Homing In — Hilary Schaper



Though Smith Family Tidbits sat on the closet shelf for years, that day—for whatever reason—it caught my eye. Its crumpled and folded pages, some ripped from the three-ring binder and pressed together at odd angles, chronicle my husband’s family from his Virginia-born great, great grandparents to the present day. Tidbits traces the ancestry—and offspring—of each family marrying into the Smith clan.

Hidden among its 500-odd pages, a single sheet outlines the slender branch of my husband’s immediate family—his parents, uncle, brother, and sister. I’m there, too—as a spouse. Seeing my name, birthdate, birthplace, and wedding date among his family members, I feel a sense of history, of belonging among these people whose names I heard only in passing, if at all, over the years.

~

I’ve never researched my own family’s heritage. My brother did once, but when I asked for a copy of the family tree, he refused, hesitant to share his individual effort. Over the years, I’ve heard family lore—some believable, some less so. A cousin told of Cossacks chasing a forebear in Russia in the 1800s. In one tale, my paternal grandfather fled his San Francisco home to join the Merchant Marines, at the age of 13. In another, his father gambled away a silver mine in Nevada. As intriguing as these anecdotes are, they don’t situate me among others the way my husband’s neatly configured family tree does. It laid out, and confirmed, familial relationships in black and white, locating me within a larger community, a larger history, and helping me to understand my place in the world more clearly. It also highlighted my feelings of disconnectedness as a child and adolescent.

~

My parents, both only children, rarely mentioned their families. My maternal grandparents lived two hours away, and visited infrequently. My father spoke with his own father each evening, but their usual conversation was remote, flat: “Hi Pop. How are you? How did the market do today?” His family often visited on Sundays—uninvited. Then his three aunts and uncles, a cousin, and his father poured into the house, appropriated the living room, and installed themselves in a circle around Uncle “Doc,” who presided, cigar in hand. Their shouting and arguing disrupted our habitual rhythms. The cigar smoke hovered over the house for days.

Tired of Sundays spent cooking, my mother put an end to the dinners. Only my grandfather continued to visit. He often sat alone in silence in the living room, napping or staring into space.

~

It didn’t matter where we were—whether we stood on a Swiss mountainside above a wooded valley of picturesque chalets, traipsed through the ruins of a Portuguese fortress, or waded in Caribbean waters—my father would always say, “I think we should buy a house here.” He’d look over at my mother, who invariably shook her head. He never did buy any foreign property, but I’m certain that those moments spent contemplating such purchases transported him to new realms, releasing him, for a moment, from his quotidian cares.

Back then, his wishes seemed quixotic reveries, fertile ground for family ridicule—“There goes Dad again.” That he formed a deep visceral bond to each landscape I have no doubt. The beauty of whatever new land we visited tugged at him, creating a kind of stirring, a yearning, which I am only now beginning to appreciate. Physical structures—be they castles or cabins—held little interest for him except insofar as they allowed him to inhale, imbibe, inhabit a particular place. This ache had a fanciful quality. I imagine that as an adolescent he longed to escape the confinement of his family’s pinched row house, to duck his mother’s intrusive eye, to connect to a world beyond the walls, which tethered him to his parents and neighbors. In this way, we are alike, he and I: neither of us found a sense of belonging in our family or heritage.

~

I remember once traveling with my father along the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenées mountain region. After stopping for the night in a small village, I decided to go out for a walk. “It’s not safe,” my father said, “You don’t know this town.” Assuring him I’d be fine, I stepped out of the inn onto a narrow lane, its cobblestones gleaming under the streetlights, and peeked into the cramped houses along the road, their curtains not yet drawn, their lamps newly lighted to flush out the dusk. I still see the color of the sky that evening—a deep hypnotic blue, deeper and richer than the deepest lapis lazuli.

~

Like my father, I have looked to the land—its mesas and dunes, its buttes and hollows, its chasms, streams and bluffs—to locate me, to swaddle me in a sense of belonging, to bequeath me an identity. I know that he and I are not alone in identifying with the land. Recently, on a cloudless, winter day, I walked along the palisades overlooking a Santa Monica beach. Sun splashed over the sea, and a breeze teased the ragged palm fronds. Suddenly, a young woman, arms outstretched, tore past me toward the fence at the cliffs’ edge, shouting, “The world is beautiful.” It was as if the setting’s magnificence—the seemingly endless expanse of sand, the ocean’s brilliance, the plants’ cool greens—bubbled over in her, creating a deep sense of well-being, of transcendence even. But, on that same day, not five minutes later, this, too, happened. Two men walked toward one another. The first, slightly disheveled, carried a camera. The other called out to him, “Did you get it?” “No,” he answered, shaking his head, “I couldn’t frame it right.”

