The Road (to the) Back
I knew I needed to provide an answer to “What do you want for your birthday?” before Dad asked the question. If I didn’t, I risked receiving more things to pile on shelves and hide in corners. Since I had returned to the Wisconsin farmhouse from Guatemala over six years ago, that had been the largest readjustment, where and how to fit the old and new pieces, his and my pieces, all family pieces into the spaces of this house. The general assessment of our gaze across most rooms this year was satisfaction. Small tasks such as the reordering of a couple of upstairs closets remained, but there was space to breathe that had not existed before.
Still, ‘what do I want for my birthday?’ What was the answer to this question now that I had run out of rooms in the house?
Insect buzz and bird chirp offered the only answers to a question exhaled through screen porch wire. Warm summer breath spread over the bee balm, under hummingbird wing flutter so that it could drift north across the road. I stood at the front of the house, but the front was not the future, not my future. The front had always been a false welcome to the house. In fact, the driveway did not lead up to its door. The answer to the question, and the real question of return as forward movement, was the land that stretched away from the road back, the back, and I needed the road (to the back).
I rolled the answer to the birthday question preemptively around in my head as I blow dried my hair one morning. This year we had retaken earth inside our field line. It sprouted semi established alfalfa and was bordered by oaks neither climate changed storms nor county governments could claim. What if I asked for a line around the entire field? No. It was too much for a first ask, and perhaps impossible based on the recent struggles of this year’s drought. What if I picked just one edge? But, what good would that do? I clicked off the blow dryer and gathered the hair that had wrapped first between my fingers and then had fallen to the floor. If I could have less, but meaningful less, which path would I start upon?
Stepping out the back door with packed bags dangling, I paused. Dad was behind me. He was always behind me, either because he enjoyed my struggle walking to my car across the yard in heels, or because there was something about one last glance before we each started our day. Maybe both.
“I know what I want. For my birthday.” I broke blue sky silence.
“My birthday. I want the path back?”
He crinkled his face. “Path?”
“In the field. The one that went behind the cow barn. To the back.”
“We never had a path.”
I squinted in disbelief at this new gap in memory. “Yes, we did. Grandpa took it out.”
“Oh, the dirt path.”
“Yes.” Then, from a corner I didn’t know now echoed so empty, “I always missed that path. I miss it. I loved it. I was so sad when it was gone.”
I returned to considering my answer constructed before the question, “What do you want for your birthday?” The answer was the reality of this forward living of my years in a remembered place.
It was the unseen decision that truly meant I had chosen to continue to tell the story of this farm, not the big changes that everyone noticed sparkling new light in kitchen floors and bathroom cabinets. The small things pinched a discomfort with needle like precision to stitch lost narrative pages back together about belonging or not, caring or not. Well-read eyes inscribed the inside of worn covers and flipped the chapters back, ready to tell the stories again. There was no way to simply flip to the back and read the end of the story. The chapters would never again be determined by those things that were already mine, nor those assumed to be mine, but instead about that which would only be mine if I asked.