When I was a very little girl, my mother used to go away sometimes. I think it was only one night a week, or maybe even less. I don’t really remember anymore, I just know that she would leave. I knew where she went – into the city to the big hospital to teach young couples, soon to be parents, about mysterious things I didn’t understand. I knew how long she would be gone – just for a few hours after dinner. I knew when she would come back – after I had been tucked into bed and drifted off to dreaming. But somehow, I was always still afraid.
When my mommy would drive off to the hospital, I would begin to wander. I started in the house – walked through every room, slowly, upstairs and down. Then, provided it was warm out and not too late yet, I would go out the back door onto the deck. Down the back steps and into the shed, up to the workshop, back out to the patio and the grape arbor and the lilac tree. Into the small greenhouse, through the garden, across the side yard. Into the tree house. Down to the pig pen. Finally, out across the Meadow. I would follow the mown path around the edge of the rolling field, always a little afraid of the growing shadows creeping out from the trees and the tall grass swaying in the light of the quickly setting sun.
I’d walk the whole perimeter of the Meadow, I think, though perhaps I misremember so many years later. I was young, and alone, and it would be getting dark. Perhaps I didn’t really venture so far from the house. But I seem to remember stopping to look at every favored play spot hidden in the long golden grass. The Secret Woods in all their dark mystery; the Baby Beluga Rock, lichen-covered and still-warm from the afternoon; the Panther Tree and Table Rock, hidden by brush and briars. I’d even pause to look down the path to the Beaver Swamp – but I never went that way.
The Meadow circumferenced, or at least somewhat traversed, I’d return to the back yard, the porch, the house. Go inside and begin my search all over again, playing a mental game with myself the whole way along.
You see, whenever my mommy left, I grew afraid. I don’t know of what, anymore, and I’m not sure I could have told you at the time either. Just afraid. I remember feeling lost – aimless, forgotten, miserably alone. So I wandered the house, the garden, the yard, over and over, searching. Telling myself that my mother wasn’t gone. She hadn’t left. She was just one step ahead of me. She was out in the garden when I was searching the sewing room – so out to the garden I would go. When I didn’t find her there, it was because she had finished whatever she was doing in the greenhouse and was walking around the meadow now. Across the meadow I went too. On returning to the yard, still mother-less, I’d realize it was because she could walk faster than my short legs could take me and she must be inside again, up in her bedroom.
I’d wander for hours. Around and around and around. At least, that’s what it felt like to me, or what my memories feel like. Hours of a search I knew was fruitless yet which I couldn’t, longing for security, give up. I can’t remember how it all ended. If my daddy would catch me and carry me in to bed, or if my sister would lure me back inside with the promise of ice cream and a story, or if I finally gave up on my own, worn out from walking and the lonely ache. I do remember, though, that some nights I would still be awake when my mommy came home, and I would get out of bed and come down the steps to give her a hug.
I remember many, many evenings of wandering. Really, it may not have been that much. Really, I may have only paced the property once. But it feels like forever, in memory. It feels like every week, every night my mother left, every time, I’d walk.
I don’t really know what caused me to feel so forlorn when she pulled out of the driveway. I have no earthly clue why I felt the urge to pace all evening, telling myself over and over and over that it was going to be okay, my mommy hadn’t really left me, I just was too small and too slow to catch up with her. I don’t know for how many years I was afraid when she would leave, or if it was even more than just one night. But the feeling has impressed itself so firmly in my mind that I cannot shake it even now, so many years later. It’s one of the first things I can remember, and it is so vivid in my head that I still feel the uncertainty rise in my chest when I recall it.
The feeling of loneliness. The feeling of being unintentionally forsaken, and utterly alone. The miserable knot of anxiety humming in my breast, saying I was too slow, too slow, too slow. Catch up, hurry, if only I could catch up. Yes, I remember the wandering.
But every time, my mommy came back. Every time, I’d fall asleep to the sound of the van pulling back into the driveway. The softness of her voice in the room below my bedroom floor when she came in. Sometimes, when I was too sleepy or too shy to go downstairs for a hug, I would get up and huddle by the knothole in the old floorboards that looked down directly over the living room couch, and stare down through it at the top of my mother’s head, just to be extra sure she was home and safe and for real. Then I’d get back in bed and fall asleep fast, knowing that it was okay, because my mommy had come back again. Like she always did. And the wandering didn’t have to happen anymore, because she was there.
