It’s only after we’ve been on the beach for a while, watching her little toes rake through the gravel, that I realize Luci has never felt the ground with her bare feet.
I can count on one hand the times that my snow-born baby has been outside without a coat on, and she has never been to the beach. This–our afternoon on the western shore of San Juan Island–is a special day. Luci’s first at the beach, and my first at this beach, on the island where I lived until I was six, in at least 15 years.
“There are hermit crabs in here!” Timmy calls from the rocks nearer to the water, where he’s standing over a tide pool. We have a longstanding debate, my East Coast husband and I–as he was raised on the wide, sandy strands of Atlantic shore in Virginia and North Carolina–about the beach-ness of our Pacific Northwest shores, where icy-cold waves lap against rocky coasts littered with driftwood. Today, though, he concedes that whatever they lack in sand, our beaches make up for in other amusements. I ask him if he has poked the anemones.
“You can poke them?” he replies. “Don’t they sting you?”
“Never have before,” I say with a shrug. I get up and find one, it’s sand-colored tentacles waving in the ripples until I introduce my finger into its center, whereupon they close slowly but firmly, while Timmy and I squeal like kids.
Like a kid. That’s how I feel this weekend, visiting San Juan Island today and the Upper Skagit River tomorrow, before a speaking engagement at Concrete Community Bible Church on Sunday. There are only a few people I know here now, and even the buildings are mostly unfamiliar, though I still recognize the boxy church we left behind. The beach, though, is a familiar face, its voice and smell a comforting, long-lost friend. I flip over rocks to watch tiny black crabs scuttle away, or walk along the lengths of driftwood back to where Luci curls her toes in the smooth beach gravel that was my first playground, too.
I suppose some people are able to visit their hometowns and find communities intact, mostly unchanged, but that hasn’t ever been my experience. I’m not the only one who moves away, and people change as much as places. Though well-loved friends remain, they are few and far between, no longer part of a tapestry of belonging that I once knew. The places, though, still call to me, even if I don’t know anyone there.
A friend who grew up in Mexico City recently told me of her plans to return this summer, for the first time in over a decade, with a group of young people on a mission trip.
“Will you see anyone you know?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied. “They’re not there. But the places… I’ll go back to places.”
She’s not alone. This ritual of return is shared by many third culture kids (TCKs). Many of my students at Black Forest Academy recall how strange it is to go back to Kandern, to find that their friends and many of their teachers have moved on. “You can’t really go back after a while,” one of them said. “It’s not the same.” Not the same, I thought, but you can go back.
Even the returning isn’t an option for everyone, though. I think about students who have had visas denied over summer vacation, who are never to return to the countries and languages they knew as children. Or those who grew up in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, whose tales of leaving involve bombs that dropped while they were away, apartments still full of belongings they’d never see again.
The students are just the beginning, I know. Our village in Germany now plays host to 1500 refugees who long to return, someday, to the ruins of homes they knew. Will they still smell the same, like the San Juan Island beaches do for me? Will they hear the same birds, like I do in my Cascade rainforest? Or see any of the same buildings? What is home, when war and fire scrape the settings back to mere topography?
Tomorrow, we’ll take the breezy ferry back to the mainland, and drive sixty miles up into the mountains, spending our second night in my second home. We’ll sleep in a cedar log cabin on the property of what we once called Alaythia Fellowship, and again, it’s the nature that feels like home. Everything manmade is smaller–buildings, the road, even our playhouse that now holds trashcans–but the jungly rainforest is just the same. Mossy branches look like muscly arms reaching to the ceiling, while ferns claim most of the forest floor.
We go to visit our elderly neighbor, but he isn’t home. Without him, there’s no one left who remembers me, barefoot and nine years old, swinging on the swings that Grandpa built for us, which were taken down ages ago. But if I close my eyes I’m there again, hearing the raucous cry of the birds and smelling the heavy sky about to pour rain. I open them again to find my husband reading on the porch, my little girl rolling around on the floor, just about to crawl. It’s a privilege to return, to visit these places formed me long ago, a privilege that I’m keenly aware isn’t available to everyone, but my students are right.
It’s not the same, because I’m not the same. I scoop up my daughter, sit down next to Timmy, and watch heavy raindrops begin to fall. Not the same, but still infinitely good to be in a past place with present people, dreaming about the future we’ll share.