Finding The Parts That Remain
I honestly don’t know if I can finish this. I haven’t written a word for over two weeks and I’m tired, deeply, bone-dead tired after traveling through time zones with little sleep, no longer buoyed by adrenaline. I want to try though. I missed connecting last week. Also, selfishly, I believe the return to our routine will help bring me the rest of the way home.
These past two weeks, I’ve been moving through places that I have thought of as home, steeping myself in the memories each one contains. The journey left me wondering if I even know what home truly is. The answer was no clearer when I got off the plane in San Diego on Monday night. Instead, it felt like washing up onto a foreign shore.
The sensation of movement continues even though I have, from outward appearances anyway, come to rest. I know I am of a piece, intact, but I am not whole. Pascal Mercier’s novel Night Train to Lisbon, a book I remember starting but not finishing (something I plan to rectify), contains a line that describes both my journey and my current condition:
“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” ― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
I didn’t realize that I was looking for the parts I’d left behind until they found me. In Rockport, MA, I spent several days with my oldest and best friend. This was the place I’d landed for my first job after college and had visited every year since then until Covid hit. One morning I rose at dawn and took a walk. I found my son at age three hurling himself into the frigid water at Front Beach. I heard the wild laugh of my first boss, mentor, and friend, Peter, when I walked out to the edge of Granite Pier at dawn and remembered the times we raced there to “look off” into a Nor’easter. I saw the slow, deliberate strokes of his wife, Pat, as she swam out to the middle of one of the quarries where we gathered so many times then and through the years since. I not only saw all of theses ghosts, I saw who I was with them. I saw how knowing them and loving them and loving this postcard of a town on the edge of Cape Ann formed me. Peter and Pat are dead. My son is 46 and has lived far from the Atlantic for decades. The place had become a container of memories, a place where I found myself weeping as I walked from point to point. I could not tell if the tears were grief or joy or both.
I traveled north. I walked into my father’s house and for the first time felt the full impact of his absence. I hugged his wife but I missed the awkward hug of my dad who was never comfortable showing physical affection in this way. The next morning, I found myself listening for the sound of his guitar from upstairs, or his frustrated hollering from the basement when his computer refused to do what he expected it to. The deck where we sat and watched clouds was still waiting for me but I sat there alone with my coffee and more tears. During our last weeks together our roles as parent and child had blurred a bit because he needed more help than he could give but now, in the silence of his house and alone on the deck watching the clouds, I understood I was no longer a daughter.
When I went further north to join my siblings at my mother’s house for several days before my father’s funeral, it was the first time we’d been all together at once in either 11 or 16 years. No one could remember exactly. It felt like it had been forever. We were all people who had left parts of ourselves in various places over decades. My mother’s house seemed to groan with all the bodies and individual histories that came with them. Yet here we were, in our sixties, suddenly and piercingly aware of how much we still felt and still wanted to be connected. A death had pulled us back to this place, to be together. We didn’t talk about it much but we knew the future would hold more of these occasions, not fewer. Time felt limited, and precious. Without talking about it, we found ourselves trying harder, being kinder, letting things go quicker, hugging longer.
One day we walked a short distance into wildlife preserve at Cherry Pond, just the five of us, my niece and my sister’s partner. A simple, small walk in a place that had raised us as much as our parents had. I don’t remember if any of us had done such a thing together when we were growing up when it seemed so important to strike out on our own, to build lives away from the mountains. We had all left. Of the five of us, only one returned for good. He said one night, “I love this place.” I realized I love it too. I need to be in it, to see it, to feel it, to walk in it. I need always to return to Jefferson to seek the parts of myself that it holds. But then I will need to leave it again because I have built another home, another family far away in California. In between there were other places I called home: Rockport, several towns in New Jersey. Then there are other places I’ve traveled or visited and felt an instant connection with, that have taken a piece of me and provided me with memories I still visit in my heart and mind: Italy, Vermont, or Colorado where my son has lived for such a long time.
I look back at what I’ve written here and realized I’m a bit all over the place — as is, apparently, my sense of home. I’ve always felt defined by the places I think of as home. Even as this trip restored me, it showed me how much “home” has changed and will continue to change. If I’ve left a part of me in every place I’ve loved and lived, I am wondering how much of me will ultimately remain. I know I will be writing about this again one way or another. I am not through with this question.
For now, I’m here, in San Diego but I am wearing a faded blue sweatshirt that was once my dad’s. I wore it down to the lake last week, in the early morning before everyone woke up, and used it to dry myself off after emerging from a swim that I remember now as healing. I may be clinging to it because of him but I think it is also because of the New Hampshire lake water I still feel against my skin when I pick it up and put it on. There is a hole in it, a small legacy from my father who was forever snagging himself on corners, old nails, or the wood he would bring in from the pile outside to the wood stove in the den of the house he shared with his wife.
Every time I close my eyes, I can see the road in front of my mother’s house, the mountains in the distance, and the single late-blooming lupine in her backyard that offered itself as a last kiss to summer.
I keep looking at a photograph of me and my siblings during our walk in the Cherry Pond Preserve. And another one, seated in rockers along the deck of a cottage we stayed in the night before we buried my father. We are messy, sweaty, not at all picture perfect. But we are laughing. There is joy.
They and the places we shared are far away now but I can still hold them and, for a little bit, feel we are home.
Tell me about the place or places that are home for you. Did you leave and go back? Did you stay? What pulled you there? What defines home for you - people, place, a feeling you have when you think of it or go there?
If you are looking for a fun, thoughtful movie set in one of the most beautiful places in the world, try CODA (Apple TV). When we started watching a few weeks before I left for New England I didn’t realize the whole thing plays out on Cape Ann which includes Gloucester, MA but also parts of Rockport where I lived and love. The quarry I mentioned plays a cameo role.
I have no reads for you this week but feel free to share what you’ve been reading. We’ll add them to the books on the Spark Community Recommendations page at bookshop.org where every sale supports local bookstores. Any commission we earn will go to supporting literacy programs.
Thank you for all the messages you sent and for sharing your messages about your experience with Alzheimer’s. One of our Spark community members, Janet G., is honoring her mother by walking to raise money for research into the disease on October 9 when the 2021 Walk to End Alzheimer’s will be held. Every little bit helps. To support her and her team and help raise money for Alzheimer’s research, click HERE.
I expect to be back full force next week. Please let me know how you are and what you are reading, what you are thinking about. I love to hear from you.