Here, in a wallpapered room under a dark mansard roof, the voice of the wind outside lifts and twirls memories in me of the humble farmhouse that I once called home. Still my heart’s home.
It’s in Rollo Bay, only thirty miles down the road. But a lifetime away. Tomorrow I will go there.
There, as here, the wind whispered to me through the cracks in the doorjambs and ill-fitting window frames.
Then, as now, I listened. Eight or nine years old, but already feeling untethered, adrift. Something vital to me was being lost. The wind’s urgent voice seemed to forewarn me; it felt like an ally of sorts. Its physical presence had, and has, such portent in my life.
Now, hot tears fall until my throat aches. There’s a step on the stairs outside my door; I muffle my sobs in the crocheted counterpane much as I stifled them years ago. No one except me understands why I cry.
The wind shifts. I prepare for bed. Blackbirds begin to bicker in the eaves under the east window.
At thirteen, I was ripped from Rollo Bay for a better life in the small city fifty miles distant. Benumbed, I turned my back on my precious rural world, and I trained myself to fast. But first, I starved.
Some teens rebel. But I could only deal with grief by ignoring the hurt. I adopted a life opposite to what I wanted and have spent decades in places created by humans, occasionally stepping into special natural environments.
Why didn’t I make my life in the natural world?
While I slept, the wind vanished; now sunrise beckons and it returns, loud and rude. Its thin whistle casts me into a vast white place that feels like Dr. Zhivago’s snowy steppes. I’m wandering inside memory. No one can hear me; there are no arms for comfort.
In truth, I’m in a cozy country B&B on the small island in Canada’s Maritimes where I was born. Round hay bales dot the clipped fields encircling the farmhouse. Inside, the walls are adorned with artsy oblong tapestries created by the proprietor’s wife.
This was their forever home, decorated with love and intention. She died young. It was those dammed cigarettes, he said, then stuffed his knuckles in his mouth. His emotions erupted as we got acquainted, and I noted the beauty of his home.
Visitors like me displace his anguish but next year he’ll sell and leave.
Maybe she is tweaking my heart here, in this house she loved as I did my grandparents’ farmhouse at the eastern end of the island. In what was the tiny village of Rollo Bay.
Maybe my host’s severed dreams are like my own: that people I adored would never leave me; that natural, timeless things would never be violated; that my country world couldn’t be uprooted.
His wife died. My father left. I lost my heart’s home.
Art did not hang on my grandparents’ walls. Just a framed picture of the Sacred Heart in the kitchen. A crucifix, hiding a tiny vial of holy water, in the dining room by the black rotary phone. Framed oval images of a great-grandfather and photos of a sibling and two aunts.
We ate well inside this farmhouse, but there was little emotional food. No, my gallery was the countryside where nature fed my heart.
House, says Jung, is a metaphor for self. Rollo Bay has always travelled with me. In my thirties, I started to feel it, like an invisible cloak on my shoulders after I began to excavate the layers of my troubled childhood.
Several years later, I was living in the Pacific Northwest, a magnificent natural arena that accommodates humans. On a morning walk I burst into tears, triggered by the sight of a white morning glory. Those delicate trumpets had shrouded a telephone pole at the top of the shore lane in Rollo Bay.
Becoming a healthy adult requires truthfulness. Honesty about your motivations, about the clever games you play with yourself to subvert honest needs. This is a hard learning.
That farmhouse, which my great grandfather had designed and built, was my lodestone for stability and belonging. For years after leaving, I desired and resisted both. That is, until an unassuming flower hammered at and broke the magnetic field.
This visit to Rollo Bay is different. It’s a reckoning, a settling of some emotional account. The farmhouse has been resold a few times, and I’ve driven by it at other times. But I’ve done a million miles of living, too, and now I know why I treasure it.
Something stirs in the muscle of my sore heart.
