Chapter 3 - Homecomings
Thinking of my brother comes naturally whenever I’m driving. Because the story of Allen and me began with a car ride, the first with our mom and dad.
Mom and Dad grew up in
There are so many photos of an 8th Air Force Liberator flying among flak as thick as snowflakes, soaring desolate above land whorled with unrest, the craft solitary above the destruction that it would rain. There underneath the photos lies a stack of letters. Mom and Dad wrote to one another for four years while he was overseas, not returning Stateside once during that entire time. Reading them feels a little like eavesdropping, as you can almost hear the words as they formed---heartfelt, intimate. I opened one; it was just one single page, and I thought of the way their day stopped at the brink of it.
In these letters bridging the time and distance they had to be apart, there was talk of how much they missed one another; of how their families were faring; of good coffee and how Dad missed vegetables from the farm; of burning heat and a cold on the field that would murmur to your very bones. There was playful affection, there was unstated passion and stated promise. Some was in Mom's flowery script, the rest in Dad's meticulous, indomitable hand. "Is everyone there well?" Mom would ask, and Dad would reply that they were (though some were now only well beyond Lamentations). "How is the homestead?” Dad would ask, and Mom would reply, "Fine," not telling him that they were occasionally going hungry.
They spoke of the future, of their past. They did not speak of the aircraft that limped back to
Not all missives that went back and forth over the seas were good news. Just up the road from Mom's, the week after Pearl Harbor a neighbor stood by the mailbox with a piece of paper not even big enough to start a fire with, the envelope fallen to the ground as bland words exploded one by one and that family’s grieving began. There was only the notice, there was nothing to bury---though you don't need a wooden box to capture the form of courage and sacrifice.
I wonder how many millions of messages like that went out in old wars, not taking long to read, as there was no real time in it; not in that demarcation between the hope that someone lived, and that place where you knew that was no longer true, when you wished that this moment existed only outside of time. There were only moments in which a written word hung in the air as if hopeful silence had been so long undisturbed that it had forgotten its purpose.
I look again at those letters Dad kept. The actual forming of the characters is uniform, flowing, like words pent up too long. The letters are sixty-some years old, powdery and delicate in my hand. But sixty years were just a moment ago for my dad, something as fierce and encompassing as war always standing out in his memory, no matter how many years distanced him from battle.
So he returned to her, they married, and my mom immediately became pregnant, only to go into labor many weeks too early. Their daughter lived only days, while Mom battled an infection that would leave her barren.
They were together, their dream for years. But although it was an abundant life---Mom working as a Deputy Sheriff, Dad getting his CPA license and finding a job with one of the big timber mills---their home was missing the sound of children.
So the long, sometimes painfully long process of adoption was begun. When it didn't happen immediately, they applied to be foster parents---however, they could get a child in their home, just to hear a child's laughter. I don't have all the details, but Allen and I came into their lives when we were very young.
Mom and Dad had intended on getting just one child, but having completed the paperwork, when they heard there were two of us there was no real discussion, only logistics. For they only had a child seat for one, for the three-hour drive home. My brother Allen, being the oldest, got the seat. They put me in a box.
Well, it was a large box, carefully padded with coats and a pillow, and lashed in tight to the back of the seat with a seat belt.
Still, years later I can hear my brother lean over with a grin on the re-telling of that story with "They liked me better!" and how we would laugh.
We came home to a post-war subdivision, houses popping up starting in the late ‘40s, with new streets like ours hubbing off them in the 1960's as the town prospered and people expanded their families in a time of peace and abundance.
Dad still lives there all these years later. Going home now to visit him as an adult I'm surprised how quiet it is outside; the kids all inside the local school, neighborhood moms, and dads both working much of the time these days. Off in the distance, the wail of a police siren. The ground is hard and knotted, the houses stare silently forward, not acknowledging anything that exists in their peripheral vision. The morning light falls down upon their steps in silence. That lack of sound does not seem odd, it is simply winter.
Dad slumbering in the back room, tiring easily at age 94, I sit in the chair by the picture window and look out at the same homes I saw as a child; and I think back to those glory days when Mom and Dad brought us home, how this whole neighborhood came alive. Mom's been gone many years; Dad outlived both her and my stepmom in this house. And although the family dynamic is different, the sounds of this home remain.
