There are no mountains in Wisconsin, but rather, rolling hills of cornfields and forests that stretch toward the horizon like a rumpled blanket. This leaves a vast, unencumbered sky that’s allowed to speak its emotions plainly. So a clear sky might resemble a still ocean held over your head, and clouds might become great, floating mountains lumbering toward some unknown place. I’m reminded of this as I stare out the window in the back seat of my parents’ truck watching the landscape’s folds and creases pass by. Above and below, everything is stretching and flattening, letting out a contented sigh. My parents’ voices from the front seats lull me into a comfortable nap.
We are driving the long, familiar path to Cedar Campus. Cedar first and foremost recalls to me a particular smell, one of wood, dust, mildew, and air fresh off the shores of Lake Huron all mingled together into one. I thought that I might be overwhelmed to breathe it in again after eight years away. But as I carry our bags up to our small room in the dimly lit lodge, no such feeling comes. Instead, it’s as if the scent never left, having never fully exhaled it from my lungs.
The rooms of my brother and sister’s families are just a few floor creaks down the hall. Their rooms have cribs set up for their children with books and toys strewn about the floor, which reminds me just how long the eight years apart from Cedar have been. My immediate family may no longer share a room, but at night I can hear the excited chatter of my nieces and nephew through the doors as their parents whisper them to sleep.
One morning I wake up to my three-year-old niece’s face inches away from mine. “Wake up Uncle Will” she whispers, barely pronouncing the L’s. Her dimpled fingers cling to the bed frame. She giggles when I tousle her hair and mutter “g’morning” before she scuttles out of the room with a toothy grin. I’m reminded again of how a child’s eyes reflect the existence of God. By the time I finally lift myself out of bed, falling from the top bunk with a thunk, she is already downstairs eating cereal and asking to be pushed on the swing.
My mom refers to Cedar as a “thin place.” She means that whatever barrier keeps humans at a distance from the Spirit is measurably smaller. This isn’t just true of Cedar’s programmed Bible studies and gatherings, but also of the in-between moments—bleary breakfasts in the old dining hall, walking along the boardwalk to grab a sweet from the Hunny Pot, glancing up between the pages of your book to see Lake Huron spread out before you, with all that water sitting still like the sky has wrapped down past the horizon and settled on land. Immense and quiet, not unlike the Spirit. At Cedar, divinity sprouts from the ground up.
Later, after the kids are all asleep and the sun melts pink into the waters, the no-longer-kids sit by the fireplace and talk. My brother, my sister, their spouses, my mom, my dad, all in one place for the first time in years. We laugh until we cry when my sister shares about the time she discovered mom and dad had been watering a fake plant for weeks. My brother’s laugh is the loudest. We talk late into the night until our eyelids droop and we stumble back to our rooms. I am well rested before I even crawl beneath my sheets. They smell the same as they did when I was as old as my nieces and nephews.
The end of the week finds my mom and me visiting Grandma Shirley before I fly back to Seattle. Like waking a child from a nap, my mom kneels by grandma where she’s asleep in a chair, taking her hand in hers, running her fingers along the veins and liver spots of her forearm.
“Hi, mamma,” my mom coos.
“Well hello.” Says her mom.
Grandma looks at my mom and me as if we are strangers, which I suppose we are on some level. She tolerates us a little helplessly, distracted by the People magazine in her hands and all the objects around the room she’s forgotten the names of. When she makes eye contact, her expression is searching. I can see her thoughts running into wall after wall as she tries to remember, remember, remember. But there are no memories left.
“Do you know who I am?” says my mom.
“I’m not so sure,” says her mom.
“I’m your daughter. Ellen. Does that name mean anything to you?”
“Would you stop it?”
“I’m sorry,” says my mom, patting grandma’s leg, “is this making you uncomfortable?”
“I’m not going to say yes. But I’m not going to say… I’m not going to say something else, either.”
“That’s okay. That’s okay. I’m your daughter. Did you know that? You were a great mom. You always loved me so well.”
She can’t remember the faces and names of the family who love her so dearly. Can’t remember tucking my mom in when she was little. Can’t remember her own husband. But there’s still a soul stirring in there, wandering in circles through an endless fog. I’m left wondering if there could be a place thin enough to let loose that fog.
Someday, someone I love may be holding my hand and tracing my forearm, pleading for me to look into their eyes and remember, remember, remember. And I hope in that moment that all these faded memories leave the same words on my lips that my grandma spoke to my mom.
“Well, I like to love you.”