Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

by Stephen J. Lyons

How do you say goodbye to wheat fields and hawthorns? To great-horned owls and long-shadowed autumnal light? How do you pack up an entire adult life spent out West in pursuit of horizons, mountains, and sunsets? You tell yourself you were really never from here and that you cannot weave a quilt of generational connections beyond your own twenty-seven years. Just where is your home? Which brings you to your daughter. You just assumed she would leave first, fly out of here with her dreams like so many kids to Portland, Seattle, Boise. Maybe even San Francisco. But you going before her makes no sense. The order is all goofed up again, just like so many other times. She’s left in a downtown studio apartment with a half-moon window in a century-old hotel that allows cats. And a waitress job that pays four dollars an hour plus tips. "No, I don’t want to go with you. Don’t you understand? This is my home." Where did she learn to use words like a scalpel?

You’ve become untethered, on your way back east, to parents, who have grown ill and who need your help. Time to pay them back. Time to grow up. They raised you correctly so why is so hard to do the right thing?

In front of the house is a For Sale sign, one of three that will go up this spring on the block. Hundreds of houses are on the market. (Where is this sprawl and overcrowding everyone discusses?) Initially, the realtor ignores you, and instead zeros in on your wife in sisterly camaraderie. Diamonds, silver, and lapis compete for space on the realtor’s fingers. A brooch in the shape of a house glitters from the front of her suit. The jewelry reminds you of the all the engagement rings tossed into Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene by newly separated wives and abandoned brides-to-be. When those diamonds hit the water they become worthless.

She loves the cove ceiling, the built-in bookcase, the wood floors. She doesn’t hear your heart breaking, but she thinks the tub needs recaulking and the old, crumbling roof will ultimately drop the price. "It’s a buyers’ market, and the buyers are very demanding," she warns. "Just the other day this man from California…"

Her diamonds sparkle like a Vegas blackjack dealer’s as she pushes the contract across the kitchen table. This is what’s called a "watershed moment." The room spins, the walls close in. It’s finally down to pen on paper, a signature that confirms your move back to Illinois, your birth state where the highest elevation is 1,235 feet and the population is eleven million -- more than the combined populations of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah. In a northwest Chicago suburb your mother waits for you to return, a vigil she began in 1973 when you were seventeen and all you owned fit into a trunk and a backpack. "I’ll believe it when I see it," she says on the phone, with a well-practiced sigh. How do you tell her that you’re really not from there either?

The realtor pulls out more forms in triplicate out of her briefcase to sign, asks for a key, and suggests a home inspection. "Just in case the buyer has any concerns." She doesn’t know about the wild ginger growing along the north side, and how you carried it down from Idaho’s beleaguered clear cuts like it was gold. How it was a botanical miracle that it survived down here without cedar and shade; how it took root with its rough purple underside and reddish-brown flowers. How even in the deepest part of winter you can rub the leaves between your fingers, place them under you nose, and inhale a white pine forest and a thousand other unsolved mysteries. But right this moment you are wondering when you will see your daughter again.

Outside, tiny fists of maidenhair ferns stir. Pointy green heads of baby irises poke through the wet soil. This time in late February fat buds on the maple tree begin to crack and split. The white-crowned sparrows return with their electric head stripes. As the afternoons warm, mourning doves and house finches drop from the skies. In three months the strawberries will be ripe. The flax will wave, each feathery flower blooming for one glorious day. What is the value of all these riches? The neighborhood owls, flickers, magpies, and waxwings; the rare hummingbird and sphinx moth, the roosting Swainson’s hawk and silent heron? What is any of this worth?

"We’ll list it at $94,500, but be prepared to settle at around $90,000, because of the roof," says the woman with the diamonds. Then she smiles. "This will be a fun house to sell."

But while she is talking you are asking yourself, "When did I become such a coward? where is my faith?" After all, flowers can be replanted from the seeds you take with you in a small envelope. You can learn the bright colors of all the birds in Illinois. You can watch the sun move across a flat prairie landscape and look for red foxes and luna moths. You can describe your discoveries in letters to your daughter and she will finally have the space she needs to breath deeply. You can hold your mother’s hand and you will feel her gratitude when she says "my son, you are finally home. Now I believe."
Stephen J. Lyons
is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine, Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the anthologies Idaho's Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate Hearts (New World Library), Living in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless the Day (Kodansha Press).

Read more of Lyons's work here