I walked through hunting grounds on a frigid April morning. This used to be a farm I looked upon often from the cemetery, where my grandparents are buried. It is an old cemetery, as you can see by the stones, and the church itself has been locked away to the world for decades. I would look upon those broken stones and that gaping maw of a tree as a child and wonder if the stillness in the day truly continued into the night.
Why do I feel drawn to these places? My grandmother’s death was the first major loss I experienced as a child. It also helped me realize how much I depended on my grandparents for stability in the world.
When you’re a preacher’s kid, your allegiance is to your church. You go to the church’s school and hang out with other church kids. The town is to be held at a distance, what with all its heathens and *gasp* Catholics.
Yet even in the church, I felt held at arm’s length from everyone. The Powers That Be considered my dad to be something of a problem solver, so every few years he was sent to a new church to deal with frictions inside the church or between the church and the community. Every few years we had to pack up, say goodbye to people we were just barely beginning to know, and walk to the front of yet another church and be stared at by hundreds of people as the “and family” of the new pastor package. It’s hard to become a part of something when you’re set apart from the get-go.
My grandparents, however, never moved. For years, I walked with Grandpa to the same park and fed ducks. Every summer I dragged my feet behind Grandma to the same craft store so she could sift through dress patterns. (Note to Craft Stores: put something to do by those blastedly huge pattern catalogs!) We grilled out at their house every Fourth of July and parked on the same mosquito-addled hillside for fireworks. My grandparents knew contentment through place in their community, and with every visit, I knew it, too.
When Grandma died, they buried her in this small rural cemetery, not far from the open-mouthed tree. After the burial, my mother pointed across the street to a hollow yellow brick house. “That’s the Streich farm, your grandma’s.” I stopped listening after “grandma’s.” When you’re twelve, you don’t think much about cousins twice removed or however that works. You just hear that something else was once a part of your family’s place. I looked upon the fields of corn, the fallow lots of grasses, and inside made it mine. I imagined that land during my years in boarding school, where we learned to tie ourselves to God and prepare to move across the world on His Whim. I wanted that house and its fields. Let God maneuver other people about like game pieces. I put my time in. Let me have place.
Then they tore down the house and turned it into wild lands for hunters.
I don’t blame the Streich relative, however distant, for selling to the Department of Forest and Wildlife. At least the land won’t be buried under concrete and strip malls. It’s acquired a new beauty in this wild phase, with hidden pools, peculiar clumps of trees and shrubs, and grasses tall enough to hide wolves. The land may never physically be mine, but I can wander through it, touch its soil, and imagine, for a while, what it means to have place.