I spent my 16th birthday in Wilmington, North Carolina. The photograph is in front of my computer. My grandmother sits in the high-backed mahogany dining room chair more than a few feet away from my grandfather. She's wearing a turquoise sleeveless dress. She doesn't look as hot as we all must be, in August in the south, in a home with no air conditioning. She's wearing a string of white faux pearls. My grandfather sits close to me, his glasses case poking out of his white shirt pocket. He has a long rectangular head, the only sign of his Cherokee heritage. I can count on one hand the number of times he spoke to me, but they were always kind words. He was silent, trapped, and decent. I'm in a pink and white striped polo, my hair in a tight perm in an attempt to be "big" (it was the 1980s). My dad, who will be dead in three more years, sits next to me with his arm around his older sister, my aunt Catherine. The way the photograph is shot, I can see the back of dad's head in the oval mirror that hangs above the tea service. The white linen cloth is on the table, and sweet tea is in everyone's glass. (I don't know why no one can make this west of the Mississippi, but they can't...I've been looking for, as we say, "a right long time."). We've got fried ham and sliced red tomatoes, along with biscuits and mashed potatoes. Sounds yummy, but my grandmother couldn't cook, and I remember eating mostly biscuits and tomatoes, waiting for the chocolate cake (the one thing she could cook).
The house where we're all sitting now belongs to my aunt. Of the five of us in the picture, only my aunt and I are still alive. I'm still a virgin in that picture (only two more years to go!). This was my dad's last year of relative ease; the last plane trip he took; the last time he was on his home soil.
I've been back twice since then, each time looking for him in the pine trees, each time leaving without him. I'm going back this summer. I'll spend my 40th birthday in North Carolina. I'll see my aunt, who is now 76. I'll drive past this house which holds us all still suspended in the promises of 1984. I'll walk out to the creek where dad swam with alligators when he was a boy, and my sister and I caught crabs when we were kids. I'll realize how much smaller everything is, now that I'm bigger. I'll want to walk in the sand on Wrightsville Beach, but will find it's more crowded than it was then, and that I really don't see anyone I know anymore.
But I have to go back this summer. I don't know why. I may not know why after I leave again. But I have not become a Southwestern girl, even though it's been 27 years. I have not embraced the west and its big skies and its dry air, even though I am a happy girl. I miss trees that stretch so tall I can't see the sky, and a green so fierce I need sunglasses. I miss lightning bugs and the songs of crickets.
But most of all, I miss what I'll never find, no matter how many times I go back - the possibility of a family.