Enid Kassner

The Way Home

I’m walking along a dark road, keeping safely to the edges as cars whiz by, their bright headlights making long scary shadows in the dense woods. I know this doesn’t look right, but I keep going, one small foot in front of the other, red canvas Keds with their wide rubber tips moving me along. I tell myself that any minute now the road will curve and I will find my family’s rented summer cabin, nestled safely in the tall northern evergreens. I’ve lost track of time. How long have I been doggedly plodding forward?

Finally, I see my father striding toward me and only then realize how tightly I’ve been holding myself. “You took the wrong road,” he says calmly, as we turn around and head back toward the fork that leads away from the busy highway and onto the quiet path from the lake to our cabin.

I imagine my brother said I was stupid, and a baby—getting lost in the short distance from lake to cabin. I don’t so much remember being scared as being in something of a trance: a paralysis of uncertainty. At seven, I had learned to distrust my instincts. Part of me surely knew that I was on the wrong road, but I didn’t trust myself to figure out how to find the path home. So, I indulged in a child’s magical thinking. If I just kept walking steadily, things would come out right. And, in fact, they did. Those were the days of innocence, when my father could be counted on to come to the rescue.

Our typical summer vacation was to drive “up North,” as we southern Wisconsin city folks referred to the rustic woods, freckled with sparkling lakes. During the seemingly endless ride, my older brother and I either fought in the back seat of our cream and brown ’56 Chevy, or I lay sprawled on what we called the “ghost shelf”—the wide span along the rear window. No such thing as seat belts in those days.

We always arrived at dusk, and the first task was for my father to grab a broom and chase out the bats that hung from the rafters. Despite the robust bat population, there were mosquitoes aplenty—and I was their favorite target. The spiders were also abundant, especially in the dreaded outhouse—crude wooden box of terror with its stench and buzzing flies and doors that didn’t latch and damp or nonexistent toilet paper.

Yet there were joys to roughing it. We went out in the early morning, mist frosting the water’s surface, and quietly rowed to the lake’s center. Can four people fit in a rowboat? Probably, but I only remember my father and me—the early risers, the dynamic duo, bat man and daddy’s little girl. We’d drop anchor, lowering the heavy metal by its thick chain, and pull out fishing poles threaded with live worms on the rusty old hooks. We caught perch and sunfish that my parents scaled with bottle caps nailed onto sticks. I tried not to think about what they had to do to get the guts out. Days were unscheduled, with walks in the woods and swims in the lake to break up the generalized laziness and woolgathering. For evening entertainment we drove to the dump, waiting outside our cars for the brown bears to gather and forage. I felt perfectly safe.

Little did I know how fleeting those years of trust and simplicity would be. My father: driver of big cars, vanquisher of bats, rower and fisherman, would become undependable, ultimately vanishing from my life like the early morning mists over the lake: a little at a time, so gradually I didn’t notice until he was gone, completely. He left us behind to start a new family with his longtime mistress when I was 17.

My childhood smiles and sense of security were swallowed by adolescence—its hormonal tide womanizing my body, but always in the wrong way, the wrong places, too much thigh, not enough boobs. Starting then, it sometimes felt like I was back on that dark road, life changes startling me like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. I’d be paralyzed, unsure which way to turn, a vague sense of unease that something was wrong, but clueless as to whether I should continue forward, retrace my steps, or make a completely new turn. Even as I earned college degrees, dated, got jobs, married, gave birth, divorced, got different jobs—part of me still felt like I was waiting for someone to take me by the hand and say, “No, you went the wrong way…this is the path.”

I remember a time when my daughter was 13, just beginning to explore the city on her own and with friends. One day she called me with a bizarre query, “I’m standing in front of Staples. Where am I?” I was supposed to magically know where she was and direct her home. The question was amusing, but I also understood the strange sensation of wondering, “Where am I?”

For me, this disorientation still tends to arise, but not so much in physical location as in relation to what I think of as my dharma, my right path in life. Like an adolescence-in-reverse, once again, my body has betrayed and befuddled me—this time by age and loss of hormones. I struggle with decisions over when to retire, whether to stay with or leave my boyfriend, how to manage my relationships with my child and her father. Despite my years of experience, I find myself distrusting my instincts, and end up with that old paralysis, making no decisions, floating.

But for now, I try to just practice staying in the present—even amid the uncertainty, the doubt. A favorite book on Buddhist meditation is titled, Wherever You Go, There You Are. With that in mind, I try not to fret so much about finding my way. I’m always home. It’s just that home is always changing.