Let’s take a short break from my series in the book of Job. I’ll return to it next week. For the moment, allow me to journal some thoughts as I visit my mother and siblings in the small Louisiana town I hail from.
These trips are never long enough. I end up rushing around, drinking twice the coffee, and apologizing to relatives about why I can only afford bite-sized chunks of time with them. The whole experience will pass just quickly enough to leave me exhausted, but wishing for more.
It occurs to me that the largest part of life is spent living forward. It comes at a price. As we position ourselves with single-minded focus on goals, the past slowly degrades from hi-def to black and white, down to grainy celluloid, then to silent features, and finally slips into primitive flicker shows. We lose details, sounds, smells, sights. The gaps in our memory of the past grow.
But each journey back to old haunts and homesteads is like entering a time warp. Past, present, and future all blend together into one big latte. More than ever I’ve been struck with how siblings catalyze the process. They keep the color of your history from being washed out by the relentless march of time. That can be more important than we realize.
I remember once many years back during a visit to Pineville, when an unexpected block of time came available. On a whim, I cruised past one of the houses of my youth. It was located on a red dirt road that ran off the highway and curved around out of sight.
The house had a country simplicity about it. That is to say, it sat on blocks. My dad said it would’ve fallen apart if the termites hadn’t been holding hands inside the walls.
That place was Disneyland for a kid who never actually ended up going to the magic kingdom. We had ducks and chickens, which was just as good. Young boys chase these waddling, strutting creatures, but never quite catch them. It’s almost as if by catching one, you’ll discover a parallel universe.
On rainy days I stayed in the country house, and pieced together model airplanes with badly applied globs of glue. On dry blazing southern afternoons I hunted for fossils, combing the gravel on the shoulders of that road.
We trapped crawfish and snakes down at the creek on the back boundary of our pasture. When that got old, we built forts out of garbage wood and old nails.
Then there was the time when:
My dad shot a snake in the front yard with his .32 revolver. I still hope to do that when I grow up.
We kids tried to start an Our Gang Little Rascals circus. House cats are never good candidates to be part of a trained act.
Our electric fence taught some painful lessons. None of them needed to be repeated.
We picked Brambleberries from the twisted coils of thorn bushes. Under skillful hands, they turned into a little bit of heaven—pies.
We ate endless meals of produce grown in the enormous garden next to the house. Sorry, but I still think mustard greens taste like big mushy piles of grass clippings.
We offered Yo-Yo, our mean homicidal pony, a concoction of spoiled sour cream, Tabasco sauce, and a packet of unsweetened Kool-Aid powder. He took two big bites of it, then curled his lips up at us and brayed like a donkey. For an animal with no fingers, that seemed to function just fine as an obscene gesture.
I fell through the attic floor…over my parents’ bed. Masking tape didn’t help to fix or hide it.
We managed to produce a noxious cloud from a Sears chemistry set. It got into the drapes and the odor never went away.
We fed captive animals of various sorts with stuff stolen from the kitchen. Turtles do not care much for pop tarts crust.
Some 30 years later, I found myself sitting in my Toyota on that same road, looking at the house. Except there was no house. Or pasture. Or fence. Or giant garden. Just a thick stand of pines that looked almost primordial, like they had always stood there, swamped in dim, woodsy light. It was as though none of the things I mentioned ever happened. No proof of them remained.
Somebody had bulldozed that world.
And it really would be lost forever, except these ghosts in my head belong to my siblings as well. We share them with each other, laughing and trying constantly to sharpen our partial memories by tapping into one another’s perspectives. When we do, our community quilt grows.
I’m hoping my daughter, who was born in Ohio, will catch a fleeting taste of where her sometimes quirky dad comes from. Maybe she’ll relish it too, like the salsa a friend keeps begging you to try, and then you finally do and think it’s awesome.
I don’t think anybody ought to try to live in the past. They can’t, anyway. I happen to agree with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, when he said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
I get this.
We don’t try to live yesterday. But we can certainly enjoy the positive aspects of its lasting smell, and its enduring influence.
It’s the fingerprints of God on your life story–something easier and more vividly celebrated if you have help from those “pesky” siblings.