Jack read her story for another hour, pausing only once to close it and look at the book jacket again. All Who Wander. She didn’t call it her memoir, but it read like one. He was intrigued as he read page after page, learning more about what she thought in that hour, from the words she had written.. than he had in the last few days, from what she had said to him as they talked. He wondered how much of it was fiction, and how much was the reality of her own life experience; who the man beneath the mighty oak tree was, and whether the place that called her back year after year, truly existed. And he wondered if she’d even tell him if he asked, or if like a magician guarding his secrets, she would closely guard her own heart. He looked out the window for a long time. The clouds were rolling in and getting thicker but there was still a patch of blue sky. He got up to pull a quilt out of the chest at the foot of the bed, settling in to read some more...
When I was sixteen, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I was always a good girl, never making waves, avoiding conflict like the plague. I worked hard in school, got straight A’s, played the piano, sang in the choir and went to church twice on Sunday and every Wednesday night. We played games that had me running around in circles (literally) and memorizing scripture, and once every quarter we’d go to a special communion service where we’d partake of the bread and cup, share a simple meal, and then wash each other’s feet the way Jesus did when he was wandering by the Sea of Galilee in dust covered sandals with his disciples. I hated that. As a girl in her mid-teens, the idea of washing a fifty year old woman’s wrinkly feet was totally gross and you could try, but you didn’t always get to pick the person sitting next to you. I never could decide anyway; was it worse to wash a fifty year old stranger’s feet.. or the feet of the girl who sat behind me in Bible class? She had fat toes and she didn't change her toenail polish until there was only a tiny hot pink circle left in the middle of each toe. I guess I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of the greatest becoming the least and the master kneeling in service to the servant. To tell you the truth, I’m still trying to figure that out.
That was also the year, my parents got divorced for the second time and I thought the world had come to an end. I was attending a Youth Conference where I had submitted my very first fictional short story and entered it in a contest, getting my first bitter taste of rejection and basically deciding that I should never write anything ever again for all the remainder of my days on this planet and even beyond into the afterlife where I was certain I was destined to be a street sweeper in front of the pearly gates of heaven. (I was very dramatic back then). My mother came to pick me up at the end of the week and after I told her that I was giving up my writing career forever, she told me that was fine because she was giving up her marriage. I supposed that trumped my little bit of drama for the decade.
I rode home in sulky silence in that old blue station wagon, sitting on the bench seat that was facing backward, as far away as possible and scowling at any car that dared to pull up too close to the bumper. When we stopped at a gas station, my mother opened her window and a giant fuzzy bee the size of a hamster flew in. I was flailing like a mad crazed woman to get out of the car and the people behind us could not stop laughing. I would repeat that move in the first year of my marriage, getting out of my car while it was still in gear and watching as it drove toward the lake all by itself… but I didn’t know it at the time. “One day at a time,” I always say, and that was not a good day.
The first time my parents divorced, I was five and my brother was three. I remember staying with my grandmother in California while they worked it all out and we would play on the concrete in the backyard. My brother used to dig up pill bugs from between the cracks and eat them. He’d offer to share them with me but I would turn my back in disgust and pour dirt into my bucket with a shovel and a haughty little sneer. I was too good to eat bugs. I’d spend hours picking out the little bits of grass that would get stuck in my bucket of perfect dirt and make pies that he would eat with equal enthusiasm, sometimes adding a bug or two for good measure. They were good for decorating mud pies. At the end of the day, my grammy would put me to bed in a little room off the kitchen and I could hear her putter around before turning on the television, where she’d fall asleep in a chair, softly snoring. I liked listening and would watch the fireflies dancing outside my window to the tune of it all. My grandfather had a beautiful rose garden and he would work out there till it got dark. I liked their quiet life. It was a peaceful reprieve from my own.
One February morning in 1971, I was still dreaming in my twin bed at six o’clock, when it began to move all by itself across the floor toward the doorway to the kitchen when the The Big One hit. I always called it The Big One because for me, it was. California knew their quakes. But it was this particular one I would always remember. I was screaming that someone needed to come and save me from the ghost who was dragging me into the fiery pit of heck, (a good little girl of five does not swear without getting soap in her mouth) when the peanut butter came tumbling out of the cabinet in slow motion and shattered onto the floor in a million tiny pieces with gooey brown extra chunky globs stuck to the broken glass. Everything was falling out of the cabinets as the house shook for several minutes, but I was focused on that peanut butter, all the way down.
I later thought that divorce felt a lot like that. Like that shattered jar of glass with gooey brown extra crunchy peanut butter stuck to all the pieces. There was no way to clean it all up without getting cut… without bleeding somewhere. The family I had known for five years, was somehow reduced to bloody crunchy peanut butter. It was sticky and messy and if you stepped in it, you’d be in a world of hurt.
The family I had known up to that point did fall out and shatter that day. It shattered into a bunch of pieces that never went back together the same way again. The peanut butter wasn’t in the jar anymore. Some of it was splattered on the face of those ugly old cabinets. Some of it was melting into the floor. Some of it was still stuck in the half broken jar. And some of it was stabbed clean through with little shards of glass that would cause a tiny little girl to collect way too many bandaids. She liked the ones with Mickey Mouse and Barbie on them the best.
And she still hates peanut butter.