As the story goes, Hansel and Gretel tried to mark the way back home by leaving a trail of bread crumbs. Hikers make notches in trees to mark the trail so they know how to get back to camp. Back in the day, divers would be doomed without their tether to the boat.
A lot of our lives, in one way or another, is spent trying not to get lost and making sure we get back home. One way of doing that is by tracing our way back via landmarks. But when you’re trying to reach back in time moreso than distance, those landmarks take the form of homesteads, gravesites and hometowns.
It wasn’t until I went to Virginia and West Virginia with my brother that these landmarks began to make sense to me in that context. Visiting the cemetery where my great-grandfather, his brothers, and the children that he and my great-grandmother had that didn’t survive infancy are buried — a cemetery located in a tiny valley town in West Virginia where my grandmother and great-uncle were born — somehow helped complete a piece of a puzzle I didn’t know I needed solved. I felt the same way upon seeing the tiny white house where my grandmother and great-uncle were raised, as well as visiting the town in West Virginia where many of my relatives were from — a town I’d heard about my entire life — and seeing where my cousin still lives in that town. Picking through shoeboxes full of photos scavenged from the shambles that is my grandmother’s house in Florida provides another piece, connecting names and stories to faces that are fleshed out by anecdotes. Slowly, the branches of the family tree begin to tie together and grow leafy.
I now know why I feel the need to visit the house I grew up in each time I’m in Florida, even though I don’t have many fond memories of the place, and despite the fact that all I can do is idle on the street outside. This time around, as my brother and I idled on Second Avenue while a fierce thunderstorm began to swirl around us, a boy from the house next door collected the mail from both houses, then politely inquired as to what we were doing, parked next to the “No Parking” signs my grandmother had the city erect nearly 15 years ago.
“She grew up here,” my brother, in the passenger seat, told the boy as he gestured to me. “We’re just taking a look.” The boy nodded and smiled, oblivious to the complex family tapestry he had just grazed.
As these realizations fell upon me in Virginia, I began seriously regretting not visiting my great-grandmother’s grave in Boynton Beach while I was in Florida. Here I was, visiting the gravesites of people I’ve never met, from whom I am generations removed, but not that of a woman with whom I pretty much grew up. I sacrificed that visit in the name of making good time on the road, speeding north away from the demons and bad memories and toward the inevitable adventures my brother and I would have, watching the number of palm trees dwindle as our latitude increased.
I also began regretting the fact that my grandmother does not have a proper landmark. At the time, in January, I was in survival mode, and it didn’t seem important. Now, I am simply in living mode, and after last week, it feels wrong to be missing one of the points on this map back in time. I understand now why they are important. You can retrace those points of reference, and like stops on an audio tour, they provide relevance and context. All together, they tell a story.
The me that drove out of Florida, scrutinizing the ratio of palm to other roadside flora as we headed north, was the old me. The me that wishes I’d spent just a few hours longer down there is the new me, a me I never thought would come to pass. Sure, we were driving north, but little did I know we were really driving closer to South Florida, and that when we finally got to Virginia and West Virginia, a part of me would never really leave. We were following a road atlas and a GPS, but there was really a different map charting our course. It was true: where we were going, we didn’t need roads.*
* I got that message as a fun auto-reply from “Doc Brown” on Twitter last week, and in retrospect, it’s mighty appropriate.