She was sure she would remember, in spite of how many years had passed by. With innocence that didn't match her years, she assured me it would look the same. It never looks the same. Fires, termites, advancing times - major chain store versus the charming five and dime, and apathy.
There was plenty of each in her hometown.
We stopped in this store and that as she worked to remember if it'd looked this way back then, or maybe someone had come in and changed things, playing tricks with the dusty places of her memory. 'No, the drug store did NOT look like this, I'm sure it was smaller.' She was right. A fire, then came rebuilding bigger and better. Nobody bothered to rebuild the theater where she'd gone with my dad, the night he proposed on the lawn of the courthouse because of the new cinema near the highway exit. Being gone didn't keep her from seeing it clear as day.
We went looking for the house where she was born, on a stormy July night. Headed for the poor side of town, poor then, and poor now - that never changes. It had to be one of two, both barely hanging on in their fight against wind and rain and infestation. Since we could choose we decided to say it was the better of the two, a 'better' barely discernible.
She lived there til what should be safe became unsafe. Auntie came and took her home with her where she could sleep without being afraid of hearing a door creak open in the night while everyone else slept, except him and her. She tells me she can't remember his name, the second man who married her mama, but wasn't a father. My heart tells me to this day something in her rises up, defends herself, and won't let the sound of it come from her lips.
We headed out of town, one last search for what she'd clung to, survived on back then. Grandpa's house. The father of the father, one making up for what the other didn't give any thought to. Built with his own two hands, tall and straight. She remembered walks from there into town, missing the school bus on purpose so she could look in the windows of the stores. Satisfied with just looking. No expectations made for no yearning. Being on the back porch where Granny let her churn butter, the kitchen where they let her build a real fire and cook in the stove. His fig trees, free for picking to fill her always grumbling tummy.
We drove, her remembering my only map, and ended up with nothing. She said, 'It wasn't this far.' She told me about all the land Grandpa owned, and how it'd been given to the city after he died. Cash was scarce but they had rich red farmland than spread out, acre upon acre.
I wondered. Would they have named a street after him, a poor man with lots of land? Could modern technology help us find it? I typed her maiden name into the GPS and it searched. We drove, hoping. 'Make a legal u-turn. Go two miles, then turn right.'
The minute we turned onto the street, before we saw the street sign she said, 'Yes! It's here, just down the street a little ways.'
There it stood, not straight but still tall. Thank you, God for sparing it from termites and rain and rot long enough for us to come back to this place. To see the fig tree, and grace upon grace, its branches are heavy with ripe fruit. We pick, declare the last rain a good enough washing, pop them into our mouths. A feast of stomach and soul.
She gazed at the porch where she churned butter for her Granny 70+ years ago. She looked up at me. 'Thank you for bringing me back one last time. You CAN go back home. Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.'
I stood and watched, moment of worship with no pews or preacher, as she said her goodbyes to one of the few places that was solid in a little girl's life back then, a place that was safe when home wasn't.
We climbed back into the car. I pulled away, looking forward, considering the oncoming highway traffic. She looked back as long as she could.