On the day before Santiago’s eighth birthday, we get on the road early and head north. The sun has risen, but it is not yet forty degrees. We pass through the city and the suburbs and the exurbs, through orange-coned construction zones, past brightly painted outlet malls, beside sleepy distribution centers. I use one hand to unwrap a slice of pound cake that I’ve laid on the passenger seat. Santi awakens behind me and puts his chin on the arm rest, his nose bunching as he inhales the butter-and-marmalade scent. I tear off a sticky chunk and share. From time to time, wind gusts shoulder the car closer to a field of grazing cattle or to a roadside flower mart or to a parked truck advertising a rodeo. The date for the rodeo provides no year, and I wonder, as the sun gleams on clapboard houses behind little stands of trees, whether it expresses an event that is to come or one that might have been had there not been a pandemic.
After ninety minutes, we pull in at a dairy. We get out of the car and stretch our legs. Though we have not been here for three and a half years, Santiago knows this place. He sniffs at the trees in the pet station, lifts his leg, then tugs me through the parking lot, toward where the asphalt disappears and the air smells of hay and sweet grass and horses. I bring him back to the car and enter the shop. I order a hot sandwich with egg and ham. I buy provisions and gifts: cheese, crackers, liquor, candy. The last purchase is a “puppy cup” for Santi: a few, generous mouthfuls of vanilla soft serve. It is for celebrating the strange joy of living in a body, year after year, on this little, blue planet, spinning in a galaxy made of dust and gas and darkness and stars.
We eat outside. Santiago guzzles the ice cream like it’s cold water on a steaming day, after which he begs for my sandwich. I share. We are in Wisconsin now, heading east. Our destination is the small town where my parents had a home for nineteen years. On weekends, it slept children and spouses and grandchildren, nieces and cousins and life-long friends. The living room windows looked out across low ferns and conifers, past the trunks of tall, skinny hardwoods to a lake that jogged like a jigsaw puzzle, with hollows for swans and wild rice. The kitchen windows took in the morning sun across a rock garden planted with roses and geraniums and coneflowers. At the end of a long driveway, my father built a wishing well, and the beds in the house were laid with quilts hand-stitched by my mother.
For twenty years before they moved to that house, my parents owned a cabin nearby. It was small and smelled of mold, and it faced a shoreline with soft, clean sand. There were mosquitoes and bats, bunk beds and a hammock, and a trail that led through the woods to an old gangster hideout. This lake country is where my family’s roots are deepest. It is where we smoked meat and toasted marshmallows and played lawn games; where we drank gin-and-tonics on a slow-trolling pontoon boat, searching for eagles among the trees; where we watched the sun set over the water and listened to loon calls in the cool, black night. In this place, teenage crushes were confessed and Sasquatch tales were told. This town is where we shopped after Thanksgiving, convening for lattés, splitting up to purchase gifts, bumping into each other at the candy store, year after year after year. It is where we marched in a Christmas parade, bells jingling on our elf hats, tossing candy as we accompanied a seaworthy tugboat formed by my father’s hammer and strung with lights.
Here, I swam in gray, September waters. Here, for the first time, Santiago played in snow.
The Earth spun. We aged. My parents moved closer to me, closer to my brother and sister. But I did not leave that place. Each memory is a story, and the stories are stacked in my mind like books on a shelf, piled top to side in a helter-skelter of delight, and when I pull them down for a look, the spines flop open to favorite passages and vivid illustrations, and the books smell of sunblock and wood smoke and cocktail peanuts and pine needles and roasted turkey, and score sheets from old board games fall from the pages, and my heart remembers, and I am not discontented, for I have lived.
I give Santiago some kibble, and he settles into the back seat. He understands where we are going; it will take us another ninety minutes to get there. Familiar landmarks–rivers and cemeteries and bars, a golf course, a fire station–grow large as we approach, then vanish in an instant behind us. When we pass the county sign–the last significant marker before we reach town–I swallow a few upstart tears. We cannot, of course, go to the house that my parents sold to others. We pull up, instead, at the library. Behind it is a park. My dad and his friends designed it. They cleared the paths, built the bridge and the benches, erected the kiosks. After a tornado touched down, they did much of the work a second time. They cared for this place as if it were their home.
The spring air is warming, and the sun shines in a blue sky through which the wind pushes fat, white clouds. Santiago knows the trail. He puts his nose to a statue just outside the woods and then, pissing, begins the extended process of greeting this ground after our long time away. The path is mulched and clear. Red pines tower above us, and small markers staked in the soil name the plants in the understory. Throughout the park, child-size podiums display the pages of a picture book: a tale of animals who live in this place and how they survive the winter. We linger over sites that we have remembered with fondness: the footbridge over a pond from which water lilies are rising to the surface; the preserved cross-section of a century-old oak; the forest pocket from which an entire flock of foraging grouse once took flight. In a glade, in front of an old row of benches, we encounter a new, open-air stage. Santiago crosses the boards and stops, as if a spotlight shone upon him and he were about to deliver a tender monologue.
