All Who Enter Here
The date I’m writing this is July 2007. My husband and I have brought our four children to vacation under the rooftop of a tiny, red-shingled cabin on the curve of a sparkling spot of water named, incorrigibly, Stump Pond. Today, my husband and I are taking the long woodsy walk up Forshee Road, across the street from the family land. Midsummer wildflowers, Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susan, purpled chicory, and dried Timothy grass wind the stony roadway, reminding me of the countless grubby bouquets we’d shoved in plastic cups on Grandma’s kitchen table.
As we hike, we get an occasional glimpse of the blue sky and white clouds through the leafy canopy, inviting us to keep trudging upward to the top where we’ll stop long enough to witness again the panoramic view of fields full of goldenrod and blackberry bushes, and to revisit a hallowed ancient tree that stands at the highest point on the hill overlooking a neighboring lake. This is the tree that propped me up after this same walk during so many angst-ridden adolescent summers, the tree that can be seen from almost any spot walking around the lake below, the tree that serves as a path-marker fingering the country sky.
When I was younger I came to this plot of land for years—almost 25 in a row—roaming the grassy shoreline, rowing around lily pads and tree stumps poking through the pond water, and running sweaty laps up and down Forshee Road. As an adolescent, I bloomed in the sensual soil of this place. I thrived during weeks like this one now, when I was the child vacationing here with my parents, brothers, and sisters. Year by year, we formed a kind of family liturgy, a joyful way of being together that transcended the reality of the modest little cabin and weedy pond. The liturgy expanded to jubilation during picnics with relatives, commemorating patriotic holidays or celebrating the birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries of three generations underneath Grandpa’s homemade picnic pavilion, eating Grandma’s macaroni and potato salads.
I say almost 25 years because, late in my teen years, the cottage as a haven for relatives crumbled under the weight of a family split.
This year my husband and I have returned, hoping we’ve stayed away long enough to start fresh with our own kids, but I’m feeling the loss more deeply than ever. One morning early in the week, dangling my feet off the end of the small dock with a mug of coffee and a book of Wendell Berry’s poems, I discover this one—written to his son, Den—and it shocks me with its prescience. I reread the lines silently and out loud, first to my husband and then to the swallows skimming the speckled pond, hoping if I share them with enough different species the beautiful words will help me make sense of the old wrongs committed here. I think again about the poem as we continue our pilgrimage up Forshee Road and wished I’d brought the book along to read when we reach the venerated tree.
My husband and I occasionally hold hands, but mostly we walk along in silence, alone with our thoughts. Mine have taken a melancholy turn, brooding over the schism that separated my childhood into two eras. In the “before” period, this place offered retreat for dozens of relatives loading down picnic tables with giant marbled watermelons and a gaggle of cousins spilling out into the pond wreathed in shiny, black inner tubes that scraped our thighs when we forgot to avoid the valve cap. In that era, the cottage sounded like cousins fighting over Old Maid in the bunkhouse and uncles clanging horseshoes across the mown grass. Now, in the years after the family split, on the few times I’ve visited, the place is eerily quiet, whittled down to the evening recollections between my grandparents sitting on the glider, staring out over the empty yard. Schism happened and we splintered, but good.
While we stopped large gatherings at the cottage, most of us come back on our own. My grandmother (and lately, a thoughtful cousin) keep a careful schedule so that anyone who wants to return can be assured time alone to construct their own family memories. Somehow we’ve been able to divorce ourselves from the people in our vacation liturgies, but not from the place. The quiet comfort and simple delights of the family land have wound their way into the geography of our souls, and not only for those of us related by blood. Through the years the cottage charmed a ragtag collection of friends we gathered along the way. No one really knows how many people can fit in the beds because no one has ever been turned away. The closest record we have to this truth can be found in the pages of the guest book. Now that our family is alienated, broken apart by alliances, that book contains the only sense of togetherness we can create. We share with cousins the news of our growing families in pen-scribbled lines across the yellowing pages in Grandma’s guest book.
I’d forgotten about the book until this summer. It was the first thing that caught my eye when I walked in the door, laden with bags of vacation food spilling onto the kitchen table and mottled formica next to the sink. Once unburdened, I picked up the little brown book from its place of honor among the familiar bric-a-brac. I sat with it for awhile, reliving the memories attached to each entry, calling out old recollections to my children. All week, I reopened its pages and tried to place the entries in the timeline of our family history. I noticed the gold stamp scrolled atop the book’s faux leather cover, pronouncing a benediction: May God Bless All Who Enter Here.
As we’re approaching the top of the hill, swatting mosquitoes and fat flies from our damp faces, I look ahead for a first glimpse of the tree and realize that the entire landscape has changed. I wonder if I’ve been gone too long and have lost my bearings. The last time I hiked this path, I sat in a patch of grass next to the tree to catch my breath against the knotted bark. Now someone has claimed the land as private property and marked it prolifically with NO TRESPASSING signs. I stand pressed against the wire fence trying to see ahead, but from this boundary line I can’t see the tree, the field full of blackberry bushes, or the lake below. I’m surprised by my tears and wipe them away with a fist full of sweaty t-shirt. Even this public walkway has become a place representing loss instead of comfort; I feel betrayed.
So much has been lost over these years. Throughout the week, I’d noticed that even the smallest familiarities had gained a kind of icon status. When we first arrived, we laughed with recognition at the noisy, flickering light in the bathroom. Draining pasta for dinner last night in the mustard-yellow colander my grandmother always used to prepare salads, I felt transported to another time. Each homespun comfort offered a link of recollection: treading with bare feet on the smoothed-over floor of the sun porch, dipping toes into the placid pond, sniffing the eye-watering scent of burning logs on the campfire, discerning the smacks and warbles of invisible life among the lily pads, hiking among the toads and ferns and wildflowers of Forshee Road. We hoped, at least, to keep the kinesthetic comfort of this place.
Damn that tree for being lost to us.
Since we can’t go any further up the road, we turn downward, back toward the little red cottage. I’m trying to remember more of the stanzas from Wendell Berry’s poem and instead start thinking about the nature of healing. Could our new family liturgy of individual pilgrimages take on a communal quality through our ability to remember each other and the good tables we once shared? Could the notes we pass in the pages of a guest book become prayers of reconciliation? A passing of the peace, a prayer: May God Bless All Who Enter Here.
And might that prayer invite reconciliation in spite of us?