March 21, 2023

Strange bouquet

There is a picture of my dad, my mom, and my middle brother all sitting in folding chairs in our driveway. Bowls of leftovers dot the card table in front of them–the only clear one holding some kind of cut fruit–and, to their left, the big orange family cat can be seen reclining in the grass. Doused in the cold sunshine of early spring, they make a strange bouquet.

It is, by no means, a lovely photograph. Two of the three cars parked behind them have since been replaced and the barn, which needed replacing more than the vehicles did, looms piecemeal in the background. My father is wearing slippers, my mother her neon garden clogs, and my brother can be seen sporting slides–his skin bare against the evident chill. Trees are bald, hills are brown.

Looking for landmarks in the early pandemic, I find few. For that first long while there is little evidence of anyone but my family. One picture is of me in my nightgown in the bathroom mirror, another is of the cat atop an in-progress puzzle. There is my father waving outside the camp trailer window and my mom with her mug of hot chocolate, raising a “cheers” from some ten feet away. Em, my longest childhood friend, appears first as a distant figure on the train tracks. Mary is next, an almost-stranger sunning her legs on the hillside. Eventually Rachel resurfaces too, then disappears.

On this anniversary of my homecoming, I find that my memories feel much further than they should. They feel unreal even, like a long ago playground game… like I’m watching the maiden and the mother and the crone all skip rope with the father and the son and the holy ghost on the rings of my Saturn return. Tulips are growing next to the basketball hoop. Daffodils too, after three hard winters.

Instead of memories, I have a picture dated March 21, 2020. It is of my airport backpack, full of paperbacks and a pair of sneakers. I show it to my mother across our anniversary table. “Three years,” she says, “I remember them saying that once: that it would be three years.”