After returning from the longest journeys, we are most aware of being home.
On the yellow-painted edge of the concrete sidewalk, I lean into the moistened breeze. The summer is still young, and the sun hasn't yet pierced through the thick blanket of clouds for Seattle's standard two months of warmth. The air current whips my hair back, blowing it into tangles, and pricks tears at the corners of my eyes. Though gray and wet, it is a beautiful day.
Five hours and 1700 miles earlier, I hug my parents and step into the security line, a shuffling, anonymous crowd occupied with removing shoes and jackets and quart-sized zip lock bags of toiletries- no more than 3 oz. bottles. Boarding pass and I.D. Laptops taken out of bags. Wait behind the yellow line, then walk through the metal detector.
I'm flying stand-by with no checked bags, which means I could be a terrorist, so I'm selected for further security procedures, says the guard.
“Do I win something?” I ask brightly.
“How about a full-body search?” At least he has a sense of humor, if a slightly creepy one.
Surprise! I'm not concealing a firearm on my person, or a box-cutter. There is nothing in my small carry-on that could be used as a weapon without getting really creative. Nail clippers? Maybe, but we'll let it slide. But that mascara needs to go in your zip lock bag.
So, apparently I'm not a hijacker. I am a twenty-one-year-old girl traveling alone for the first time in my life on a flight from Dallas to Seattle. I would like to stay a few more days, as my parents are doing, but I have to return to my job.
I have just been to my grandfather's funeral.
August, 1997: I am ten years old. I am sitting on a bench in the shoe department at the Bon Marche. My grandparents sit on the bench across from mine, watching me try on shoes. Grandma and Papa have taken me shopping for school. I'm starting fifth grade, and I have to have the right shoes.
I finish tying the laces on the plain white sneakers, then stand and walk around the bench. “Are they comfortable?” Grandma asks. She expertly presses down on my toes, feeling how much room my feet have to grow. “Do they fit?”
“They're okay. Can I try these on now?” I pull the lid from another box, revealing a more flashy pair of blue and silver basketball shoes. They cost twice as much as the white ones.
My grandma sighs. “Yes, you may try them on. But I think these white ones would work much better for you.”
I kick off the white sneakers and slip my feet into the basketball shoes, pulling the laces tight and tying them bunny-ear style. I bounce out of my seat and skip around the benches. “I love these!”
My grandpa smiles, chuckling at my delight. But, despite my adoration for these incredible shoes, my grandma explains to me that the white sneakers are more practical and economical. I have to admit that she's right.
June, 2008: I am twenty-one years old. I lie sleepless on a bed of air, listening to the sounds of the warm Texas night. I have kicked off the sheet. My head rests on a small corner of the pillow, letting the breeze from the open window brush my face.
My mind is adrift, aimless, as thoughts, memories, dreams skim across the surface, then turn to vapor, never fully realized.
From the dark and silent sea, something tells me to go to my grandmother's room, to climb into her bed as if I am a six-year-old waking up from a nightmare. I ignore the voice, though, because I am not sure that I've really heard it. I am soon asleep.
The next morning Grandma tells me that when she awoke, the covers on the other side of her bed were turned back. And I wonder: if I had listened to the voice, would I have seen him?
Nostalgia shows us what we wish the world was like.
August, 1997: Later, after our shopping is done, I am sitting in the leather back seat of my grandparents' car, surrounded by a new wardrobe in plastic bags. I pull the smooth cardboard shoe box out of its bag and flip the lid.
“What?” I cry. Lying inside the box are my beautiful blue and silver shoes. “I thought I was getting the white ones!”
Papa turns to me from the front passenger seat and looks at the shoes. “Oh, how did that happen?” I almost miss his wink as I pull the shoes onto my feet.
As I pull my shoes onto my feet, canvas flats with black and purple stripes, after passing successfully through security at the Dallas airport, I glance at my boarding pass and the signs around me, determining which direction I need to walk. I straighten and heave my bag up, putting the strap over my shoulder, and head toward my gate. I am pleased to find a Starbucks not 50 feet away.
I buy a grande iced white chocolate mocha, then settle into a cloth and metal chair to wait out the hour until my plane boards. I read a science fiction novel, I solve the Sudoku puzzle in an abandoned newspaper, I people-watch.
A family with five kids under seven gaggles by. A couple in their 60s with the kind of suitcases that have wheels. Two young men dressed in camouflage head to foot, brownish-green packs slung over their shoulders.
My grandfather was a Private in the United States Army. He served a year before his honorable discharge, before he even met my grandmother. He never fought in any battles, but he did shake hands with Elvis Presley.
He was interred in the Dallas-Ft. Worth National Cemetery on a beautiful day in June, given a military burial. Two officers saluted my family as we stepped into the gazebo where my grandfather's casket rested. With ceremony, while the bugler played “Taps,” they folded an American flag and presented it to my grandmother. She accepted it, saying, “God bless you.”
December, 2008: I am twenty-one years old. It is the day after Christmas, the first Christmas that I haven't heard my grandfather read the story of Christ's birth aloud to my family, sitting in silent awe, sacred reflection on a Winter night. We were all children on Christmas Eve, but not anymore.
I stand with my parents, my brother, my grandmother, my aunt and my uncle at my grandfather's grave in the Dallas-Ft. Worth National Cemetery. A poinsettia plant, vibrant red against the dull winter gray, has been placed in front of his headstone, beneath the dates:
1 September, 1934 – 23 June, 2008
This place, where thousands have been laid to rest, represents the grandfather I never knew, the soldier. The grandfather of my childhood was a kind and gentle man, with never a harsh word for anyone, always a smile.
My grandmother stands beside me, puts her arm around my shoulders. “I love you,” she says.
I respond, “I love you, too,” and I pray that I have inherited my grandfather's best qualities in addition to his name.
The flight attendant calls my name. I am the last stand-by passenger to board; I have gotten the last seat available on the plane, but there are still three more people waiting at the gate. I sit in the middle seat of a three-seat row. No window, no aisle, just four-and-a-half hours of my elbows pressed to my sides.
I read some more, I watch a movie on my brother's PSP, I ask the flight attendant for a ginger ale, I even sleep a bit. Then we are entering the familiar cloud cover of the Pacific Northwest, a welcome respite from the hot Texas sunshine.
July, 1991: I am four years old. It is the end of a beautiful day. The sun is setting through the leaves of the Tana Tree, the red maple in my grandparents' front yard in Kent, Washington. The tree that was planted the year I was born.
I am sitting on the front porch in Grandma's lap, wearing my favorite pink jelly shoes. Papa sits across from us, telling me the story of the Tana Tree, named for my cousin who lives in Germany and is only three months younger than I. His voice rumbles pleasantly, quietly, with a slight hint of the Arkansas country farm where he was born.
It is the same voice I hear reading the Gospel of Luke on Christmas Eve: “And it came to pass, in the days of Caesar Augustus...”
It is the same voice I hear giving the blessing for Thanksgiving dinner: “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your love...”
It is the same voice I hear on a warm Texas night, with the breeze from an open window brushing my face.
Nostalgia shows us what we wish the world was like.
We land, a bit bumpily, and I pull out my phone to call a friend of my mother's I've known my entire life, and whose daughter is my best friend. She's my ride home.
On the yellow-painted edge of the concrete sidewalk outside baggage claim, she enfolds me in a hug, holding me like a child for a moment. Then she lets go and glances down at my feet.
“I love your shoes!” she exclaims.
And then, for the first time since a fateful phone call from Dallas a week before, I smile into the beautiful day, and I am home again.