Especially during summer, the neighborhood took on another depth of sound. There was the bright, disorderly cry of lawnmowers firing up; the small tidy yards of an older neighborhood not taking all day to mow, but the precision of their care reflecting the owners’ pride in their homes. There were no homeowners association rules. One neighbor's bright purple door stood out at attention, but with the colorful flowers that normally adorned the front and the deep rosy hue of the brick, the color suited the house. There were a couple of kids on bikes, zooming up and down the sidewalks as off in the distance their dog barked for their return. Far away from the sound of church bells, there in the month of white lace and showers of rice, paced faithfully and serenely; like shafts of light among the soft green leaves, yellow butterflies dancing on the grass like flecks of the sun.
The sounds would continue into the evening: a summer shower off the lake releasing the scent of flowers into the damp air; crickets sawing away in the grass with an intensity you could almost feel as a tickle on the skin. There was the wave of a neighbor as he brought in the paper; the clink of a couple of glasses of Kool-Aid, sweet like nectar on the porch.
There was no formal neighborhood watch here, but we did look out for one another. Our parents noticed when the newspapers piled up at someone’s house and would check to make sure they were OK. They paid attention to a strange car parked on the street, a teenage boy just stopping to visit with the pretty teenage girl down the road.
They would know who had a new child by the toys that sprouted in the yard like colorful flowers. Our moms would trade recipes and gossip over a fence, finding out who had been ill, who might need help with a new baby. For this wasn't just a neighborhood, this was a community---neighbor helping neighbor, the kids welcome at pretty much any home, stopping in on someone's mom if we needed a drink or the use of the bathroom.
Now, a lifetime later, the houses are the same but the neighborhood is not. I note the silent homes, a sign gone up for a quick sale, the owner has passed away; time-consuming not just courage but muscle and bone until nothing is left but a frail form draped in a white sheet, like a piece of furniture unused. We don't notice the exact time of leaving but can't help but speak of the remains. I note one house in disrepair, empty, likely a foreclosure; the factory's shutting down taking with it not just jobs but a lot of hope.
Ours was a good house to come home to, though; a place of refuge for two lost little birds.
As I sit in the quiet, a small sparrow blows onto the sill like a bright scrap of paper, his heart pumping in his throat faster than any pulse. He looks into the house, then away, then into the glass again as if listening, only to dart away as the clock chimes on the hour, then ceases. The chime fills the whole house. Perhaps it's just sound---or perhaps it's all time, grievance, and grief manifesting as sound for just one instant as planets and gears align. It's a moment wherein time seems to stop, the sparrow frozen on the sill. Only when that sound stops does time come to life, and by then the bird is gone.
The only sound now is that of breath and the tick of the old clock. I don't deliberately listen to it, the ticks seemingly beyond the realm of hearing; then in a moment, with that one tick your ears respond to, you are acutely aware of the long diminishing train of time you did not hear. How many ticks in this house in 50 years? How many after I am long gone? Yet I feel the presence of others that have lived here, for they perhaps aren't truly dead but simply were worn down by the minute clicking of small gears. The echo of those who sat in this room do not disturb me; they are part of this house. Just like the sound of wood, its creak one of murmuring bones; and the air that taps on ancient glass speaks of deep winds that witnessed more than time.
Dad resting quietly, I take a quick walk before making his dinner, after which we will call Allen to catch up before seeing him on the weekend. As the neighborhood ticks a slow and steady beat outside, there comes the rumbling of the trains, the tracks a half mile away carrying a sound on the air that is as comforting as childhood. I watch the movement that is static serenity and labored exhaust, a rhythmic click-click as it moves away through eternal trees, faded to thick sky, the train displacing air.
Shadows lengthening, I hurry back to the house. The tick of my watch and the sound of the train dissolve away as if running through another place, someplace far from where this life ended up. I approach the house I grew up in, the porch glistening with a sheen of ice, its empty lattice the front guard of circumstance waiting for summer flowerings.
I think of the inordinate ticks of chance it took to bring my brother and me to this home, through which we were so blessed to be here. In the air scented with trees, I ascend the steps, clutching the old key to the back door, there on a little ring with a train etched on it. In the growing dark, I don't really see it, but I feel it in my hand, clutching that little anchor to a life lived here long ago---a life unexpected but as welcoming as home.
The house sighs as I open the door. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, moving away from its reflection into the warmth, my form darting out of sight; the sound, tick-tock-tick-tock, a wisp of air that breathes life back into this home. - LB Johnson