The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and loitering. —Walt Whitman
T he winter winds arrive late in November. The icy exhalation from the north barges into my yard, breaches the garden walls, and creeps ever so slightly into the soil. Snow begins to fall, and beneath the surface, water, life, and its associated memory becomes frozen in time. From above, a distant, warning honk grows louder until an airborne fleet of geese arrive from the north to signal the beginning of a homeward retreat.
As the northern snow and cold pushes us inward, we are forced to gather around the fire, tell our stories, and reflect on the passing year. Without the worries of lawn maintenance and external upkeep, I can begin to trim the weeds of my mind and let the seeds of my past take root. Lately, I’ve wrangled most with the idea of home. The geese, who seem to find their way back each winter, have no trouble following the ancestral pathways of their past back home. Have the geese started using Google maps? Do they follow the South Mountain star to Bethlehem? And what if there is no pathway back home? What if a 500,000 square foot warehouse has been erected on your ancestral fields? And what if home isn’t a physical place but an idea—like a game where we are searching for connections and a way to ground our past memories with our present positions?
Recently, Sarah (my six year old daughter), and I have started playing the game, Memory. When we play, she quickly gets flustered if she can’t find the matches. I try to explain that memory takes time to develop. She needs more practice. The memories are there—she just needs to find the pathway. It’s a conversation I had with my student, Emma. She was worried she had missed too many important familial moments while engaged in hours of gymnastics practice and competition. No, I tried to explain; the memories are all there - you just can’t see them clearly enough yet. Wait. Be patient. Give it time. Let them grow. We must leave the present to understand the past. It’s too fresh; too new—the dust still needs to settle like a creek whose silt has been suddenly disturbed. Let the waters of time carry the silt away and then the view will become clear.
While much of my own young childhood is hazy, I distinctly remember the orange and brown hues of our version of Memory. I remember spreading out the hundred square cards across our porcelain tiled kitchen table, and I remember playing the game after dinner with my father and my younger brothers who would sometimes get frustrated and quit mid-game. If I won, it was probably more out of occasional luck than skill. My geospatial memory always seemed to fail me mid-game. I would turn over a card I distinctly remembered being an ice cream cone, only to find a white goose, a beetle, a painting, or a green dinosaur. I too would get lost among the many memories scattered randomly about.
I still get lost easily. I can never remember street names and often have to backtrack like I did last summer on a run at Cape Cod. I turned left twice to head home, but somehow ended up two miles further down the coast and finally had to run home on the uneven, wet shoreline. Additionally, I had to stop half way to ask a parking attendant what road I had exited on. Every beach entrance had the same food and ice cream advertisement in the middle of the pathway, so each exit looked tantalizingly like the way home. Even my GPS watch seemed to be lying to me about the return distance, so I’m often amazed that anything can find its way home amidst all the changes and unmarked turns of life.
Every November, as if the meeting had been scheduled in advance, a blizzard of Snow Geese arrive from somewhere up north, circle my neighborhood, and land in the open field behind my neighbor’s house. The first time I woke up one unsuspecting morning to this noisy alarm, I was quite confused because I thought it had snowed heavily over the field but nowhere else. I watched in amazement as suddenly the blizzard would rise up and return to the clouds as if time was reversing itself. I blinked a few times as if dreaming, and when I looked again, the only remnant of that dream was a muted honking and a faint white mirage of snow covered hills in the distance. To me, this yearly goose-blizzard is a haunting remembrance of the snows I tried to leave behind, but to these weary northern travelers, the field and the nearby quarries they spend the night in are home during this perennial holiday retreat.
The reassurance of a home to return to is something I once took for granted. After high school, I tried my best to flee the Buffalo, New York snow and wind that blew daily from the great lakes onto my car, the roads, the track, and everything I preferred to be uncovered from December until March. I wanted nothing to do with this gray, solemn season. To my younger self, Buffalo wasn’t a home - it was a desolate place, empty of life, bereft of meaning, and far from the much warmer southern locales or more literary east coast.
So I left. I flew south and landed in the fields of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where it occasionally snowed, but was often reasonably seasonal and felt full of much more potential for growth and change. But as the years went by, I felt a surprising pull to return home. The roads, the traditions, my family, and even the poorly performing Buffalo Bills all seemed to call my attention back to the homeland. This was initially a strange feeling of loss because I had tried so hard to detach myself from that place that I never expected the magnetism of it would pull me back. Suddenly, I found myself excitedly returning each Thanksgiving to run the local turkey trot that served as a reunion for the diaspora of others who, like me, had attempted to escape this frozen tundra.
