In 1995, three days after graduating from UCA, my mom and I packed up my Geo Storm and rode across the Mississippi River, into Tennessee, over the Smokies and into southwestern Virginia and Appalachia where I would serve as a volunteer with the US Forest Service. She studied me as we meandered through the mountains.
“You will never come back. This will be your home.”
“I’ll be back in three months.” I’m sure I rolled my eyes at her. I was still in the dizzying stage of young adulthood.
She turned out to be right, in a way. I did not return home during his lifetime. I left the mountains for Richmond, then settled in the Shenandoah Valley, as a branch of my mother’s family tree had done centuries ago. My mother passed away last August.
During her last months, I made several trips to her house, retracing our steps. After one such trip, I sat in my living room outside of Charlottesville, watched the light dance along the spine of Shenandoah National Park, and felt a pain in the hollow of the stomach. After 26 years, I was homesick.
Coming home was never on my radar. My older brother took the road west to Wyoming, I headed east to Virginia. We were the ones who got by, held on and, I guess, would never get home long enough to unpack a carry-on. He died with his boots (cowboy boots) in March, just weeks after packing up my settled life, quitting a job I loved, leaving beloved friends and moving back to North Little Rock.
I received a warm welcome in Arkansas, of course. Familiar sights like Pinnacle Mountain from the I-430 bridge still take my breath away. Spring still lasts about 15 minutes. The cheese dip is still the best in the world. I’m grateful to be able to drive across town to have lunch with my oldest friend, spend a Saturday afternoon with my sister-in-law, and spoil my 12-year-old niece.
But I missed a lot of things during my absence. My 38-year-old niece was 12 when I left, and I wasn’t there for her during the tough times. I missed seeing his children grow up. My best friend had two babies and raised them to be amazing adults while I was away. I missed laughing with my brothers, two of whom are deceased. I missed fixing things with my mom.
Every other Tuesday night, my brother Clayton, his wife and children, and my beloved (a good boy from Arkansas) and his children come to my house for “family night”. The menu is simple and inexpensive, and everyone brings something to share.
My mother started this tradition years ago after I left. Perhaps it was her way of clinging to her family as long as she could, before forgetting faces and names. I remember she asked me on one of my trips home several years ago what I would like her to cook. I said my favorite, the chicken spaghetti. She knew this recipe like she knew her way out the back door. But this batch was bland, watery, something was missing. His disease was gaining ground and it scared us both.
Now I stand outside my kitchen door in Maumelle and watch this group of people I love in so many complicated ways as they eat, laugh and tell stories. My brother does his best to gross everyone out with crude anecdotes, like when we were kids. I can hear my mom scolding us all for laughing at her nonsense. Don’t encourage him!
Somewhere in one of my unpacked boxes is a journal with a Bible verse scribbled on the inside page. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. I left Arkansas looking for something I couldn’t find back home, and this verse seemed like a clue.
Standing in the doorway now, among family and friends laughing and eating, children chasing cats around the house, a sink full of dishes, I hear my mother’s voice next to me. You see, your heart was there all along. She’s right. A bit scratched and patched from the trip, sure, but reflected in the precious faces of everyone around my table.
Michelle Stoll is from North Little Rock whose creative writing has appeared in the Glasgow Review, Galway Review, Crosswinds Poetry and other international publications.