Outside, the crow calls. It is the voice of the north. Wherever I am when I hear it, I am swept back to my island countryside. Voices of my childhood were also the peeper frogs in the shallow pond by the farm lane; waves slapping on the seashore; the communion of blackbirds hidden in tall spruce behind the house; bedsheets flapping on the clothesline by the silver poplar. It rustled like applause in the slightest breeze.
Tomorrow I'll be in Rollo Bay. Now my eyes fill, I pant in distress. After a while, I go downstairs, step into the kitchen.
"Blueberry pancakes for breakfast," says my host. As a kid, I had gorged on fat, belly-buttoned fruit. They hung like indigo jewels from crowded bushes edging the shore lane.
That lane was a tractor track of talc-soft dirt. It started across the road from the farmhouse entrance and wound its way a half mile through dense spruce to a swamp and the shoreline.
I would only go as far as the spruce without fearing spiders. But my route there was magical. It took me past morning glories, thorny crimson wild roses buzzing with bees, and three tummy-aching sour apple trees.
My end point was at the top of the rise, where grandfather planted our lush vegetable garden.
‘I'll enjoy every bite,’ I say. But he cooks them in bacon grease, and I go back to my bedroom with gut growling.
Starlings are making a racket near my window. Their electronic sounds, like amplified straw sucking, are quickly counterbalanced by the oriole's liquid whistle.
Blotched light dappling one wall suggests cathedral light. In a nanosecond, I am inside the white church that my grandfather helped to build in Rollo Bay, dazed by the heady aroma of incense and the Latin chants.
Now there’s ruckus as a robin returns with food for its fledglings. Claws rake the roof shingles.
Downstairs again, I ask my host where to explore outside. ‘The old cemetery a mile up the road,’ he says. How fitting.
I pass royal blue cylinders of lupins crowding the ditch like spectators. Small poplars patter in the breeze, accompanied by the peculiar poo-tweet! of red-winged blackbirds.
My eyes puddle as I plod. I want to fall down and fill my hands with the glorious iron-red soil, roll around, rub my face in it. But if I surrender to this desire, I might not leave.
At the cemetery, I am halted by a group of live people, so I head back on the opposite side of the road, passing a small puddle-pond skewered with cattails, waterbugs pleating its surface.
I’m uneasy with the powerful needs and yearnings of my little girl self. It’s hard to admit how big a hunger burns in my heart. Better to keep it starved as I have.
Thinking this is like recognizing a fugitive in a crowd: I can't pretend anymore.
That night, I wake many times to the voice of the wind. Mid-morning, I drive to Rollo Bay after sharing a teary hug with the host before each of us resumes our mourning.
Brush has erased the shore lane. Now someone’s plain house sits at the top of the rise.
Brush blurs the edges of the farmhouse lane, too. This is where the grand, twin birch once stood sentry. They were murdered while I still lived here, uprooted for road widening. It was an awakening to the horrifying power of adults.
My white rental car trundles up the narrow dirt lane. The spaceship-sized red barn has vanished. So have the straw barn, granary, and chickencoop – weather-beaten, hazardous arenas for my imagination.
In the pasture north of the barn, I would catch trout fingerlings in the icy-cold brook using my fifty-cent bamboo pole. I see no sign that the brook has survived.
All looks lesser than.
The wood-shingled house now has yellow aluminum siding. It’s still perky after more than a century; not listing on its dirt-cellar foundation.
Now Someone Else’s House.
The half-circle clay courtyard is overgrown. Gone are the gas tank and the orange-berried rowan shadowing it.
I knock on the plain front door, then step into the enclosed porch. Memory evokes the spicy tang of spruce sap from the wood box that had sat beside the ancient sink, still there, where grandfather had his weekly washup for Sunday mass.
No answer to my knocks on the kitchen door. Standing by the step, I sense the sad, feral Momma Cat nearby; we fed her a can of sardines that my grandmother had reserved for grandfather.
To my right, from the closed back porch, I again hear the dripping of a freshly slaughtered pig hanging from its hocks. I feel the chill of the root cellar where we stored jams and jellies on the shelf and carrots in a sandbox.
There is no cat, no pig.
