The rolling hills, green and lush grasses and trees passed by the window as I looked out. This was my childhood, Maryland and Pennsylvania and it wasn’t a pleasure trip. My dad and I traveled back to Maryland to say goodbye to my cousin, Craig. He died last November and his immediate family decided that the holidays wouldn’t do for goodbyes. So, on April 8, a bright, cool, blue-sky day, we gathered at Catonsville United Methodist Church and grieved my cousin with family, friends and the love of an ominpresent God.
The service was simple and beautiful and we all ate lunch in the anterooms of the church, then back to my cousin Marilyn’s and her husband Don’s house. There was more food, more stories and a time of sharing, laughter, grief and sadness–but also, support and kindness. The bloom of it, a kind of thorned-rose that was at once sharp and beautiful, strong and vulnerable, was a site for us all. I think we knew it, too.
I’m not a champion traveler–flying is nerve wracking, though exciting to me, and new schedules, broken routines, different beds and sleeping arrangements, all of it messes with me more than it should. But since I don’t travel for work, the only time I do is when I’m forced to–or I’m on a vacation. True here as anywhere, but there was a kind of peace as night fell for those three nights in Maryland. I slept well, though briefly, and I was not troubled by serpent dreams or haunting images. I simply slept.
On Sunday morning, I awoke early and took a solitary morning walk. My cousin lives less than a mile from the house my aunt and uncle lived in. I spent many happy hours in that house and brought my own family there in 2012. The place is a store of memories for me, all of them good and loving ones. But when my aunt could no longer safely navigate the house on her own in her 90’s, she sold it and moved in with my cousin. My aunt passed a year before Craig did and so it was that I found myself in the early morning cool outside of the house now owned by strangers, but flooded with streams of childhood memory–and of recent memory that I’ve written about previously here.
It was Palm Sunday and we rode up to the Pennsylvania border where my cousin’s son and his family live. The day was spectacular, cool and breezy and the warm sun’s contrast brought into sharp relief the slow-sloping, gentle and low mountains of Maryland’s north-western country. Adams County, Pennsylvania sits just across the close border and Camp David and the Appalachian Trail run hard by here in the northern portion of the Blue Ridge. And here I ignored with near abandon the actual activities of the present–a birthday party for the young one’s of my second-cousin’s family. I was adrift on clouds of images–real and imagined–of my own childhood. I spent a good deal of time in Maryland with my aunt and uncle, my cousins and family and for a short time, lived an hour and a half away in Pennsylvania. I mark those times now with stars of favor because they were a firm foundation. And there was this feel of that balmy time, of no real cares and of summer coming while lightning bugs filled the sky and shimmers of lightning rolled across the valley, pelting small rain drops in their wake.
But it wasn’t that–not at all. It was a time of grief, marked by growing older, full of cares and crosses and knowing that all is fleeting. So Monday’s early morning flight back to the west coast was a passage through time. The Southwest flight was from Baltimore to Oakland, Calif. and the normal route was to take dad and I over Ohio and Southern Illinois, Missouri and then west. Instead, we went to the north. We flew over Lake Michigan, just to the north of Chicago where I was a boy, then over Wisconsin, where my dad’s brother and my cousins from that family live and where we went as children to visit and vacation. I stole glimpses out the window, remembering, wondering and drinking it all in.
As we headed west, we flew over Yellowstone National Park, where we’ll meet Marilyn and Don again this summer and flew over the Rockies and out to the coast. I had traveled back in time and spent three days in a kind of dream where I was not the main character, but where I could be to heal and grieve and where I could help others do the same, reminded again that our greatest contribution in life is to be friends, to be family and to love one another.
Our pasts are windows and all too often, our suffering involves their memory, which can invade in the present and steal our content. But our pasts are also defining, self-monitored moments where our ages, as stone, are still and silent allowing us to catch up with them so we are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “borne back ceaselessly into” them.