I suppose I realized, eventually, that my mommy would never abandon me and she would always come home. Since then I haven’t had to wander. I haven’t had to pound a single thought through my head over and over again to brainwash myself into believing everything was okay. My pacing, wandering, abandoned days were over, because I knew my mother would always come back, and the home I loved would always be there, and the stars would always watch over me, and the wind would always be the same familiar friend, and the mountains would always shelter, and the walls that housed me would never waver or fall. I didn’t need to wander anymore, because everything was certain, and everything was in the right place, and everything made sense, and nothing was frightening or unsure. Life would happen as it always had, and continue as it always would. No more wandering.
Yet recently I’ve begun to feel again like that little girl I used to be. The lost one, stumbling across the yard in the dusk, searching for something that isn’t really there to be found. The child misplaced, alone, lacking the thing she loves most. The one who feels so abandoned, and who doesn’t realize that comfort and love and light are going to return, have always been meaning to, and will not ever leave for good. I’ve begun feeling again like I’m chasing after something – I don’t know what – that’s just out of reach. If I could only go a bit faster, see a bit farther, skip ahead to the next place…I could catch up. But ever the illusive something slips out of my reach just before I can catch sight of it. I’m pacing the borders of the Meadow in my mind, telling myself over and over that this missing thing is right in front of me, I just need to run a bit faster and I’ll see it and be safe again.
But just when I think I’ve finally caught it – that bit of movement back by the Secret Woods wasn’t a blowing tree branch, it must have been my mommy’s dark hair in the breeze – I realize I was wrong. No, no, Anna. Dance wasn’t the right major after all. You don’t really love it anymore. Writing was only a safety net – one with rips and tears and holes through which you have fallen. And then I catch sight of the next made-up hint that I’m still on the right path – the squeak of a screen door signals my mother’s entering the house, yes, not the wind slamming the greenhouse door closed – and off I go again, hurrying fast as ever I can to get there quick before it’s too late and I miss the moment to find rest. Literature is shaky ground, Anna, that rises higher than you’ll ever be able to climb, but the foothills, at least, are pleasant. Dare you ascend? Grad school hangs above – maybe the ladder upwards will not tumble with you on it. Maybe it will. Maybe it was never meant for you at all. Because you never know if your wandering is over until you reach the end of the journey and look back.
I’m hurrying. Hurrying fast as my small legs can take me. Aimless and empty, forlorn and abandoned, looking for the one thing I know will love me always and keep me safe and tuck me into bed at night with kisses.
Only that one thing isn’t really here. It’s always one step ahead, just out of reach, and I don’t even know what it is. I don’t even know what I’m searching for. I don’t even know what I’m running so hard to find. If I ever were to catch it up, would I know it, or would I run right past, continuing to look and leaving the answer to lie in my wake? At least when I was little and afraid I knew what I was seeking.
And now, when I come to a fork in the road and each path seems to whisper that the thing I ache for lies just around its first bend, which one do I choose? How does one see ahead into life, how does one skip to the next step? Because both ways have felt right. And both ways have felt wrong. And neither way is perfect, and neither way is safe. Both are uncertain. So when my faltering baby feet reach the fork in the Meadow path, do I go right and run back to the little blue house and the light from the kitchen window and the stenciled bunnies with green ribbons around their necks that run about the top of my bedroom walls, or do I go left and enter the woods and the darkness and the overgrown path to the Beaver Swamp and the water and mud and oozy excitement and trickly sound and strange adventure?
Because the bunnies around my bedroom walls, they are starting to fade and before I know it I’ll grow up and move out and the bunnies will be gone forever. And the path to the Beaver Swamp, it might be impassably overgrown or it might be perfectly clear from my daddy’s last bushwacking escapades and you never know until you try.
And there is no middle ground. There is no middle choice. That unreachable thing I run after, it’s gone either to the left or the right, and I have to follow because I have to keep believing that one day I’ll reach it.
But if I make the wrong choice, I’ll lose ground. And maybe I won’t be able to regain it. And maybe it doesn’t matter, and the only thing that matters is that I move forward. I suppose I just wish I knew which way that was. And until I find out, I wander on. I tell myself that just a step more will take me to what I am looking for. Just a step more. And just a step more. And just a step more. And just a step…
But I know that someday that thing will find me and catch me and hold me close and keep me safe. Because that’s the way it works. Because my mommy always came home. And she always came upstairs and looked into my room, even if I was already asleep. And I didn’t have to catch up to her because she came back to find me instead. The wandering always ended.
That’s the way it works.