In the gardens at home, I have been snipping the hollow stems of last year’s perennials. The bees who might have slumbered within them, warm in the snow, are now at the dandelions, which have already bloomed and gone to seed and are standing naked and reedy in the lawn. I don’t uproot them; I like their sunny faces and bitter leaves and the blowzy way they depart when it is time. I trim the grass around the beds and prune Virginia waterleaf where it hangs over the other vegetation like a poncho. I fill the bird feeders and scrub the bird bath. There are twigs to rake and catkins to sweep, and these duties assert themselves day after day. The air smells of lilac and lily-of-the-valley, but there has been no rain for weeks, only the cloud spittle that makes the car in the driveway even dirtier. I get out the watering can. I sprinkle the potted herbs and the plants that are blooming: the Jacob’s ladder, the Jack-in-the-pulpit, the maidenhair fern sprung up suddenly high and gangly. I do not want to waste water. But the rain doesn’t come. I get out the hose. I am not sure of the right way to provide nurture.
We come to the edge of the park and Santiago starts across the road. I hold him back. We have never been here before. But a footpath is visible on the other side of the asphalt and, beside it, a sign with faded print. I release my hold, and Santi leads us to another set of trails where spring azure butterflies flit across the forest floor. It is impossibly quiet. Trees have not yet leafed in the north, and only the thinnest blades of grass poke out from straw-like patches beneath our feet. We follow the shoreline of a lake that is blue-gray and shining as the wind ruffles it. Pine cones loll in the shade.
This is the state where my great-grandparents met and married, where they built a house and raised sheep and children. With its lakes and hills and woods, it reminded my great-grandmother of her birthplace in Sweden. The railroad stopped bringing their sheep to market, and they moved to Colorado. The land was dry, and Grandma called the fencing poor, no good for shepherding. She never took to the place. When she was very old, she labored in a garden behind her cottage, growing irises that reached her hips and made her smile. She lost her wedding band in that garden. It wasn’t found until after she had been laid in the ground. Every morning, I slip it on my finger.
When we have walked for hours, Santiago and I make our way back to the car. I open all the doors and give him water and kibble. He waits patiently on Main Street while I buy a latté, and as we head southwest, he sleeps. The sun is hot on his back. Signs along the road warn residents and passers-by that fire danger is high. Near the place where, on a cloudy morning years ago, a deer stepped on graceful legs into the road before my front bumper, disappearing into the trees as I crushed my brakes and my heart beat against my eyes, we pass acres where the woods have been removed. Half a dozen yellow trucks lumber over the bare earth.
The road trip wasn’t for Santiago. It was for me. I was thirsty. I needed a latté.
The next morning, it is Santi’s birthday. We leave the house on foot, before breakfast. It is his favorite way of waking up. He chooses an excellent route, one that loops through five parks, crossing back and forth over train tracks on sneaky trails whose stories he remembers. We watch a woodpecker knocking at a fallen snag, and swans floating in a marsh below a transmission tower. In the afternoon, I give him cheese. In the evening, I climb onto the couch beside him, facing him like a lover, my hip hanging off the cushion, breathing his breath, scratching his chest as he purrs.
We met a man on the trails in Wisconsin. He was young. He wore shorts and a tee-shirt and sunglasses. He rode a fat tire bike and approached–almost without sound in the impossibly quiet woods– from behind us. After he had passed, he turned his head and called into his wake.
“That’s a handsome dog!”
A short while later, at the library park, we met a gray-haired couple, both tall and rangy. They wore faded sweatshirts and walked with their grandchildren. They let Santiago jump on them.
“He’s like ours,” they said. “We just lost him. Ten years old. In bed. Didn’t wake up. We weren’t ready.”
This is the place where Santiago and I live: between our handsome youth and the death that will come too soon. I have been happy, and the consequence of my happiness is that time is moving faster than I have ever known it to move. I water the bare ground where–as the planet spins–the slimmest shoots of prairie clover and butterfly weed will emerge. I wash dishes and fix toilets, shake out rugs and turn the compost, hang out laundry and sweep the floors. These cares assert themselves day after day. And day after day, I walk with my companion in the peace of the morning until we are spent. In attending to this place, I am satisfied.
My parents, too, have birthdays in May. One afternoon, they take me to a park near their home in the suburbs. The trees in the wood reach toward the light–poplars and ironwoods and red oaks, and flowering shrubs that we touch and try to name. They have leafed and arch over us, and moss grows on the rotting logs scattered in the brush, so that to walk here is like walking the wide aisle of a great cathedral in which the stained glass windows are all in shades of green. We encounter turkeys on a hillside and a tiny, white-haired woman who walks briskly, stocking-footed. When we come to a sun-bathed bridge, we stand in the middle of it, watching the minnows swimming in the water below until we notice the eagles flying among the trees.
To see Santiago treading the boards, and the green cathedral of spring in other places, visit the gallery.