I had visited Walla Walla once when my parents weren’t home many years ago. They were traveling in Europe on a long-planned trip but I needed to determine if that corner of southeastern Washington could become a new home for my barely two-month old son and me. I couldn't wait for them to return and didn't want to interrupt their vacation. I found I wasn’t prepared to make a commitment to move from northern California to the comforting home of my childhood. I had too many friends and a potential job in Eureka that would tide us over until I could regain my emotional strength and make more reasoned, long-term plans for the two of us. I wasn't ready to claim Walla Walla as our new home.
It was with some trepidation, then, that when I visited my childhood home in early June of this year, ten years since Dad passed away and almost two years since Mom died, I was hesitant. My sisters had each visited a time or two, with the consensus that “There is something missing, an absence.” They enjoyed seeing friends and attending concerts but they didn’t feel the pull of home. I wanted to learn for myself how I’d react to time alone at my “first home,” without the excuse of parents with whom to share time, reminiscences, and conversations. Would I feel the absence of our parents? Would I find the town a lovely spot to visit but without an emotional connection? Or would the pull of the physical sense of place that I often felt when I returned to Walla Walla remain deep within me?
Many years before Mom and Dad passed away, they took the five of us children to Mountain View Cemetery on the southern edge of town, with long-range views of the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon. They surprised us by showing us two niches they’d recently purchased in the mausoleum there, side by side and close to several pre-deceased friends. My mother’s family had plots at a cemetery in Brooklyn, which had been set-aside for my parents. Yet, after living most of their marriage in this corner of Washington, raising us children, finding successful and fulfilling careers, establishing deep friendships, and yes, learning to love the area’s hot summers and foggy winters, they’d decided this would be their forever home.
Early morning after my arrival I walked over to the cemetery, before the sun was above the horizon. The grass was slightly over-grown and richly green, the result of recent rains. The silence of the cemetery, such a contrast to what would have been the case if I’d visited the plots in the middle of noisy, soot-filled Brooklyn, was a perfect prelude to my visit. I ran several miles from the cemetery along Howard to Hood Road, watching the sun burst above the mountains, smelling the growing wheat, waving to farmers driving past me to start their day’s work. The magic of the endless, wide-open skies, the slight rustle of the rows of wheat, and the delicate trumpet-shaped white morning glory spread along the side of the road reassured me of this place in my heart.
Another walk took me past my childhood home where my parents had lived for over fifty years. The red-and-white shingled house with the corner oak tree (perfect for tree houses), the large vegetable garden, and almost a half-acre of grass (the bane of our existence when it was our respective turns to mow the lawn), was disappointing. Only a few years before the new owners (well, ten years ago new) had caringly added more children’s outdoor play structures, had converted the garage to an office, and had opened up the inside (why didn’t we think of that?). Now, though, many of the houses on the street, along with our childhood home, are in slight disrepair, with needed paint jobs, brown lawns, and disabled cars along the side yards.
The town has grown in population, vineyards have replaced many of the wheat and pea fields of my youth, subdivisions are being built outside the city limits with 360 degree views, and the downtown is bustling with wine tasting rooms, unique restaurants, and boutique shops. Now a destination spot for wine aficionados, parts of the population continue to suffer. Perhaps the effects of the sinking of the middle class, the result of immigrants now living full-time in town, without having to travel from place to place to find seasonal jobs, even the presence of gangs, have changed the city’s essential character. I wondered about the longevity of this phase of development, and whether the mostly family-owned vineyards and wineries would survive and thrive.
I visited friends: some I’ve known since kindergarten, even though we haven’t stayed in touch. Others I visited when I was in Walla Walla to see my parents. Still others I hadn’t seen in perhaps fifty years (yes, hard to believe!). Each and every person was welcoming, appreciative of my visit, hoping to continue our reconnections. Some have lived in Walla Walla their entire lives; others returned here after living in other places; some, like me, return to visit family. I learned so much about our times as children in this magical place, where we played kick-the-can in the streets until dark, slept in sleeping bags on the grass almost every night in the summer, rode bicycles to the swimming pools or deep holes in various creeks, caught crayfish (we called them crawdads) with bacon on strings, experimented with nail polish and lipstick before our mothers allowed us to do so publicly, skied at the local ski area, defied our parents, and relished a life of spontaneity, independence, and trust that isn’t so present for many children today.
My emotions were high: coordinating time with friends; immersing myself in the lush green of the parks; taking walks along Mill Creek and “the cuts;” walking the old neighborhoods; having tea with one of Mom’s best friends (who at 93 years old perhaps knows me the longest of my childhood acquaintances); meandering around the Whitman College campus, our childhood “second home,” where thousands of hours were spent when Dad coached his teams, taught physical education classes, and dreamed of, and helped coordinate, the building of Sherwood Center, along with taking piano lessons at the Whitman music conservatory; and feeling, always, the expanse of sky, the luminous clouds, and the familiar changing colors from the shadows of threatening rain.
I did/do miss my parents, having an anchor there even as I relished the time to myself when I traveled to see them. Yet, still, the sense of place remains strong, independent of family. I find this feeling in many of my friends who had their formative years in this tiny piece of the world. They verify my remembrances, my emotional attachment, and the physicality of the geography that translates into almost a longing, a need to reconnect with the earth, here, from time to time.
I will return to my first home. I will visit the cemetery. I will run/walk/bicycle the roads stretching out to the wheat fields and vineyards and up to the Blue Mountains, those purplish, blue and brown-hued hills in the near distance. I will make time for those long-ago and refreshed friendships. However, I may not walk past the red-and-white house on the corner of Carl and Gladys Streets, preferring to keep my memories un-shattered by its physical change.