May 7, 2009
I am home.
Not the home where I live, that I share with Julie, Erica, Teya, the dogs, the ducks, and the neighbors.
I am home, in the house where I grew up. It is silent here, except for the teapot suffering its last gasps as it cools down (I’ve been making coffee -- apparently my brother’s automatic drip machine bit the dust). And the severe wind rumbles out of the northwest, throwing tree branches and sparrows around.
I just arrived, and I haven’t turned any lights on yet. I wonder about that. I’ve been wandering around the old house, remembering. This is -- and will always be -- Mom’s kitchen. It is still very much the way she decorated it in the late 70’s. Her clock and her old colored glass bottles sit high atop the cupboards. The radio -- it was always tuned to 1260 KROX, Crookston in the mornings -- still rests on top of the stove. Mom died nearly fifteen years ago, and since that time the kitchen has been occupied by men who do not redecorate. No, that’s not true. My brother has done some cool things with other parts of the house, but the kitchen still belongs to Mom.
I spent a few minutes rereading the titles of books on the shelf in the living room. Dad’s books, mostly, except for my sister’s copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Many of the titles have either the word “wilderness” or “Old West” in the titles. Evenings Dad would settle into his recliner and pore through a book, or sometimes a newspaper. He loved to read. The date on his tombstone reads “2000” -- nine years ago. I stopped there on the way here. Drove the track off the road, out behind Faaberg Lutheran Church, and crouched for a few minutes at their graves. Their bodies rest at the southeast corner of the cemetery. I set my face into the wind, crouching there, and looked left across my uncle’s sandy field, across the creek, up the hill a mile away to the home place. I love the fact that you can see there from here and here from there. Those two invested so much of their lives in this house, on this soil, here on this hill, and it just seems right that their final earthly resting place should have a view of home.
I remember when we buried Dad. I walked out in the cemetery -- cold, it was Thanksgiving week -- to check out the grave site. We buried Mom there six years before. They had broken through the first inch or so of frost to dig in the sandy soil, down six feet, but they had not yet put Dad’s concrete vault in the hole. So I could look down into the sand and see where the soil had sloughed away, see the side of Mom’s vault down there in the earth. Just a few square inches of concrete showing through, you understand, nothing morbid. But it gave me great comfort that cold day to think that they would lie just a few inches apart -- not quite touching, as I had seen them not quite touching most of my life, but close. Close like I had seen them all my years at home, within reach but never needing the reassurance of actually reaching out. Knowing where the other stood.
As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on ghosts. Who knows what goes on for troubled spirits after death? I’d figure the matter was pretty well settled except for the strange story in the Old Testament of Saul and the witch of Endor calling up Samuel’s ghost. So I’m not sure. I figure the Bible teachers who claim they have all of that figured out need to go back and read their Bibles more carefully -- read for the silent places, the places where the Bible is frustratingly mute. I think the silences are inspired by God, too.
I don’t know what to think about ghosts. But for me, this landscape is packed with them. Maybe that’s just memory run amok. But I wander the cemetery and read their names on the stones, and they leap out of the ground and I listen to them speak at church meetings, or I overhear them laughing at the table during the Memorial Day dinner. People I barely knew, or knew only by face, climb out of the ground to populate the memories of my childhood. I remember the apocryphal stories about people and farms. I remember their clothes, their expressions, their children and grandchildren.
I have forgotten so much. It is because I don’t live here any more, and visit so rarely. My life is in another place now, far to the south. The boxelder and aspen trees in my yard have tiny leaves opening to the wind today, but the trees here are still trapped in buds.
Five hours in the car. I left the radio off nearly the whole trip. Lots of time to think. Lots of time to remember. Lots of time to let my mind and my heart open for the all-too-brief visit I have here.
There are so many things I want to do. I’d like to stop over at my oldest friend Kevin’s place, catch him in the middle of switching the milking machine from one cow to the next. We were like brothers from different families, and I haven’t talked to him in months. His parents are getting older -- the second set of parents I neglected, after my own -- and I would like to say hello.
