the road ends. The pavement and trees planted by committee stop at the edge of valley that is all green hills and blue sky. A windmill moves with the breeze and cows walk under trees the color of picture book pages. Two different worlds held apart by a brown fence.
It felt right, so I stopped the car.
“Girls, I’m getting out for just a second.”
I walked the few feet out to the beginning of the dirt and touched the lock on the fence. It was warming to the hot day and the “No Trespassing” sign to its right had been rusted by the rain.
And then I cried.
I am from a green place with windmills that twirl out peace and stories that bring shine. I can feel its softness against my face and its flowers under my feet. I can see it in the bright places of my heart and know I am supposed to read under the shade of its trees. But I can’t get back there. It has been locked against my return. And so I am left to try to explain it in words that will not give.
I damned that place to hell and then gathered the thing back up against my soul to keep safe and freshly handled.
Tears drying, I walked back to the car.
Zuzu was asleep and Viola squeaked in back,
“Mama, you cry? Don’t be sad.”
“Oh honey, it’s alright to be sad. Don’t worry. Sometimes tears help me to remember. And I need to remember everything so I can give you a green place to miss, too.”
She didn’t understand what I meant. But someday, some heartbreaking, sun spotted day, she will. And I hope to God she feels me in the place where the road meets the world she’s had to leave behind.
Because heaven knows that if I have one damn thing to do about it, I will be there.