We're most of the seven miles from town to the farm when Marcia begins to wonder aloud where the turn-off is. She comments that given the number of times during our high school years she bombed out to my house to either get me or to spend the night, she should remember. And she does.
The Selle Road turnoff is visible up the highway from the back property line - the one that used to mark one side of the 80 acre rectangle that was Sunburst Dairy. When it was my home, the line was a straight, well-maintained, barbed wire fence. Now the line exists only in my memory, and as the blurred edge of the woods that sit in the southwest corner.
We turn left onto the road that leads to the house - the quarter mile stretch I walked eagerly to the school bus every morning, and trudged reluctantly home every afternoon from second grade through senior year. The hills between home and the highway seemed so much steeper than they do now, the creek under the bridge in the middle seemed so much more alive.
Marcia turns into the driveway, and decides not to push through the dense growth of weeds to the house. We get out of her car, stepping carefully, uncertain what might be hidden in the wild green that has overtaken what was once a gravel driveway. I monitor inner voices, prepared to comfort the girls for whom this was a place of suffering. The only thing I hear is Marcia's concerned friend voice, the swish of waist-high tansy ragwort parting as we pass, and the wind playing in the overgrown Lombardy poplars.
The house, which has been empty for years, stands solid in the shadows of fifty year old trees whose unrestrained growth is horror movie creepy. Marcia looks through the broken living room window as I pick my way carefully to the front door. There's a huge crater at the foot of the steps that I'm at a loss to explain. I step over it, test the wood of the first step, and breathe a little easier once I'm standing on the brick step at the door. I try the handle. It's locked. Preparing to bushwhack my way around back, I accidentally bump the door, which swings open. I hear the voices of the movie audience urging me to turn back, to save myself, to run.
I step into the house, pretending the goose bumps on my arms are from the wind. Marcia goes back to her car to allow me the privacy I didn't request, but am deeply grateful for.
I'm here searching for ghosts - any unfinished anythings that might still have the power to hurt me. I don't expect to find any, but know that if they exist, they'll have to show themselves here in this place where memories of pain and shame far outweigh any others.
There are two rooms in particular I need to feel: the pantry and my old bedroom.
The pantry, with its concrete floor, shelved walls and rotten potato damp earth smell was our designated fall-out shelter. A single bare bulb in the ceiling barely pushed the darkness back far enough to identify whatever we were sent in to fetch. In childhood the shelves were packed with hundreds of jars of beans, pears, peaches, jams, cherries, plums, tomatoes, applesauce, sauerkraut, pickles and occasionally home-made root beer.
During the summer of my tenth year, when there was a very real possibility of nuclear war, my parents decided we needed a place for the family to be safe while waiting for radiation levels to diminish in the event the Russians attacked.
Old gallon mayonnaise jars were filled with water. A pile of moth-eaten olive wool army blankets was tucked into a corner. Empty coffee cans were stacked on a shelf along with toilet paper.
I was appalled. And said so. I did not want to spend any time at all, let alone the possible weeks, stuck in that cold tiny stinking place with five people I could barely stand.
My questions weren't being answered. Where would we sleep? Would we have to stand the whole time? What about privacy? Would we watch each other go to the bathroom? What would we do with all that time? What about books to read? How would we cook our food? How would we know when to come out? What if someone got sick?
I said I would rather take my chances on the outside, alone, even if it meant dying, than have to live in the pantry with my family for weeks on end. My mom's response was no surprise: if I was going to be that ungrateful then maybe it would be better for everyone if I wasn't in the pantry with them.
As I stand in the middle of the room that has not grown larger over the years, I surprise myself by smiling at my ten-year-old choice. I'm proud of her. I love that girl's spirit. That love, and her spunk, are the only energy left for me here in this space.
(to be continued)