Thursday, June 25, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

Today author Anesa Miller joins us with her poignant essay, "Now I Lay You Down to Sleep."

My daughter, Ruth, and I have come to my old hometown. I'm clutching a fringed leather pouch that my mother gave me not long before she died. I was sixteen then, five years younger than Ruth is now. It has often pained me that my daughter never knew her grandparents, so I’m glad she can be with me today as we try to draw close to the older generation. We find a sheltered spot behind a willow thicket to screen us from the eyes of our hosts, parents of a girlhood friend. Not that they would disapprove. I just could not explain what we’re about to do.

From the pouch, I pour handfuls of dry herbs—sweetgrass, cedar, and sage—into a handy aluminum pie plate. Ruth strikes a match. When flame rises, I feed it several old, yellowed letters in long envelopes. The paper curls and blisters like swatches of black silk under a hot iron. Wind whips the fire until it threatens to overflow the pan. I wish it would flare up to warm a gathering of fellow mourners, or rage out of control and destroy unwanted memories. But when Ruth says, “Whoa—it’s really burning!” my fantasies disperse, leaving gratitude for her presence: My girl, my firstborn.

I cover the flame with an abalone shell. When all is blackened and reduced, the ash fits into the shell perfectly. I let things cool and replace them in the pouch. Now we’re ready for a visit that has my knees quaking beneath me…

More than eight months have passed since my father died. I couldn't come here at that time. There was no funeral. He had lost touch with everyone he once held dear. But it wasn’t the lack of ceremony or absence of relatives that kept me away.

There's a stepmother. An old friend has persuaded her to vacate my childhood home for a few hours today. To me, this woman is a purely destructive force. Two years after my mother died, she entered my life and convinced me there is more than myth to the fairytale villainess. Does some deep need make her drive out the first wife’s fledglings so she can claim the man and his property for her own?

I often wondered if an unspoken disappointment poisoned the waters. My stepmother’s age was never mentioned, but she looked at least ten years younger than my father. Maybe she hoped for a baby. If so, it fell either to nature or my father himself (who, my mother once confided, was a hesitant dad the first time around) to crush that dream.

All I know for certain is that my stepmother’s tolerance of me collapsed on the sole occasion when I visited after my marriage. I was eight months pregnant. My father sat passive as “some deaf Buddha” (as I wrote soon after) while she harangued me and my bewildered young husband on the weak minds of women who "crave motherhood." “Don’t expect help from us,” she declared. “I won’t play your Earth Mother game.”

Twenty years passed before I heard from her again.

Then last spring, I recognized her handwriting on an envelope in the mail. Inside was a photo of my father, shriveled and vacant, dated one month previous. Folded with this picture was a newspaper clipping. His obituary from the previous week. There was no note of any kind.

While my mother lived, she moderated my father’s reclusive tendency. Once she was gone, coworkers came to regard him as a snob who couldn’t be bothered to chat about cars or sports teams. My stepmother was not a good influence. She once accused me of climbing trees to spy through her bedroom window. She accused my brother of sending threatening letters that mysteriously vanished when their existence was questioned. My father accepted her paranoia. Barriers grew that no old friend could breach, and they descended into a follie à deux.

…My daughter and I arrive at the house where I grew up.

My head is light, almost spinning. My hands tingle. I imagine if my stepmother were late departing, I might rip out handfuls of her hair. Break into furious shrieks. Some say extremes of self-expression are therapeutic, but I don't want my daughter to witness them. To think that Ruth was in my womb when I last stepped up this walkway and through these doors—!

I grip her hand.

We walk through the house. I won’t dwell on the rooms—every inch familiar as if the very boards could recognize and welcome me. I see many of my mother’s things, absorbed into the current decor, as if my heart might conjure her at any moment…

More important to me is a walk outside. We visit each tree that I know from my childhood and find a tangle of vines that used to be a garden. Stone paths my parents laid as young homeowners show through fallen leaves. I've told Ruth how I loved to play all over this yard. I've shown her photos from those days so she understands where we are: my mother’s garden and also her grave, where my father and I buried her ashes long years ago.

Here, I walk in a circle and pour out the ashes of my father’s letters. Letters in which he refused, time after time, to see me without his wife present, or to be any part of my life other than a silent absence. “I will fight no more forever.” My struggle, whether for love or revenge, is now at an end.

On an ancient rail-tie bench, I sit—fellow survivors in a corner of the garden. The day has turned windy. Overgrown grass shivers, and Ruth takes refuge in our rental car. A grade-school song comes to mind, and I sing,

            Like an eagle flying in the sun, I fly free from sorrow.
            Like a deer running on the plain, I run to tomorrow…

That is when I see my father, clear as a cloud in the sky—the way he looked, fit and cheerful, when we used to take long walks together. Back when I was a girl, and he was still the perfect dad. He turns to me and smiles, glad to welcome me home after a ramble.

Anesa Miller is a native of Wichita, Kansas. Her novel, Our Orbit, was just released this month from Booktrope Publishing. The passage included here is adapted from her book To Boldly Go: Essays for the Turning Years (2013, Artisan Reader).

No comments: