Thursday, October 27, 2011

Crossing the River

Last week I drove into north-central Illinois to attend the memorial service for my Aunt Doe, my father’s younger sister. My brother and I used to spend a couple of weeks or more with her, and with my grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles and cousins from various generations, pretty much every summer when we were youngsters. Since my nuclear family moved around often, the little town where they lived was the only stable place for us kids. If you ask either of us now, as adults half a century later, where “home” is, we’ll both give you the name of that little town.

The five-hour drive was fairly easy except the bit between Springfield and Bloomington, where I got sleepy. But the turn to the north onto I-39 always feels so good, as I get to see all those familiar place names—Minonk, Wenona, Lacon, Streator…. As I drove, I had the painful realization that I might never again have a reason to visit those places: Aunt Doe was the only one left of that generation, and now she’s gone.

Our ancestors on that side of the family have been there for well over a century and a half; they were mostly Quakers who migrated there from Pennsylvania. Many of them are buried in a little Quaker cemetery near the old homestead, and the Meeting House is still the site of Annual Meetings for the region. Since I was a child, I’ve felt the presence of those old folks, especially when I’d visit Friends Cemetery or the little stretch of wooded land they used to call Wolf Hollow, along the Illinois River.

That day last week, as I drove across Illinois on I-39, I felt the familiar tug toward Quaker Lane—almost a physical pain, as though I have, somehow, a compass needle attached to my heart that points home.

Then, as I crossed the Illinois River north and east of there on I-39, I had an even stranger sensation: it was one of “recognition,” but not a recognition of the way the river appears now. In fact, I’m not even sure I noticed how it appears in waking life, at that moment.

Rather, what I experienced was more like a remembrance: a sudden sensation of the wildness of the place—the majesty, the density of the woods on either side, the strangeness of the lush, forested landscape two centuries or so ago, before “civilization” arrived.

I don’t know who it was who visited me. There was definitely more than one presence—ancestors, I expect, or close friends, who came in the early years of the nineteenth century. I wonder if the river crossing struck those Old Ones so strongly because of the vast prairies they’d have come across on their way. Or maybe, after those unfamiliar prairie landscapes, the riverine forest reminded them of their own home. I don’t know. But it was definitely not my own emotion that I experienced.

How do I know I wasn't just imagining it? Well, of course, you can explain it that way. But as always, I look for that element of surprise that often characterizes a visit from the imaginal world. I wasn't even thinking about the river at that point; I was more focused on how I was going to find the hotel in Peru once I got there. But then, suddenly, there was the river....

Somehow it made me feel closer to those who departed this life so many years ago but whose presence is invoked (Latin invocare, to call, by name) by place and an open and receptive heart. I feel connected to them and, still and forever, to Aunt Doe.

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