Several years ago I traveled to Michigan where my younger sister and I made a pilgrimage to our hometown of New Era. Vonnie parked her car at the elementary school and we walked the streets of the little village that raised us, a village that remains relatively unchanged over the last fifty years. We swang on the swings, stopped at the creek where we used to catch frogs, and walked the familiar railroad tracks. We wandered through the cemetery to find our baby sister's grave, where another sister has since been buried beside her.
We ended up in front of the house we shared with our parents and five siblings. As I stood looking up at the window of our childhood bedroom, I felt a sudden urge to walk through those rooms. Having married at the young age of sixteen, I wanted to allow myself a more gentle pass through the last membrane of my childhood rather than having been yanked like split thread through an ill-fitting needle.
I dragged my shy sister up the sidewalk and rang the bell. The door opened and the current pastor and his wife welcomed us on a tour of the parsonage. Vonnie and I held hands as we moved through the rooms. "There's where Mom's water broke before they took her to the hospital and she delivered a dead baby," I said. Vonnie stared quietly at the floor.
I pointed to a corner of the kitchen. "We had a mangle right here. It hissed when Mom ironed the pillowcases, steamed up all the windows."
We paused at the foot of the stairs leading to the second floor. "And that's where I found Mom. I was upstairs, weaving potholders when I heard her fall down the stairs. Nobody else was home, so I ran next door and got the neighbor. I remember the ambulance taking her away. "
We peeked into our parent's former bedroom. "They hooked traction up to her bed to take the pressure off her spine."
"The room was much bigger then," my sister said.
"Everything was bigger then. Except the tree in the back yard. Can you believe we used to climb to the top?"
"You did. I only went about halfway up. You were always the risk-taker."
We thanked our hosts for the tour and walked across the street to the church where, as children, we'd spent unbearably long hours counting ceiling tiles and organ pipes to pass the time between my father's first prayer and the last low note of the doxology. I took pictures of the stained glass windows and the wooden plaque with white hymn numbers resting in the carved grooves. Vonnie stood at the back of the auditorium, talking with a woman who was readying the sanctuary for the evening service. I walked toward the familiar podium, stroking the back of each curved pew I passed. When I reached the pulpit, I grasped the lectern, feeling my beloved dad's presence in every grain of the wood as I looked out over the invisible congregation.
The woman in the back tugged on her sleeve, seemed uncomfortable with our intrusion. "What's she doing up there?"
"That's my sister," I heard Vonnie say. After a moment, she smiled and leaned toward the woman. "She's a writer," she added, as if that explained everything.
And in a way, I suppose it did. My next book is, after all, a coming-of-age novel set in the Midwest. But truth be told I wasn't just working on a future book; I was revisiting early chapters of my story, one written upon my bones many years ago. It felt good to inhabit that young girl knowing what I now know. I wanted to give her a hug and tell her everything will be fine. That it's okay to take risks sometimes. And that you're never too old to climb trees.
I wonder, if you could go back and whisper something into the ear of your younger self, what would you say?