I want to do something stupid -- I want to haul this laptop up a tree into a deer stand. I want to sit up in the tree for a while and write what I think while I’m on stand. It’s too windy for the deer to be moving; wind to a whitetail is like sandpaper on their already-abraded nerves.
I want to wander. Just walk like I used to do day after day. Down to the creek, to see if the spring flooding has changed the crossing places. Only now I would be looking for changes that come from -- what -- ten years of floods? When was the last time I walked that creek? I used to know every foot of the banks, every pool and puddle. I’d like to see if there’s still a deep pool north of the fallen log down in the pasture, the pool I walked through in the dark one night, mistaking the crossing -- and ended up neck-deep. I’d like to walk through the north pasture, through the woods. I was there last fall, hunting, but only for a couple hours and only on one tree stand.
There are other possibilities that scare me. I toy with the idea of going into town and getting supper someplace tonight -- today is my brother’s birthday -- but the idea of seeing people I should know bothers me. I feel guilty. Then there are middle aged guys who come up to me -- they have crow’s feet around their eyes and their skin is going patchy and rough. They call me by my elementary school nicknames. “Clenchy! What are you doing here? Haven’t seen you for years! What are you doing these days?” How to answer that? I can launch into the story -- “I’m happily married to a woman you’ve never met, and she’s so patient and she has stuck with me through twenty years of marriage now. My daughters are 17 and 14, they’re really smart. Erica plays a mean piano and Teya keeps ducks and I love them both like crazy. They’re more talented and more well adjusted than I ever dreamed of being. I’ve got a great job as a pastor in a big church. Yeah, really big -- over a thousand in worship services each Sunday. No, I’m not the senior pastor, and I don’t want to be. I mostly teach classes, and I love it. I still bowhunt, though I’m not very good at it, and I love mountain biking, and I’ve got a book coming out this summer. My first. I’m pretty proud, but it didn’t turn out quite like I wanted. So I’m thinking about what to write next.”
After the first three words, they’d tune out. They’d be happy for me, and they’d spread the word around town that they’d seen me, and that encounter would become part of the “Have you been in touch with anyone else from our class?” that gets exchanged like nickels and dimes when we brush up against each other’s lives.
It scares me a little bit, because I don’t live here anymore. I don’t know these people. I have become an outsider in my own home. If I think about that too long, I start to have trouble breathing.
I spent years leaving this place. The first time I really left I was seventeen. Got on a Greyhound in Grand Forks and got off in Seattle. The homesickness that autumn nearly killed me. I remember leaving this farm once when I was twenty-four. I was living in Washington then, married and making payments on a house ten miles west of Seattle. Julie and I had been here for a brief visit. I knew, driving away, that I wouldn’t be back for a long time. A year at least, maybe a couple years. As we drove out the driveway, I watched it roll past me, roll behind me, roll into my past. And driving along the alfalfa field next to the oaks, great wrenching sobs tore out of my throat and I tried but failed to explain to Julie that it wasn’t missing the people, though I love them, it was the place. You can pick up a phone and reconnect with a person. You can read their handwriting (we still exchanged paper letters in those days.) But you can’t telephone the smell of the alfalfa on a July morning as the dew is coming off, or the texture of the bark on the oaks in Gene’s woods, or the clammy feel of earth as you’re digging around the roots of a poplar. Just the shape of the hills. The swell of earth under the crops. I come back here now and I see trees, old trees, fallen and decaying. I remember them on that drive out of the driveway, sobs catching in my throat, and those trees were no taller than I was. Now they are old and dead and going back to the soil.
I suppose in a sense it’s the Gerard Manley Hopkins thing -- “It is Margaret you mourn for.” I sob for myself, for my own death and decay. That’s today. But in another sense it’s really not about death, it’s about relationship. Is it possible to have a relationship with a landscape? Oh, yes. It would be interesting to know how many hours I spent between zero and seventeen playing in this landscape. The summer I was twelve, when I spent twenty or thirty hours over a couple weeks observing a pair of blue-winged teal in the swamp just south of the mailbox. Just sitting in the tall grass, watching. Or the next spring I spent up to my knees in water, catching fairy shrimp in the meltwater over in MacMahan’s woods. The moonlit nights on cross-country skis crossing the pastures, sitting on the hilltops and just taking it all in. How many hours?
One rainy day when I was a child my older brothers and I spent four or five hours wandering our old house -- the present structure was built in two stages, part in 1907 and part in 1914 -- looking for what we called “irregularities.” A wall that bowed out a bit, a piece of trim that was crooked, plaster that dried without the proper texture. These were not imperfections, but rather the beautiful unique things that represented the hours of work of the real people who made this house. I realize now that I spent most of my childhood doing exactly that with the landscape around here. Getting to know the enormous rock that for years worked its way farther into the world from the depths of the earth in the field south of the driveway. It was like watching a very slow resurrection as that rock came out of the soil a quarter inch at a time. Learning about the hidden grassy glades in the south woods, the places the deer like to bed on warm days. Memorizing the twists and turns of tree trunks, or absorbing the way the setting sun gleamed through the holes in the west wall of the old wooden barn, long since fallen.
The summer I was eighteen after my first year away at college I lived with my parents. It was terrible for them and for me. I chafed under their legitimate desire to know where I would be and what I’d be up to. They never tried to limit my comings and goings, they just wanted to know when I’d be around the house. They had missed me, too, and hoped I’d spend some time at home. In spite of my desperate homesickness I hated home and resented them. So to bleed off tension that summer I developed the habit of wandering at night -- going out in the middle of the night and wandering the landscape. Walking through the pastures and the woods. One moonless night I navigated the north pasture totally by feel. I knew every tree, every trail. Those nights I would return to my bed about two or three in the morning and sleep contented. I was reconnected with my roots, and life flowed from the hard bones of the land into my body, into my soul. Many times I have longed to repeat that summer -- to dig deep into this place again. To have enough time here that I can reconnect with some of the people I have missed. To visit in more than teaspoonfuls.
In his poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins -- who was thoroughly manic depressive -- used a technique that a critic somewhere along the way labeled “inscape.” He described the state of his heart by describing an outer landscape. This “inscape” became a way for Hopkins to tell some of the things that were either too beautiful or too painful to describe directly. His “inscapes” draw me in and help me see.
I think part of what I’m trying to do by going home is to get a look at my own inner landscape. I want to understand my heart better. I find myself mystified by the drives and fears that shape my days. Seems like I should know myself by my 40’s but that’s just not the case. I know more than I did in my 20’s -- thank goodness -- but I’m still shocked by my behavior sometimes.
So I drive these roads, communing with the ghosts. I sit in this house and hear their voices, remember the silent mealtimes, the long adult conversations while we children listened at the vent in the floor upstairs. I remember cool rain on the hot roof of the attic. Summer days I remember climbing so high in the pine on the lower driveway that the branches barely held my weight, or swinging on the rope in the woods below the shop. I lie back in the warm waters of my father’s love-hate relationship with this farm. I hear again the fragments of stories, stories of people I loved but never met. Uncle Earl, home on a brief leave before his unit shipped out for Normandy, where he would die in the water. Grandpa Richard, who died before I was born, holding the plat measurements of the “town” of Rindal in his head, pacing them off and reciting them to Palmer, who told me the story the morning after a storm took down most of the trees between his house and ours. Gulbrand, my great grandfather, his legendary strength faded with age, bitter and mean in his dotage trying to pinch my mother and her sister, little girls who played too close to his long fingers. They all lie in the cemetery now, and the rising sun casts the long shadow of the steeple over their graves, so when the saints march in to worship at Faaberg Evangelical Norwegian Lutheran Church on a Sunday morning they are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, row on row like corn, hearing from their place in the ground the echoes of the organ, the pipes vibrant with the strain, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and bring me home, what joy shall fill my heart; then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great Thou art!’”