I recently took my Scout troop to the local fish hatchery. After a trip around the grounds and a turn at feeding the fish boiling in a crowded tank, we watched a short film. It outlined the life of a salmon from its birth through the final heroic journey back to its hatching place. When the lights came back on, several boys looked puzzled. “Why do they go back?” they asked. Our guide just shook his head. “Nobody knows.”
I think I do.
In my closet hangs a floor-length formal, exquisite in detail, precise in form. It fits me exactly—my mother spent hours, days, making it for my sister’s wedding. I never wore it. I told her not to make it; I wouldn’t be there. I didn’t see how I could drive 18 hours with so many small children. She said, “I’ll make it anyway. You might change your mind.”
She used all the same arguments as she did when Aunt Luray died. “Come. You need to come. The whole family will be there. Grandma hasn’t seen the baby yet.” I ached to go. But I couldn’t. We no longer all fit in the truck, and the next baby was nearly due.
Several years (and funerals) later, my sister called, inviting me to her wedding. I hadn’t been able to attend the first wedding, a civil affair. I had assured her, however, that when she was married in the house of God I would be there, no matter what.
I’ve been to my childhood home in southern Alberta, Canada, just once since my marriage. Always there was a baby on the way or a new one to care for or a blizzard in the mountain area we needed to drive through. For my sister’s wedding, my mother offered an additional incentive. My brother would be coming. His wife is bedridden with a difficult pregnancy in an Edmonton hospital, but if I made the trip, he would, too. She knew how close we were and how long it had been since we’d seen one another.
Among my Canadian relatives, I have 18 aunts and uncles, and 50 or so first cousins on my mother’s side alone. My childhood life was so intertwined with certain of the families that the boundaries between cousin and sibling, mother and aunt, father and uncle were nearly indistinguishable. It has been seven years since I have seen any of them.
Not that I don’t want to. There is an ever-present plotting for means to return. My husband doesn’t understand this. He has lived in one place nearly all his life. “We went there,” he says, as if once could be enough. I’m not sure_ I_ understand it. I didn’t really spend that much of my life there. What do I expect from a return? Why the urgency to visit the little podunk town of my childhood?
Nevertheless, a year never passes but that I don’t make plans. Always, something comes up. I resolve: This next summer when the kids are out of school we are going, no matter what. I rationalize that I want to interview my grandmother for a book I’m writing. I put aside every penny I can spare; I outline the questions I will ask: Tell me about meeting Grandpa. Childbirth. The day you walked yourself home from the dentist in town, pulling bone splinters from your gums. My children will explore my childhood haunts while we sit out under the old maple and talk. At night I will write. I will secure the memories.
Then my mother called. “Grandma’s in the hospital; Necia and I are going up. They’re selling the house. Do you want anything?” She didn’t ask if I wanted to go with her. She knows by now I won’t be making the trip. I hung up the phone and considered my life: this place that has become home, and the home that I ache for. I rock my feverish baby and hum softly to her the songs my grandmother sang to me. I remember weaving my fingers through the holes of the afghan thrown over the back of her rocking chair. I used to lean into her, hardly daring to shift positions lest she think I wanted down off her lap. I wonder what will happen to the afghan.
Suddenly I know: It is now or never. I don’t want my mother to bring me mementos or photographs or stories. I don’t want to hear what Grandpa said over dinner, secondhand. I don’t even want the afghan. I want to go home. In desperation I make my plans. I will pawn my wedding ring for gas money (it hasn’t fit in years anyway), pack a week’s worth of groceries from the cupboard and drive while the kids sleep. I’ll take them to all the places I visited as a kid, snap pictures of the gray, leaning barns. We will carry off the carved mantel from the abandoned house-turned-barn that will assuredly be razed by the new owners. I can picture it in my house, hanging by the front door, reminding me of my childhood home.
I will sit under the trees with my grandmother one last time, chewing ice and watching the evening progress, the blue of the sky giving way to clouds rising from the western mountains.
When my husband comes home from church, I make my declaration. I don’t care if there’s a storm in the mountain pass, the children are in school or the heater doesn’t work. We’ll wear gloves. I’m going.
He drops the keys on the counter and leans to look at me under the hanging cabinets. He seems unable to speak. Our five oldest children tumble in behind him in a flurry of snow and bedraggled Sunday School papers. They wake up the baby in their eagerness to be the first to tell me: “The van’s still at the church. We got to walk home!”
My husband says simply, “Transmission’s shot.”
The 4-year-old holds a hand up as high as he can reach, his eyes glowing with pride. “I climbed a snowdrift this big.” I cannot respond.
Home, yet so far from home. I pick up the laundry, plan the menu and study for finals. My mother brings me the mitten box from beside Grandma’s back door. I set it by my own and fill it with my children’s boots and mittens. I wonder when I will see my grandparents again. I try to imagine strangers living in the house of my childhood.
The phone rings. My mother. “You’ll never believe this. Grandma and Grandpa called me last night.”
“Really?” I respond. “How are they doing?”
“Grandma was homesick. They had Uncle Rex move everything back this morning,” she tells me. “They’ve repainted the house, and they’re replacing the carpets. They’re going to stay home where they belong.” I sit down on the mitten box and cry: home—where they belong.
Perhaps, inexplicable as it is, that is why we long to return. Joseph of Egypt lived his entire adult life in Egypt, and yet on the eve of his death he made his children swear to carry his bones with them and bury him in his own land. If mortal attachments could be mapped, like the human genome, we might identify at some molecular level the cause of them. As it is, we long, salmon-like, for the place of our spawning; fighting the currents of daily obligations and gargantuan obstacles of economic necessity for a chance to make it back, finally, to where we belong.
Kimber Lybbert, who has a daughter and five sons, has lived in Moses Lake, Washington, for the past decade.