I close my eyes and, effortlessly, I’m a child again, sitting in my parents’ blue Plymouth Reliant, riding in the dark along WI-29.
Everything is perfectly still, except for the rhythmic thunk…thunk as our wheels speed over the seams in the road. My eyes are closed — I’m thinking as always — but I open them every now and then to see the trees, the yellow lines racing by, the moon holding her steady course; and my father, whose reflection I can make out in my window pane. I take it all in with the trusting passivity of a child who has not yet learned to fear.
As my father guides our car to the exit, I close my eyes and keep them closed. This is the game I play: holding in my mind the things we pass, testing to see if I arrive home in my imagination at the same time our car pulls into the drive. There’s the stop sign at the end of the ramp. Over there’s the greenhouse where we get our Christmas trees. We’re turning now and there’s the IGA, the Tasty Freeze, the Hotel, the taverns, the park, the bank — everything silent and still in the night. We turn again and there’s the library, the hospital. Now we’re on our street and I can imagine the houses and the trees — I know each one. We slow, turn, and I hear the slow crunch of tires on our driveway. There’s the slam of my parents’ car doors, their voices in hushed tones, their feet on the pebbles and cement of the garage.
If I’m very young, my parents carry me into the house by way of the front door. This is the best feeling in the world: asleep enough to be carried, awake enough to be conscious of being cared for. There’s the key in the lock; here’s the lights flickering on. We’re home.
If I’m older I open my eyes and walk with my family, stopping in the driveway to gaze at the starry sky. The North Star is just above my window, which leads us to the Big and Little Dippers, and Orion and his belt over the garage. There’s the tree I planted with my dad, now grown higher than our house. We enter through the back door, going through the pantry with its cacophony of smells. There’s the lights flickering on. We’re home.
Almost 30 years have passed since I last drove this road, since I saw, touched, or smelled any of this. But since I traveled it so frequently with my eyes closed, so intentionally drawing it to mind, I have no difficulty calling it back from my memory still today. I would have no trouble getting myself back home.
And yet, I don’t. The doors of space and time slammed hard and locked when I left; I was not offered a key. The path I still travel so easily in memory no longer exists anywhere else. Steps can be retraced but there is no turning back the clock. As surely as the houses, trees, and businesses have changed, so too have I. There is no more dozing trustingly in the backseat. There is no way to really go back.
I know my home as only a child can, learning the world for the first time, taking everything at face value. I close my eyes and feel the carpet weave. I hear my mother in the kitchen, find the torn corners of wallpaper, trace the textured wood fixtures. Do you ever know so deeply as you do the things you know first?
In the present, my own children hover just on the brink of memory. What will they see years from now, when they close their eyes? I pray they will grow in faith and wisdom, yet I know too that suffering and loss are essential ingredients for both. What I bring to their lives is only a portion of all that life itself will offer them, yet for my part I long with all my soul to bring as much joy and safety and trusting as their little hearts can hold.
And to give them Home.
Catherine McNiel is the author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress 2017). She writes to open eyes to God’s creative, redemptive work in each day—while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Connect with Catherine on Twitter, Facebook, or at catherinemcniel.com.