All 12,000 of us would run, frolic, or dance our way down Delaware Avenue as we noisily and often boisterously returned en masse to the city we left behind. We would then engage in a bit of a class reunion in the crowded convention center. Groups would exchange stories, tell tales of adventure, reconnect with old friends, drink copious Labatt Blue, sing along to the Goo Goo Dolls and The Tragically Hip, and then head home as the beginning of Arlo Guntherie’s long winded “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre'' began its traditional 12pm Thanksgiving rotation on 97 Rock.
My trips back to Buffalo were always brief and full of the various rendezvous that come with a divorced family, but each year the time there felt shorter and shorter and my desire to return grew increasingly from the deeply rooted nostalgia within me. As the memories scattered and spread across my mind over the years, I found that I knew less and less people in the convention center post turkey trot, and our Sunday morning pre-departure family brunch at the Pancake House grew smaller and smaller. As these losses piled up and my own family became settled elsewhere, the memories I had of Buffalo stubbornly persisted. Sometimes we have to leave a place to understand it. We have to step back from the daily monotony of that old life to reflect on and separate the pieces of value hidden within that multifaceted experience. At first, there are simply too many cards on the table, and they are all upside down and meaningless, but as those cards are slowly turned over, and the pictures begin to return and invoke memories since passed, those individual cards are suddenly imbued with meaning that grows as time passes and connections can be made.
I’ll often be washing the dishes or walking around a corner when suddenly a memory from the past bursts into my mind. I’m never sure what scent or mysterious vibration of the universe unhinged it, but instantly I’m overtaken by a brief, vivid, and fleeting recollection of a place and time: an old stone wall I would pass on my way to Cheltenham, the white and green victorian house on Germantown Ave, the old rail bridge on the Peanut Line, and many other past recollections I never paid much attention to. These mysterious neural pathways that lead us back mentally to our past are also byproducts of leaving.
On an unplanned return to Buffalo, I attended the funeral of my mom’s boyfriend. He was a man who knew more about what happened on that day than any single encyclopedia could ever muster. With a dash of humor and sarcasm, he would occasionally come in and out of my life over the years as a passenger with my mom. So these occasional moments over the last fifteen years had left me with a glimmer of emotional connection to this man who had unexpectedly passed and was now prostrate in front of many family and friends.
Rick loved the Beatles, and this love inspired his son Ricky to learn to play the guitar. His son lovingly played a rendition of “Black Bird” at the funeral and the memory and overwhelming emotion of the moment vibrated throughout the funeral home. The ability of music and sound to call us home and help us find our way back is another feat of the mind; it’s as if we can follow the wavelength back to a place or memory we’ve lost. The rediscovery can be emotional as it rushes through us and we reconnect with all its pieces and fragments that fall from that great bag of memories hidden deep within us. The tragedies, the celebrations, and all the moments and feelings we’ve forgotten, locked away, or hidden suddenly spill out and we try not to step on or break these delicate reflections of ourselves and the time we can not get back.
Sometimes, when I step momentarily into the star-lit darkness of the night, I can hear the solitary honk of a few geese returning home. I hear their lonely and searching honk repeating like a metronome as they depart into the distance, and then there is stillness. The moment freezes and coalescences. A lingering breath—atoms of oxygen—fuse with the water of memory and become a crystal bridge between the past and present. I can recall that fleeting hieroglyphic, but where was it amongst these scattered and unturned memories? Sometimes what we’re looking for is right in front of us, but we don’t know we’re looking for it yet. It beckons us, and calls to us, but we struggle to translate its message of recollection.
This was true of a print in my classroom. I’ve had a wintry scene of a few geese landing amidst a field of snow next to my classroom door for years and haven’t thought much about it. The print is a copy of my father in law’s painting. He was a painter of many natural scenes and occurrences: owls, pheasants, cardinals, and even the lowly geese made their way into the fields of his mind. Unfortunately, he passed away many years ago. He struggled to find his way home in his mind and so took another path. In remembrance, I took a few of his prints, and over the years they have migrated to my classroom and have landed on various walls.
