Ever since I moved to the East Coast, I’ve joked with my more westerly friends that I live in the future. 1-3 hours in the future, but the future nonetheless. I could tell them the finale of TV shows before they aired, I’d say, and I’d be sure to let them know when the flying cars first appeared.
So it was only appropriate that I when I went back west last week to celebrate my mother’s life that I was, in my own terms, doing a bit of living in the past. Yes, a lot has changed since I lived there, but much like my old high school, which had a new mascot and a new coat of paint, once you got past the exterior trappings it still felt familiar. It was still home.
It was and it wasn’t. I am child of Napa and always will be, those sun-dried fields and river banks ready to flood are a part of me. The lines at the local doughnut shop and Oreo cookie cows on the hills felt comforting in their unchangingness, just as row after row of grapevines always look the same. But this time, as I stayed in a hotel, with no family, no house to anchor me, I was that thing we Napans depended on and despised in equal measure - a tourist.
I longed to tell waiters, hotel guests, somebody, that I was from here, that I belonged, that we shared a kinship. Something I found, briefly, in the courtyard of the Napa River Inn, steps from an aging mosaic and overgrown plants I witnessed being installed during my time as an intern at the local Shakespeare Festival. A small white-haired woman mentioned the lovely weather and asked me where I was from. “I grew up here,” I said, “Napa High Class of ‘01.” “‘42, when it was the only high school in town,” she replied, and we smiled and chatted some more before she joined her friends.
And then there were the moments with friends I’ve known seemingly forever, the ones where the conversation never skips a beat, even if that beat is years long. And the evening surrounded by my mother’s family and friends, the ones who knew her when, gathered round a table in her favorite restaurant - the place where they’d pour her regular ice tea as soon as she walked in the door. There I felt less like a visitor and more like I belonged, until I drove down the street to a hotel where they only knew my name because the reservation told them what it was.
Perhaps this is what grief is - the being and not being. A daughter, but no longer somebody’s child. A familiar face and a stranger all at once. Liminality in the flesh.
The Book of the Dead in Ancient Egypt is full of gates for the deceased to pass through, an ode to a time of in betweenness, of thresholds. But those ancient texts were buried with the bodies, a roadmap for the dead in the afterlife. Where is the Book of the Grieving? Where are the guides to my gates?
I’d joke with my friends that I knew the near future, that I held the secret of which way we all were headed. But like everyone else, all I can be sure of is this moment, and even a future-dweller has to take it one day at a time.