I grew up in a house my parents built by remodeling an old green barn and stable on three acres of pine forest and pastureland overlooking a river that has run for a millennium into the Chesapeake Bay. Centuries-old mounds of oyster shells were still visible where the land leaned down towards a marsh. And when my father had the barn jacked up to build a cinder block foundation beneath it, arrowheads gave evidence of the land’s use by previous peoples and ancient cultures.
My bedroom was in the southwest corner of the house; two windows, one solid hardwood door with a lock and key. Each of my two sisters had a room of her own as well, and I relished my ability to decorate my space as I chose: sky-blue walls, café curtains with ball fringe, a braided rug.
But often at night, something, would enter my room and tap me on the arm. I’d awake knowing someone was there. The sensation was real enough to take my breath away. I’d lie frozen, as if perfect stillness could convey invisibility, afraid to even call out for help in the dark. When I could bear to open my eyes, the room was of course, empty, the door still closed.
One night I was awakened to see a small golden orb of light move from in front of me slowly across the room and out the screened window. Firefly? Reflection of a car headlight from the road above the pasture? Of course, those are likely possibilities.
Perhaps there are others.
The marsh was home to red-winged blackbirds, cattails and lady slippers, and the area would later be identified by state archeologists as the location of several 10,000-year-old bogs, unchanged since the last mini-ice age. The first inhabitants here were Paleo-Indians arriving 10,000 years ago. By 1,000 BC, the forests, hills, and vast estuaries that would come to be called Maryland, were home to more than 8,000 Native Americans, members of as many as 40 different Algonquian-speaking tribes.
Over thousands of years, how many children had waded in the beachgrass along our shoreline? How many families had sheltered in the knoll overlooking the marsh? Men must have fished the river’s depths, watched migrating swans blanket the cove in downy-white, for thousands of Novembers before November had a name.
Lately I’ve imagined that I had a young spirit attached to me in these years: some little Piscataway girl from the other side of life as we experience it who wanted to say hello. A playmate–perhaps a lonely one? Or perhaps it was only I who was lonely.
Dreams are hard to remember, but dream encounters are impossible to forget, and someone came to visit me often in those years. Maybe it was only to let me know that my life story and hers shared a setting. That she too, loved the persimmon and walnut trees, the wild plum bushes. Maybe she was demonstrating that what feels like yours alone, is never yours alone. That wherever you are from you were never first or only.
What is that attachment to land, to a place? Is it mutual?
We imprint environment indelibly onto memory when something important happens to us—like a childhood. We keep in our bones an affinity for the places where we were first loved or left. But do we leave a piece of us behind?
When my father died, at his request, we scattered his ashes at sunset on a river much like the one he grew up on. But he’s not there. Is he? We took my mother’s ashes back to the Midwest at her request, so she could lie beneath the familiar blue immensity of an ever-changing sky. And yet she’s not there. Is she?
Does the river remember? Does the prairie know?
The barn is gone. I went back to see, and someone razed it. The built-in window seat under the bookcases, the Dutch door, the handcrafted cabinetry. Gone. Another house has been constructed there. An ostentatious Charleston plantation overlooks the river where an old green barn with white battens once stood.
Do the new owners know there are arrowheads along the fence? Lady slippers in the woods? A youthful spirit attempting to say, I too, lived here? Perhaps she visits them as well.
But I won’t. I have no need to return because like those before me, I’ve never left. Like whoever it was reaching out from across space and time, I am forever already there.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.