Every winter morning, as if my classroom walls have suddenly taken flight, thousands of brown and white geese begin their daily air commute to Nazareth’s empty corn and soy fields. Formations of capital and lowercase “V”s soar across the entire length of the sky as they emerge ceaselessly from the distance, while a honking buzz echoes from a local quarry and penetrates the tranquil silence of the frozen mornings. Later, I watch from my classroom window as large cargo planes will ripple through the same sky and descend with packages that will be shipped from the ever-rising local warehouses. Finally, trucks will noisily rumble toward New York City and other eastern destinations from our growing transport hub. Everything is coming and going along these ancient and invisible pathways of our past. It’s as if the universe inhales and exhales each morning, leaving only a faint contrail lingering in the cold December sky as the geese and planes repeat their primordial ritual of survival and search for sustenance.
Until recently, I never thought much about the geese in Chet's landscape paintings. Chet had been a hunter, first by necessity, and second by hobby. Surely a man of quiet mornings in the fields and woods would understand the nature of birds and other animals better than those of us who merely exist in their midst. So it was fitting that as I passed his painting one morning, I finally understood its solemn significance. Its muted grays, the birds’ spread wings, the farmhouse in the distance; it was a return home. Not a vacation or a jubilant trip, but a return out of necessity, survival, and continuance. A trip he surely would’ve understood given his own need to provide food for his brother and later his own family. This need arose from his own unfortunate thrust into adulthood at a young age. I’m sure the loss of his father left him with a solemn understanding of the harsh realities of life, but also made the memory of those hunts for food all the more important and spiritual. The yearly landing of the geese, the fallen snow, the early morning silence and solace of the universe, and the pull and tug of those past memories lost to the ages and whispers of the dry rattling leaves. It’s all there in the painting if you look for it.
Home, and our memory of it, can be transitory, and it can shift out of necessity. We never forget our first home as we move to other places, but I think we’re always searching for solid ground to build on. I have few relics of my family’s Polish past and only a lingering remembrance of the taste and smell of the pizzelles my great grandmother, Nana, would have ready in her small kitchen. We would stop by her split-level home, and I would often hang out on the steps that led to her upstairs neighbor’s apartment. On those steps was a magic eight ball that beckoned me to shake it and ask it fun, childish questions. In hindsight, I wish I had known the right questions to ask about my family's past, and I wish I could’ve understood my great grandmother as her mind retreated back to her Polish language in those final years, but we are often too young or naive to see the path backward. So we head in the opposite direction, the weeds grow, and the path becomes lost to the woods.
Prior to her passing, my aunt Gale left my brothers and me scrap books filled with pictures and assorted memories of our past. She worked sporadically on these beautifully bound treasure chests of memories while constantly fighting off a cancer that refused to exit her body. This understanding of death probably gave her, like Chet, a better understanding of memory. When life is fleeting, the past must become clearer. Those lonely and erratic flickers of visions must become vivid. The fear of losing them and taking them away must be one of constant trepidation. There is no service to collect our memories upon passing - so if we’ve held them too close they’ll simply travel away on the winds of time, passing along with whatever path our spirit follows.
Today, looking through those assorted cards, ancient family pictures, SAT scores, and other found items of my childhood always brings me back to a happy past of unknown potential. One memory leads to the next, like a series of cards that keep matching, leading to match after match until the memory pathway is exhausted or some disruption breaks the momentary focus. What seemed so clear becomes fleeting and the woods become dense. There is a brief echo, a lonely and wild whisper from the distance, darkness settles in my mind and then, like the geese who are carried away by the warm winds of spring, it is gone. It makes me think I should leave the last cards for Sarah the next time we play Memory. My ego could handle a loss or two. Maybe she’ll remember these last fragments of memory one day when she plays with her own kids and the first card she turns over is the picture of a father.
Sarah, who during first grade recess, is currently excavating dinosaur bones she believes she has discovered in the back of her elementary school. She told me she’ll have the head out tomorrow and the leg the next day. She and her friends are working feverishly, fifteen dedicated recess minutes per day, to unearth this ancient fossil that has somehow managed to go unnoticed to generations of kids who have run over and around it. Maybe the memories of our past, like these bones, lie sleepily beneath earthen years of forgetful dust. If we look closely we might just see the sprouting seeds and remember the sounds of those wild, distant calls. And if we can follow them amidst the busy world around us, we must look with the curious eyes of a child who is searching for dinosaur bones under the same dirt we all have run over many times before. We may have missed the memories the first time we looked, but they remain, waiting quietly while the world turns, and someday we will unearth them, discover them with wild imagination, and dig and dig and dig them out from the deep recesses of our past to find our way home.