Driving through Time
by Sarah Hirsch
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”—Nelson Mandela
The yellow November light streamed through the curtains of my bedroom in my parents’ house as I sat on the bed that once was so familiar. It was early afternoon; after an exhausting morning, I had returned to bed to absorb the comforting sense of nostalgia found in a place where I’d spent so much of my life. I glanced around at the way I had chosen to decorate in high school—stickers of skateboard companies lined my outdated television, vinyl records tacked to the space above my closet. The bright green walls made the room glow, even at midnight. I felt so removed from who I had been just seven years before and reached deep into myself to figure out how I’d become so different.
A full day’s drive in my small, black sedan had finally landed me in my Mississippi hometown. The interstate I took from Illinois made an almost straight line through the heart of the country and into the Deep South, where the trees of my childhood embraced my with a stoic welcome. As I began my journey in Chicago, the small Midwestern trees, stunted every year by a long winter, had already lost their leaves; grey skies loomed over a thin layer of frost on the ground. The long road transformed into the tape of a video in rewind: as I drove into Missouri, I noticed the fallen brown leaves picking themselves up and assembling on the trees in vibrant autumn colors. By Tennessee the oranges and reds had muted into golden yellow mixed with green, until finally the highway was overtaken with the deep, piney green that I so closely associate with home.
Each rest stop exit had built up increasing anticipation—as I got closer and closer to home, obvious signs of Southern life trickled into the atmosphere of gas stations and restaurants. Almost immediately past the Illinois border, the yellow squares of Waffle House signs appeared by nearly every small town lining the interstate. The coconut cream pies sold at a gas station in northern Mississippi were reminiscent of the ones from my family’s holiday table; elderly men gathered at faux-wooden Formica tables to enjoy a black coffee and one another’s company. I had been stricken with homesickness during my first year away from home, but the last two years away had been easier to bear. The changes in scenery along my trip now made my more aware of the remote, dull pain that existed deep in my heart: the yearning for home like one experiences as a young child when away for too long.
Finally, the exit for Madison appeared, and I felt a jerk in my chest as I veered my car onto the ramp. I hadn’t expected such a physical reaction to the sight of the so-familiar landscape—the sight of banks and schools brought tears to my eyes and butterflies in my stomach. I noticed the restaurant where I had first waited tables in high school, and neighborhoods where my closest friends had lived. Houses that had seen me transform from a child into a teenager passed before their eyes, and I felt that a part of my teenage self had stayed behind within them to welcome my home, now as an adult. The road to my parents’ house was long and winding, but every curve was still etched in my muscle memory, though I hadn’t driven it in almost three years.
Impulses rather than thought pulled my muscles to make every turn of the steering wheel that led my car into my parents’ driveway. The same muscle fibers shook as they mechanically opened the door and stepped out of the car, looking up at the brick house and its enormous oak tree in front. Nothing had changed. I opened the front door for the first time in years—the same door that had brought me into that house after all of my first experiences—and felt a rush that I could only relate to travelling back in time. My mother sat on the reclined portion of the couch, with her book in her lap; the title ever-changing, but the position always the same. Our black cocker spaniel ran to me, shaking her whole bottom as she shook her tail. My brother came down the stairs and hugged me with his long limbs, which seemed to have finally reached their final length. I let more tears fall and realized that not much seemed to have changed, and yet I felt so different.
On the way down the highway from Illinois to Mississippi, my car had acted as a time-travelling vehicle. As I sped backward through the seasons and watched the reassembling leaves, the clock had also rewound itself until I found myself in the familiar home that I missed for so long. My family’s home seemed identical to when I left for the journey that I never expected to be so long. In the space between, I had become a wife and mother, travelled and lived throughout the country, and found in myself the solidity that comes with adulthood. I opened the door into my childhood home and felt a resurfacing of my former identity, who I had believed I would always be. By returning home to my family, I was able to better unfold who I am now because of who I once was. There is no better way to remember who I am than to return to the place and the people who molded my identity.