~

On bright spring days, I looked out through the window of my childhood bedroom onto a large flowering pear tree—its white blossoms conjured a fairyland, a flight from the dusty pink roses bloating my walls. Denizens of some strange world, obscenely large, ever-present, those roses hovered menacingly, pressing in on me, dwarfing me. But during storms, when the house quaked and throbbed, they held me close.

For me, the pear tree offered a retreat from my somber home—a cacophony of slamming doors, ear-piercing shrieks, incessant squabbling. The house seemed never quiet, never at peace, though I know this can’t have been true. It’s more that the calm moments held a kind of peril, a threat that something would erupt, disrupting the temporary lull. The tree’s beauty and lightness lured me to my perch at the window. Over the years, I’ve returned to this image many times when I think back to my early home. The roses, albeit less cheerful than the tree, were also a kind of touchstone. Singular, peculiar, they, too, grounded me, providing me an oasis in blustery times.

~

On the bulletin board at the foot of the canyon in which I live, there was once a diagram, which traced the effect of pesticides and poisons on the animals in the canyon’s ecosystem. Arrows pointed out from a drawing of a rat at its center to drawings of its predators—snakes, hawks, coyotes, and mountain lions. The chart demonstrated that each animal in the chain has a prescribed place and function in this small ecological environment, much as the canyon has its place in the larger Los Angeles basin, in the still larger Southern California region, in the western United States, and even, the world.

Consider how a single star fits within a constellation, and that constellation within a galaxy, and finally, that galaxy within the universe. Consider, too, the Wahlberg’s Eagle, a bird native to South Africa. Each winter the male and female of the species—which mate for life—fly north to breed, returning in the summer, within a couple of weeks of one another, to the same tree they shared before their departure. Instinct guides their migration, and creates their sense of home.

~

Anselm Kiefer’s work, Sternbild (Star Picture), 1996, captures with great simplicity a man’s ideal relationship with the environment, his seamless fit on the earth. The artist places a lone man, naked and supine, on the bottom quarter of the canvas, under an enormous, black, star-filled sky, which occupies the rest of the painting. Stars graze the man’s body—nicking his ear, kissing his toes, alighting on his chin. An arm rests by his side, the fingers curled in slightly, his legs extend out straight. In profile, his visible eye is closed, his mouth forms a thin line. His chin juts into the air as if to assert, I am here. He is at peace here, in harmony with the universe, no more, no less than the stars, the sky, the earth.

~

In spring and summer, the pear tree shaded a path bordered by a low stone wall. Lilies of the valley grew in a slim, moist bed, their tiny flowers, a shock of white against the stout gray wall. The path ran along the front of the house past the dining room, and turned a corner. Though a French door opened onto the walk, it was rarely used. Beneath my bedroom window, veiled in green, I sat alone on the wall lost in the lilies’ scent.

~

I don’t believe that each of us has a proper place in the world, or is predestined to live here or there, with these people or those. Discovering where I fit in at any moment is more a process of trial and error, of navigating toward a sense of comfort, of trusting what feels “right.” I sense that “rightness” when I’m writing, and my Golden Retriever noses his head between my arm and my body, demanding my attention, and licks my face.

For a long time, I felt that I didn’t belong anywhere in particular. I lacked a sense of being a part of something larger than my isolated, individual relationships with my husband and friends. I marveled at how effortlessly my friends seemed to slip into, relax into their immediate and extended families, and communities. I envied the way family anchored their lives. My sister once remarked that growing up without a sense of family, we couldn’t help but lack a sense of community. Families, she thought, functioned as microcosms for the larger society.

I’m more able to locate myself now—to find comfort and peace, to slide into wherever I happen to be. To me, it’s like nestling into my husband’s hug, feeling his arms wrap my body, as I rest my head on his shoulder.

~

A family member about to leave Los Angeles for Boston, recently confided that until she’d decided to move, she’d never realized how deep her California roots reach. I understand that feeling. After migrating to the west coast years ago, I was lost, rudderless, deprived of all that I’d relied on to situate me. Though I’d always dreaded the East coast’s humid summer days, once in California, a part of me hungered for the damp heavy air on my skin. I scoured the horizon for the jumble of overgrown vines straddling tall trees along a favorite Philadelphia drive, searched for the lightning bugs’ glint in the night sky, and strained to detect the cicadas’ relentless din. The stubbled hills of dry grasses above Los Angeles seemed harsh, stingy even. The rhythms were off, way off, and with them, my place on the earth.

