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A hometown trip

I had a purpose for it, but God had a different one

A hometown trip

(Krieg Barrie)

Last week I drove six hours to my hometown to convert my elderly aunt and to get an éclair from Wright’s Farm. I accomplished the latter, am uncertain about the former. It was a single sentence in our pastor’s sermon that broke my mental stalemate about the wisdom of such a trip: “Take a risk,” he said. 

Things didn’t go the way I expected, which I already expected: Things never do. I felt I had to get in the zone to meet Simone because there is some never-articulated junk in our relationship, and because I am sensitive to the impression my family has of me as a condescending, holier-than-thou religious know-it-all. I find that when I am with people who see me in a negative light, I see myself in a negative light. Does that happen to you?

So I drove around town ginning up a mood, hitting replay on Ella Fitzgerald singing “Midnight Sun” because it is a direct nerve to memories of my mother and how short and sad life is and how I missed the boat in many ways. One street brought back memories of how I sinned there, and another street of how I sinned there, and another street of how I was a coward there, and the overall assessment that I have been controlled by fear all my life.

I think the people who come back from near-death experiences and say they saw their whole life pass before their eyes are telling the truth. (We shall find out henceforth how true all clichés were.) There is something about returning in your 60s to a place you played tag in that compresses the decades to a measure apprehended at a glance, and renders a verdict.

‘The things of this world are passing away.’ Not will pass away, but are passing away. Even as we look.

Looking things over—hollow-eyed textile mills that blow no more noon whistles, steepled churches converted to museums, populations of different skin tones who “knew not Joseph,” as it were—I remembered the apostle’s words: “The things of this world are passing away.” Not will pass away, but are passing away. Even as we look.

Simone recognized me, and we chatted about this and that, my plan being to return the following day and move in for the kill, large-print-Bible gift in tow. The plan was foiled. Next morning I arrived to learn she’d been signed out of the nursing home by her daughter. Masterfully circumventing HIPAA rules, I learned they were to lunch at Kay’s restaurant. I showed up and was warmly welcomed. But the closest I came to hazarding anything spiritual was when I mentioned, in a reasonably plausible context, the head covering I wear in church because of 1 Corinthians 11. Nonstarter.

My aunt would return to a room with a large-print Bible on the bed and a handwritten note about trusting Jesus to forgive sins. I had to leave it at that.

Queasy about the Woonsocket Motor Inn, I called a Christian cousin and his wife, asking if I could crash on their floor while on my mission, and they obliged. It was there, observing their marital interactions and the blessings of God on them, that I learned God’s purpose for my journey. Helen showed me every wedding picture in her albums. I could see that she enjoyed that too.

In a final impulse I decided to look up an elderly couple my sister knew, if I could find the house. By a series of necessary coincidences I did find it, knocked on the door, and said, “Hi, I’m Andrée, Lise’s sister. I thought you lived on Kenwood.” An old man replied, “We moved to this rancher 40 years ago.” It just so happened (as they say) that I was walking into a scene of Mrs. Hemond weeping over her sister Muriel, and she hugged me so hard and was so happy to see me that you’d think the pope had come in.

William Carlos Williams wrote a short poem: 

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

So much depends upon—so much is altered by—the smallest act of risk in venturing back to the old country.