Migration (an essay)
Every once in a while, I will dig through my old files — whether it be to organize and archive or because I’m feeling a little nostalgic for bygone days. So, I thought it might be fun to start posting some of my particular favorite writings, musings, and drawings.
“Migration” is a creative nonfiction piece I wrote in college. I hope you enjoy it! 🙂
For as long as I can remember, a small family of Mallard ducks has made a home in our backyard. I cannot recall when they first appeared. Before long, however, their presence became a familiar constant and an endless source of childish amusement.
Every fall, my parents place a black vinyl covering over our in-ground pool to protect it from the cold winter elements. Then, every spring, ice that has accumulated over the cover begins to thaw, and the water creates a rudimentary pond. The world slowly comes alive. Thousands of tiny white seeds have separated from the parent trees that stretch their arms over the small hillside, encasing the pool in shade. The seeds create an imitation snow-shower as they float down toward the ground where the makeshift pond collects them. There, they wait for fertilization.
When that happens, I know that it will not be long before the ducks return.
My mother once told me that ducks migrate every year to the place where they were born. “Their eggs must have hatched somewhere nearby,” she said. As a child, I wondered why they would choose to return to such a minuscule body of water when there were ponds and lakes all over that would much better serve their needs. Still, I always had fun watching them float around. Their tiny duck-tails would wag as they dipped their long necks under the water in search for food. Sometimes I would stand outside, my bare feet on the cold brick that ran along the edge of the pool, and throw them pieces of bread. I felt bad that there were no fish in the pond for them to feed on.
Although I didn’t understand their reasons for returning year after year to our tiny suburb residence, I could understand their need. There was, after all, no place as wonderful as my home. To this day, the house itself possesses no extraordinary qualities. It is a simple split-level, muted gray with dark slate shutters and a one-car garage. The backyard was always big enough, I suppose, although the pool and a steep hill took away most of the play space.
As a child, I made up for the lack of space by making use of the small section of property at the front. A large tree that stood in the middle of the grass (at least it always seemed large then) became the spot where my friends and I would tell stories and daydream. In spring and summer, the driveway turned into an artist’s canvas. I became Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, and Da Vinci. I colored the black concrete with dusty chalk that landed more on my skin and clothes than on the ground.
In the fall, I helped my mother rake leaves under that tree. I would impatiently scoop the leaves up with the rake or my hands and pile them as high as I could. Once finished, I would leap backward into the large mound. Leaves scattered when my body sank into the spongy middle. Foliage crunched beneath my weight. After a moment, I would scramble to my feet and help my mother place the leaves into large, bright orange trash bags with pumpkin faces on them to decorate the yard for fall harvest.
Once the first layer of snow blanketed the ground, I would bundle up in warm winter clothes and race out into the front yard. My clunky boots crunched down and sprayed white powder into the air with each step. I scooped up big chunks into tiny gloved hands. Ages later, cheeks and nose rosy red from the cold, I would finish my biggest and best snowman ever then collapse into the snow and make a snow angel.
Life never got much simpler or happier than those small moments.
We moved into that house sometime before my sixth birthday. Previously, we had lived with my grandparents for a year while my father looked for a job after his retirement from the military. The move affected everyone, but, being a rather nomadic family, we did not fear it as much as some. We had all become fairly numb to the effects, and I was little enough that I didn’t really understand it all, anyway. For me, the move seemed like some sort of adventure.
Being so young, it took me a little while to get used to my new situation. I had learn unfamiliar surroundings. At first, the mysterious creak of the stairs and the strange shadows cast upon my walls in the dark made for a difficult adjustment. For several nights I remember sneaking into my parents’ bedroom, where I curled up on the floor next to their bed with my “Little Mermaid” comforter and pillow. My dog and protector would trail faithfully behind me. He twisted his little reddish brown body into a tight ball behind the crook of my knees and rested his head on my calf. Being in the midst of the people I held most dear blanketed me with a sense of peace. It calmed me and led me into dreamless sleep.
My family never really had a physical representation of home before. No material possession stayed with us long enough to have real value. Thus my attachment for the new house took time, and my earliest memories are of a more expressive nature.