~

The cherry, by far the tallest tree in our yard, stood sentinel outside the den, a rope ladder swinging from its immense branches. Even from the ladder’s top rung, I couldn’t climb into the tree—its trunk was too long, and its “landing” far above my reach. But, in the den, from the piano where I sat alone—the others far off—practicing scales, chords, and arpeggios, I watched the twilight filter into the yard, obscuring the playhouse off in the distance, the pool, and, finally, the cherry tree. I felt the darkness sweep in through the large, exposed windows, and cloak the room, but for a small patch of light over the music and the keys. My notes pinged in the shadows, under the tree’s watch.

~

Now, many years after moving to Los Angeles, I live in a canyon on the city’s west side. Carved out by earthquakes and erosion, and surrounded by wilderness, it retains its natural contour and native vegetation—unlike so many urban areas that no longer bear witness to the land from which they were whittled. Blue-tinted agaves swoon up from ground, scissor-fingered oleanders pierce the air, orange-crested Birds of Paradise rise in flocks, and dry palm fronds dangle beardlike. A narrow two-lane road weaves its way up the canyon, ascending nearly 1,500 feet above sea level. At the five-mile mark, it ends. Mountains rise above in the distance, wooly, unsheared domes of gray and green.

When we first came here, I couldn’t imagine looking out the back of the house onto the steep hill, fearing that the vertical view would cage me in. But, over the last few years, I’ve settled into the canyon, nestled in its cradle. I walk outside among bougainvillea and mimosa, aloe and penstemon, flax and jasmine, rosemary, lemon, and Pride of Madeira. Hummingbirds dive deep into the salvia, squirrels chortle in the plum tree, frogs take up their evensong. The dim morning sun spills over the canyon’s ridges, rouses me from sleep. In spring and summer, I stretch and expand with the sun as it reaches its zenith.

And, in winter, when the canyon’s high walls obscure the sun, I shrink with the afternoon’s dwindling light.

From my desk, I look out at the sycamore’s new leaves, its gray mottled bark. Parrots squawk overhead. A dog barks up the canyon—or, maybe down. I can’t tell for the canyon is a trickster, throwing its voice, bouncing sounds off its walls, confusing my ears. The sycamore’s trunk sidles up to the rain gutter along the eave. The wind blows, the trunk sways, and the gutter moans companionably under the pressure.

~

That afternoon, as we sailed on Lake Tahoe, the sun set fire to the water. Though the light pierced my eyes, I couldn’t look away. Hooked, I spent summer afternoons on the grassy peninsula just feet above the water, mesmerized by the lake, and the clouds lazing across the sky. “I want you to spread my ashes here when I die,” I told my husband, though I was only then in my thirties.

~

A fire started in our canyon several months ago. A teenage boy, new to the area, tossed a joint into the hills behind his house. Flames ignited the dry brush, sending up a huge gray plume of smoke, which hung over our house, shrouding the late afternoon light.

I’d been expecting the fire—not this particular one, of course—but a fire somewhere in the canyon, sometime. A few years ago, a homeless man wandered into the neighborhood during the height of fire season, and set two blazes, both quickly extinguished. But for months, the image of a wild-eyed arsonist in tattered clothes stalked me. I saw him trekking up the canyon, searching for fertile tinder, reaching into his pocket and extracting an old matchbook, tearing off a match, striking it against the cover, dropping it, and stepping back, to admire his handiwork as fire ripped through the dry grass.

So, I’ve been vigilant, wary. I feared that because fire hadn’t swept through the canyon for so long, and because of the abundance of kindling—fuel—the possibility of fire was that much greater, and that much more dangerous. When flames ignited a half-mile above our house, I was prepared.

We loaded the car with important documents and keepsakes, and awaited the fire department’s decision as to whether we’d have to evacuate the canyon. I felt myself shake, heard my voice break when I talked with neighbors. My husband and some friends walked up the hill to take a look at the fire. But I stayed behind—not because I was afraid to leave the house, or because I felt I could somehow protect it by remaining. Instead, I knew I couldn’t face the fire, couldn’t acknowledge its power.

In those waiting moments, I imagined flames racing down the canyon to our yard hopscotching randomly over the hills burning one house leapfrogging over another felling a eucalyptus bypassing a palm and finally plundering our property, its insidious heat scorching the grasses and bushes singeing the lemon tree charring the hillside. I heard tree branches crashing to the ground, felt ashes choking my lungs. I smelled the burning.

Oddly, I never considered the actual house going up. After the fire was extinguished, before it had time to threaten our home, I walked out onto the patio. Smoke hovered still, though it was dissipating thanks to favorable winds. Looking up at the wild rockroses dotting the hillside, the agapanthuses sending blue and purple sparklers up into the sky, the grasses rustling quietly, and the neon-bright bougainvillea pouring magenta over the fence, I realized that I cared most about losing my perch in the world, and with it, the sense of belonging to, of being a part of, something more expansive than my own existence. Fire would rob me of my daily communion with the canyon, uprooting and dislocating me from the place with which I’d come to identify.