My people helped to settle Rollo Bay. My maternal great-grandfather designed and built this house. Within its lath and plaster walls there has been much eating, praying, dreaming, tears, and music-making.
An alive place.
Tear a strip of wallpaper in any room, and you could release decades of laughter and indifference, regrets and pleasures, wonderings and resentments.
I leave, imagining I hear bang! from the ornamental wood screen door that isn’t there.
Once there were red and purple dahlias bordering both sides of the front steps. A pink honeysuckle bush had faced a kitchen window. Tiger lilies had waved by the open septic trench that disappeared into the breast of the meadow.
The slim, rustling poplar remains. I lamely say hello and clasp its neck with my hand. I want to embrace it; this feels intrusive. Then I am embarrassed that I won’t reveal my heart’s desire even to this tree.
The white birch that stood below the parlor window is gone. I was mortified when grandmother caught me peeling its bark to write messages to my coureur des bois alter ego. What if it were your skin? she cried.
The tall, dense spruce trees behind the house are shorter and thinner. They barely camouflage a vehicle repair business in the sloping field where we used to toboggan or hunt for lady’s slipper orchids.
Behind our gabled farmhouse was another that my grandfather had purchased for a dollar and moved there for storage. His daughters named it the Bourgeois House.
There I chased and almost caught a baby squirrel in an empty tomato can. Upstairs, I played house with my younger sister. Other times, standing by the east-facing window, I interviewed myself using a foreign accent and smoking pilfered Export A’s.
I turn my face to the sun, then slide into the car and drive down the lane. Mooney’s pond had graced its south side. I happily played with tadpoles there in spring and skated on weak ankles in winter. Now it’s a vague indentation in the earth.
The once-deep ditch opposite it is flat. No more buttercups in the meadow.
I want to shout and stop time. Recapture this place and brand my name into the rafters. But it is no longer part of my physical world. The knowing fills me with rage and sorrow at once.
Before turning left at the end of the lane, I look over my shoulder at the house. It has been maintained by other hands, not neglected by time. However, no one but me can restore my neglected heart.
In the cemetery beside the white church, across from my old schoolyard, I kneel at my grandparents' graves to say thanks. Pressing my left hand into the topsoil, which is oddly fresh, I receive two fallen maple leaves as gifts.
Driving east, I pass the small port town and park at a beach. It’s June, but too cold to swim. I see a swing and sit, point my toes to the sky and pump up and down until my hands hurt to hold on.
Driving back, I turn again into the farmhouse lane. This time I boldly open the kitchen door, am struck by how small the room is that once held a threshing crew for midday meals.
The green-and-white kitchen floor tiles are gone; drab paneling has replaced the flowery wallpaper and wainscoted walls.
On the windowsill leading to the pantry, grandmother kept a foil-wrapped pot of white oxalis. I thought it was a four-leaf clover plant and would whisper my wishes to it. On rainy days I would stare out the window, listening to the foghorn three miles away and noticing the many shades of green revealed by the rain.
I lean against the doorway as the room crowds with memories of mealtimes, a voice giving The Farm Report from inside the radio, grandfather’s screechy fiddle tunes, the comings and goings of relatives.
Upstairs is where this tomboy was horrified to learn I was a girl and hid my need for sanitary pads from a house full of women. Where one chilly Saturday I saw kittens birthed in the attic. Where I found legal papers that told me why ours was the only farmhouse without a daddy living in it. Where the man who bought it from my grandparents groped me on my way to bed.
Stifling my desire to explore, I shut the door on this house. Their house. Another time, I vow, while part of me hopes not because afterward no mysteries will remain, and I might doubt my memories.
Since leaving my small island, I have stepped onto every continent. Trekked in the Sahara and Serengeti; slept in Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. Visited India and worked in Asia and Australia. The farthest of these is still reachable in less than two days. But not Rollo Bay. Its distance is light years.
Self-discovery involves understanding what shapes us and reconciling where we have invested our heart, our soul. I have discarded the cloak, and I travel lighter.