In my silent picture memories out back in the old house at Longview, a few places stand out. The window above the sink overlooking the backyard where I would see my mother watching us play. I imagine myself there now for I look like her and there is nothing to look onto, but the sun setting on a life we once knew when we were all together indefinitely.
Outside, there was a hearth somebody had built out of stone and cement where my dad cooked spiced and succulent meat and fish, sometimes bread. He would let me poke open the aluminum foil to see if steam was piping, the matte smoke from his cigarette swirling and blending into the cool twilight air like a ghost hiding and hanging high.
As I venture farther these characters and their habits recede into time and it is just me in timeless spaces that know me like ancestral land. I imagine thinking of these places when I am dying. I return to them now because they are where my consciousness started. They are when and where I first felt alone and free to dream up a world. Will I visit them before I leave after everyone else is gone?
In front of the backyard shed there was a resplendent walnut tree. Not unusual for California, but like a guest dressed for the opera at a house party, peculiar in the backyard of a modest 1950s tract home. My tree swing hung from the thickest branch that reached over the tin roof of my father's storage space for upcyclables.
I spent many a cool morning and afternoon enjoying the highs and lows of life as a pendulum, the sun filtering through the glittering leaf earrings of the stone fruit and citrus trees lining the perimeter of the garden.
Shifting my weight ever so slightly, or jabbing my tennis-shoed foot at inanimate garden tools I imagined coming to life at my direction would pivot and jet swirl me around the trunk of the walnut tree until there was no more room and nothing to do but unwind.
During the spring and summer, unripe walnuts hung like green orbs on an off-season Christmas tree. We collected ones that prematurely fell and ripened them near the barbecue or on top of the refrigerator. As the months turned cold, the fruit skin would begin to harden and turn black and brittle. I would nestle myself tightly in the tire, padded up by my quilted pink nylon jacket with the conical hood, gain some momentum, and then ram into the trunk of my tree.
Walnuts would fall at least a dozen at a time, peppering down into bushes and corners, pelting and bouncing off of me, and thumping the roof of the shed like tar hailstones from outer space. I would jump out and scamper like a bubble gum elf, up and down retaining walls, collecting the nuts from behind the shed, in the mulch of my mother’s roses, and from in between the grates of a derelict stove my father kept for parts.
The canopy of the walnut tree reached all the way to the northeast corner of our backyard, which sloped upward. My sister and I would hang out along the back fence peeing in trenches we dug with my dad’s trowel and knocking knot holes out to harass the neighbor’s strange animals with sticks. His name was Jack and he complained to my father many times, but we still spied and poked his tortoise.
Jack had a large above ground pool and once my sister claimed she saw a rotund woman wearing a large diamond ring and sloshing around in it with a chimpanzee. I imagined myself standing there now, outside of the kitchen window far beyond where my mother would be standing, watching a floppy woman in a dated bathing suit synchronized swimming with an ape to Mancini’s waltz.
Where the property line we shared with Jack met the fence behind the shed was charged earth and the site of an ornate altar to the Virgin Mary. The base of it was a triangle made of cement with plaster finishing that sloped upward and was embossed with scallop seashells. The altar itself was an arch encrusted with shells and fragments of blue glass in a mosaic pattern. Inside lived a female deity, something I was familiar with from my mother’s Hindu altar inside of the house.
I prayed and played at this altar, not knowing the difference between the gods of Vedic culture and the presence in my beloved outdoor sanctuary – now knowing that there is no difference and, if there was, it didn’t matter.
I would sweep the plaster floor with a broom my father fashioned out of sticks and my mother let me light small white paraffin candles in holders made of clay at the feet of the statue. There were broken trinkets that once hung from the arch that I would polish with my sweatshirt and put back in their spots. A small porcelain bird and a fragment of a bell, the fishing line that once hooked them still hanging in pieces overhead.
As day turned to dusk, I would watch the candle’s flame lap gently within the dome of the arch, illuminating the statuette’s raised features and casting shadow pools where her face was gaunt or her gown pleated. Creatures lurked about as they did in every corner of the yard, but here somehow I knew they wouldn’t hurt me. Laying there I often wondered who consecrated this patch of land and why. Was it a place they were hoping to come back to?
A pilgrimage can be to anywhere. It can be along an ancient route like the Camino de Santiago where scallops guide travelers to the god they seek, or me to this place by way of grooves in shells that the fingers of my memory can still trace to deliverance.
And every home has strange places, like haunted attics and forgotten cemeteries dotted with fieldstones of war and famine. My home possessed this spirit, gothic yet uplifting, steeped in mysterious rituals cloaked by time, yet welcoming, like a vigilant Mother, eternal in her presence and gaze.