"You may be done with the past, but the past isn't done with you."
I returned to West Texas this week for that most compelling of homecoming reasons, a funeral. My Aunt Kay died last week. She was married to my father's brother, but she was also my mother's childhood friend. The four of them were the closest of friends, and that closeness applied to all of the cousins as well. We functioned like an immediate family; all of my childhood memories include my cousin/best friend, as well as her cooler-than-cool dad and her impossibly kind and good-hearted mom. When Uncle Tommy died in 1979 and our families drifted apart, something cracked in my family. When my father died eleven years later, that something shattered altogether. I don't think we ever entirely recovered.
It happens, I suppose. You put your head down and you live your life, and then one day something terrible happens and you realize that you've let things slip out of your hands that never should have been treated so casually. I loved my Aunt Kay, as I loved and idolized my Uncle Tommy and as I adored my cousin. My memories of them are almost entirely from childhood, from a time so long ago that it feels slightly unreal in my memory, and from a place so unlike anywhere else in the world that it is almost impossible to describe without sounding like I'm making it up. West Texas in the 1970s really does represent a world that was very different from whatever past you probably know.
The time of my childhood is remote. The place, less so. Returning to Odessa is always something of an emotional shake up for me, but now, in the context of returning to embrace not just family but the family and the life of the past, it really is overwhelming. I sometimes turn to music to put it in perspective. Not the popular music of my youth, or the country music that was always present when my father was around. I actually associate home with specific classical pieces. Aaron Copland's celebrated Americana, for instance, like the slow movements of Billy the Kid or Rodeo or even the very end of Appalachian Spring. Big, lonely prairie landscapes in sound, albeit a little cliched.
My father did, I know that now. He longed to get out into the wilder parts, and we did, often. My father and I had a complicated relationship, as he had with most of our family, and I didn't always fully appreciate trips to the lake or the camping excursions to places like Fort Davis or Big Bend. But I guess I was soaking it in just the same, because I think I'd give just about anything to go back. Not just to the place, but to all of it, with my mom and my dad and his cool older brother who never got to be old in my memories, with my own siblings and my cousin, and with my aunt, to whom I never got to say goodbye. I never got to say goodbye to any of the ones I lost; my family hasn't had a surplus of lingering hospital deaths. Just unexpected phone calls with sad voices and then hurriedly packed suitcases. And memories, played out against that huge desert, always present.
That looming sadness comes not from tragedy or hardship, although that desert has certainly known plenty of both, as my own family knows all too well. I think it comes from that very timelessness, that sense like nowhere else in the world I've ever seen, that this world has rolled along for millions of years, and our presence won't matter for more than a blink. A few jackrabbits will hear us and scatter, and maybe our footsteps will startle a few horny toads (if we can even find them anymore), but that's about it.
And yet, those of us who lived there and those who have gone back to that receiving earth are a part of the West Texas desert. I've known so many people who have visited it and who simply don't understand how anyone could feel fondness and that low-burning homesickness for such a hard, barren place. Those of us who grew up there joke about its remoteness and its flatness and the rough people who live there, people with whom we like to pretend we have nothing in common but from whom in reality we are separated only by years and experiences.
I hear it all the time, and I've said it to myself many times over the years.
"How could you ever live in such a place?"
And then that ancient voice whispers, "How could you think you could ever truly leave?"