I remember most breathing in the warm, familiar scent of my mother’s baking after a long day at my new school; the feel of her skin as she enveloped me in her arms in greeting. Many nights I curled up on our cozy, worn-in old couch and rested my head on my father’s stomach, tucked under the crook of his arm. There, we watched television and bonded.
For me, as a child, home was not a place. Home was, instead, intimately tied with my family.
As I grew older, things began to change and evolve. I began middle school. My eldest brother left for college. Even my home felt the effects of time: we remodeled the kitchen, I moved into my parents’ old room, and they knocked out a wall to make a larger master bedroom. However, despite the outward differences, my home still held its old familiarity.
The concept of home changed a bit for me, as well. I began to test my wings, wandering ever-so-cautiously out of my nest to test the waters. Soon, I could hardly recall a time when the outside community was not a part of me.
Many hot summer days I walked with my friends to Kerber’s, a family-owned farm about a mile from my house. It was a large farm with a small convenience store at the front. Small picnic tables lined the outside, under an awning. A small bell chimed each time we opened the door, and, change in hand, stepped up to the counter to buy homemade ice cream. The trek back home was through winding streets and random backyards. The sun shone high overhead and warmed my skin. I can still taste the rich, creamy flavor of mint ice cream and chocolate-chips melting on my tongue. Those types of memories tend to stick.
Despite my desire to explore, the comfort I found within my home, and my room especially—could not be matched by any outside source. Hundreds of different images — artwork, posters, even stickers — covered so much space that most of the peach-colored walls fell invisible to the eye. The furniture left much to be desired, at least until I got a new bed in high school.
I remember the day my parents bought it for me in celebration of my move into their old room. I felt like a queen with a bed to match. To solidify the illusion, I purchased netted fabric to drape along the bed’s four posters, adding a bit of fantastical flair. That day marked the beginning of my transition into womanhood. My room grew from being just a space to being an extension of me, an explosion of color, of ideas, and of passion.
My room also became my sanctuary. I can remember times when I used my room as an escape from the outside world, and I would lock myself inside and pretend that I was someone else. Or, when sad, I would grab hold of my favorite stuffed animal, a large white polar bear. I called him Barnaby. Barnaby and I would curl up on my bed and I would sob into his soft fur over some petty fight between my friends and I, or an argument I had just incurred from my mother. Rusty never wanted to be left out. He also curled up with me and licked my face as if to tell me that he was here, and I was safe. And of course, I was safe. I was home. That was all that truly mattered.
Despite my increasing need to assert my independence, I managed to maintain a strong tie with my family and home all through high school and into college. It was not until I transferred from my hometown college to go to school over an hour away that I began to truly assert my independence. I began to think of myself as an extension of my home, and no longer part of the framework.
In the beginning, I found it difficult to detach myself from that which I knew and felt comfortable with. I drove an hour each way to be at home every weekend; sometimes, several times in a week. I just needed to breathe in the scent of my father’s cologne, or feel the warmth in our kitchen envelop me as I helped my mother cook dinner. I called my parents once a day, just so that I could hear the sound of their voices. I missed my bed, my room. I even couldn’t wait until I could throw my arms around Rusty’s furry neck and hold him tight.
Slowly, though, my homeward trips became less and less frequent. I became involved in groups on campus. I made new friends. I threw myself into my art and literature. I fell in love. My attention focused on looking toward the future rather than clinging to the past. The transition did not occur without some growing pains, but I survived. I am thankful for all that my home, and my family, has given me over the years, but I don’t regret the move forward. I understand now that even the tiniest of ducklings has to one day leave the nest.
I consider myself luckier than my two brothers in that I spent much of my life in that house. Mine is an interesting position, to understand what it means both to grow up in one location and to grasp the deeper, more intangible interpretation of the word “home”. For me, the meaning is interchangeable. Home can be anywhere as long as I am with the people I love. However, no matter where I go, what situations I am in, I know that, like that little family of ducks, I can return to the place of my childhood, the physical home I have come to love.
I know that it will always be there, full of old memories and new. For me, there is no greater comfort.
© Danaye L. Shiplett. All rights reserved.