The inspiration for today’s story is this gorgeous illustration on 11”x14" paper by Dianna Weikel Hasson. This is an original, one-of-a-kind pencil sketch and is available from the artist for $150 plus $9.50 for shipping (with tracking and insurance). If you’re interested in this, or any of Dianna’s art, please contact her via Facebook, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.Dianna is an artist, proud mom, and animal lover living in Bozeman, Montana. She’s also the very first person to have ever purchased one of my books. Dianna is an amazing supporter of my writing and a wonderful friend, so I’m excited to share this bald eagle illustration with all of you, and honored that she agreed to let me use it as the cover photo for this blog post.
I roll my window down as I drive up the gangplank, and the moist, sweet smell of home bypasses my nose and goes straight to my brain. What is it that comes over me? Is it a memory? The memory of emotion, I decide, as I pull into the parking lot at the Juneau ferry terminal to catch my breath and wipe away a few tears. There are no images to go with the memory, just the sensation of love. Of loving, and of being loved. The brisk scents of saltwater and spruce remind me of Grandpa, who raised me on his own until I was ten and my momma finally came home after too much time spent bouncing between flophouses, jail, and rehab wore her out.
I dry my eyes and get on the road, only to be hit by another wave of emotion and memory as a bald eagle leaves its perch in a nearby tree and flies parallel with my car. I try to keep an eye on the road but I can’t stop glancing out the side window. Somehow, I’d forgotten how big eagles are. The bird is massive and I decide its wingspan must be at least six feet. Grandpa loved eagles. Dumpster chickens, he called them. “They aren’t the smartest bird in the nest, Naomi,” he liked to say to me, “but they sure are the most regal”. The eagle keeps pace with my car until the road takes a turn and the bird veers in the other direction.
The speed limit is fifty, but I’m barely going forty as I take in the scenery and try not to miss my turn. The day is overcast and drizzly, but the trees are such a vibrant green, they seem almost to be lit from within. The forest on either side of the road is dense and lush, and it reminds me that southeast Alaska is rain forest territory.
Mid-morning on a weekday and there’s so little traffic that only one car passes me between the ferry terminal and Grandpa’s house. It’s my house, now. That’s what Erna told me on the phone. She’s been managing the property and sending my mom money every month and Mom never let on. I thought she sold the house when Grandpa died, but she didn’t, and now the place is mine. Home.
I was twelve when Grandpa died and we left Alaska, Mom and I. That was over half my lifetime ago. I’ve been gone longer than I was here and you’d think that after all these years and living in eight different cities, this place would seem unfamiliar, but it doesn’t. I find Grandpa’s driveway as easily as if I’d been here last week. I leave the boxes in my car, just grab my backpack and head down the steep, covered staircase to the beachfront property. I use the key Erna mailed me to let myself in. The house is smaller than I remember. Isn’t that how things always are when we return to childhood places? Then again, maybe that’s not always how they are. I walk to the wide living room window and gaze out. I’m looking at Lynn Canal, the deepest fjord in North America. The snow-capped mountains in the distance, the steely-grey water, the towering trees; it all seems immense and I suddenly feel myself to be a tiny, inconsequential mote in the midst of a vast wilderness. I hope this was the right thing to do, coming back here after all these years. Feeling small and lonely isn’t what I was aiming for. Mom was the last bit of family I had and even though we weren’t close, being an orphan feels like someone stabbed me in the chest with a pointed stick.
The blow of a humpback whale just off shore pulls me back from my morose reverie, and as I watch for the whale to surface again, an eagle flies low over the garden, banks hard, and then swoops in to land on a tall stump not twenty feet away. I draw my breath in surprise as the bird turns to look at me with its pale yellow eyes. Their brow ridges and curved beaks give these birds a stern look, but looks can be deceiving. Turning its head back and forth slightly, this eagle is clearly checking me out. It opens and closes its beak several times, mantles and resettles, then turns away from me to look out over the garden, beach, and water. I let my breath out in a sigh. I think I've passed inspection.
The door rattles behind me and Erna comes into the house, beaming. She’s so much older than I remember her. Her silken black curtain of hair has been replaced with short, salt and pepper curls, and her mocha skin has grown seamed and folded. Her warm chuckle is unchanged, though, as is the strength in her arms as she envelopes me in a bear hug. I lean in and hug her back with a catch in my breath. It’s been too long since I’ve been hugged.
“You’ve grown so tall, Naomi,” she says into my shoulder, “and I’ve missed you so much, chickadee.” My already burning eyes overflow at the old nickname. I sniffle and Erna gives me an extra squeeze and then steps away.
“I’ve missed you, too,” I say before blowing my nose. “I can’t believe I’m back. I’ve missed this place so much for so long and now that I’m here, I’m not sure I feel like I’ve even been gone. Isn’t that odd?”
Erna reaches up and pats my cheek with a soft hand. “You’ve been gone from your land, but your land has not been gone from you, it’s always been part of you. You were never separated from each other. You were never alone.”
Before I can parse out what she’s said, Erna changes the subject. “Do you still want to do this right now?”
I reach for my backpack. “I do. I’m just heart-sick that it wasn’t done long ago. It should’ve been.” Together, we step out the door and make our way down a narrow wooden pathway, too small to be a boardwalk, then onto the beach. We walk together in silence, though Erna reaches for my hand and holds it in hers as we make our way through the rocks and knee-high weeds just above the tide line. We reach a steep promontory and turn to walk into the trees where we follow a rough trail for a few minutes before Erna changes course and leads me into a thicker mass of vegetation. “I don’t come here as often as I used to,” she tells me over her shoulder as we duck low branches and carefully side-step thorny clumps of devil’s club. “It’s grown over a bit, which I don’t mind as that keeps folks from finding it”. I just nod, too busy stepping over root wads and trying to keep up with the elderly woman ahead of me to make any sensible reply. In the years since I was last here, I’ve grown city feet. As a kid, I used to be able to make it from Grandpa’s garden to The Tree in less than five minutes, and at a run. These days, my feet only know how to run on flat, paved surfaces.
Erna stops abruptly and I look up to see that we’ve reached our destination. My eyes follow the broad trunk up, up, up, and up. Far up in the canopy, I make out the nest. “Was it always that big?” I ask, awed.
“Oh no. It’s grown. Every year they make it bigger, weave more branches in. We’ve had a new pair using it these past five, maybe six years and I think they’ve turned into a hotel. Those chicks are living in luxury up there.”
As if on cue, I hear the shrill, staccato whistle of an eagle. “Just in a circle around the base of the trunk, you think?” I ask Erna. “Yes,” she answers simply.
I shrug out of my worn backpack, unzip the main compartment, and remove a sealed plastic bag. Then, I reach back into my pack, pull out my childhood sheath knife and swing it open one-handed. Careful not to spill the contents of the bag, I slit open the top, and proceed to the huge tree. For a moment I feel dizzy. I reach out, press my palm against the rough bark, and take a deep breath. Steadied, I muster a smile, upend the plastic bag, and begin pouring.
“Welcome home, Grandpa,” I say as I pour his ashes around the base of his favorite tree. When the bag is empty, I look up at the enormous eagle’s nest and will myself not to shed more tears.
“Welcome home, Billy,” Erna says. “I’ve missed you old friend, and I’ve missed your granddaughter. Welcome home chickadee.”
Erna wraps me in another hug and I feel my body shudder and then relax. I’m home. At last, I’m home.