~

On safari in South Africa and Botswana, we rode in an open jeep along dirt paths. Though I’d studied photographs of wild animals roaming through their native African habitats (woodland, Riverine bush, savannah, bushwillow, and veldt), I wasn’t prepared for the wonder of this surreal menagerie up close. A large, shaggy-maned lion bellowed ten feet from us, calling to a lost brother. Robust and guttural, his roar vibrated against our breastbones. Hyena pups yelped as they played in a watering hole, passing a stick back and forth. A mother elephant prodded her day-old calf–a creature so small that it fit completely under her body—with her trunk and feet across a river as the calf somersaulted underwater.

Our last morning in Botswana, we set out at 6:00 a.m., long before the searing midday heat paralyzes the animals. Our guide floored the Jeep® on news of a leopard sighting. The leopard—its long body alert, its muscles taut—swaggered deep into the sparse, dry brush.

We drove on a little way to a peninsula in the river on the low flat floodplain. No Jeeps® in sight, no whispered voices, no radio interference. The vistas expansive, unobstructed. The silence, dense. I looked out over the hazy green, yellow, and brown plain, the small pools of sky. Far off, a herd of zebra sprinted away. Closer in a crocodile moseyed up to the shore, a hippo’s bulging eyes surfaced in the water. And I stood. Breathed in the landscape. Felt it envelop me. A deep sense of peace settled on me. And I thought, I know this place, and swore then that I would never forget it.

~

After many years in Southern California, I recognize the subtle change of seasons I’d failed to notice earlier. Perhaps, I needed that much time to settle in, to synchronize myself with the region’s rhythms. Now, I know that, unless we’re in a drought cycle, rains most often fall in late autumn and winter; that spring’s chilly evenings unleash the orange blossoms’ cloying scent; that the hills, green in March, turn gold, and then brown in midsummer; that night-blooming jasmine chokes the air in spring; that clouds pester the shore in June; and that, in the fall, harsh, sere winds scour the canyons on their way west to the sea.

~

I know, too, that my feeling of familiarity with the Botswanan landscape, despite visiting only briefly, is not a unique response to that southern African country, or, in fact, to any place in particular that holds my imagination, and forces me to consider myself in a broader world. I experience this feeling of belonging, of knowing the land, not only in the canyon, but in so many other places as well. Like the geologic events—wind and water erosion, earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions—that forge the earth’s strata, my memories of lands visited, inhabited, or even passed through, shift together to create a layering of experiences. I bring these reminiscences with me to each newfound terrain, drawing on them, trusting in them to render unknown provinces welcoming. These remembrances shape the sensibility that roots me to the land, and create an earthly legacy for me. They provide me kinship with the world—much as family might for some. Like others’ ancestral relations, each of my adopted forebears—the craggy Big Sur coast, the turquoise Fijian waters, the chiseled Andes, a Patagonian plain, and so many others—bequeaths a part of itself to me, locating me within a place larger than my individual life. In turn, each fresh discovery brings a deepening and expanding sense of my natural inhabitance.

~

I walk to the trailhead just north of our house. Setting off on the path, I pass under the enormous canopy of a California live oak. Pebbles skitter across the narrow trail. Tall weeds graze my ankles and legs, my fingers surf over their whiskered heads, lingering. After the steep ascent, I pause at a turnoff. My eyes trace the canyons’ curves, searching out the ocean some miles off. I call to my dog, and we start up again. At the summit, the view opens out in all directions—to the city to the south, the canyon to the north and east, the sea to the west. I walk to the mountain’s edge, ease myself onto the ground, let my legs dangle over the side. My dog lies next to me, and sighs deeply. I stare out at nothing in particular, and know home is almost anywhere.

Endnotes
1. http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/africa_birds/ABB01(2)61-67.pdf
2. http://www.birdsinsa.com/birds/aquilawahlbergi.htm
3. Kiefer, Anselm. Sternbild (Star Picture). Collection of Anthony d’Offay. Milan: Edizioni Charta, 1997. 353.


***
Hilary Schaper is a writer living in Los Angeles and is an MFA graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, earned Honorable Mention in New Letters’ nonfiction contest, and been a finalist in the Prime Number Magazine’s creative nonfiction contest. Schaper’s essays have appeared in Hotel Amerika, Mad Hatters’ Review, Shadowbox, SLAB, and other literary journals. She was an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center, and in a previous life, she practiced law.