I am in a small town in Missouri, the place that I grew up in. It’s been a trip of many revived memories, as my mom dug a whole bunch of my childhood belongings out of a storage space in my old room, and I’ve been going through the bittersweet process of sorting through everything, deciding what mementos to keep, and which to let go of as resources to send back into the cycle. So I’m already in a mindset deeply tied into my life as it was over twenty years ago.
Which meant that when I drove to the little patch of woods by my old house that I explored so much when I was still in my single digits, finding that it had been entirely leveled and replaced with a brand new building was an arrow to my heart.
I am still in shock, and so disbelieving. I feel I’ve lost a long-time friend, perhaps one that I lost touch with as I moved away, but never forgot entirely and visited when I could. And I never got to say a proper goodbye. I had no idea that the last time I visited would be the very last.
I know, I know. I get that the fact that this place stayed “undeveloped” as long as it did, in a podunk little town pretending it’s a big city, was pretty impressive. It’s actually the second place that I’ve seen destroyed. The woods behind the house we lived in next, and that I am visiting now, was almost entirely removed for a housing development. The spirit there still lives; much-diminished, and much more jaded, it still lives in the remnants of the woods that flank the artificially widened creek that sluggishly meanders through as best as it can.
And that destruction happened over fifteen years ago, when I’d only had a couple of years to connect with the spirit there. That experience, coming home on the school bus one day to find all the trees save for a few down and shattered–that was a horrible introduction to adulthood, and it really was where my childhood came to an end. Today, even those old wounds pulsed achingly.
I am still angry. I haven’t “gotten used to it” or “grown out of it”. And I feel isolated as I sit in a place where most people wouldn’t understand why I’m so deeply hurt by this loss. I’ve already been told “Oh, but the pharmacy people are so nice!” and given the attitude of “development happens, get over it”. Invalidation after invalidation. And it hurts, it just hurts so much.
That place? It taught me the joy of the outdoors, the fascination with other species, and my place as a human animal. It was my refuge when I began to experience bullying at the age of eight. It was my first minor rebellion, as technically I wasn’t supposed to be over on that side of the hill. But mostly it was a place where I could allow myself to explore, both the physical landscape, and my imagination. I wasn’t just a little girl in a pink coat wandering through the brambles and trying to avoid poison ivy. I was a wilderness seeker, living in a little cabin in the woods. I was a wolf, hunting rabbits in the tall grass. I was a snake basking on a big rock. I was so many things, each time I sneaked through the narrow pathway in the poplars and into the trails around the cedars.
I spent so much time in that place, that little maybe-half-acre of scrub woods, and now–now I can never walk there again. All I can do is hope that the few pictures I took on my last visit, two years ago, are still on my old laptop, that I can have a little more visual aid to help strengthen my memories in the wake of seeing this horrible shift.
Underneath the foundations of that building are the remnants of root systems from scraggly cedar and poplar trees that I hid among when I was young. There, too, are the nesting sites of Monarch butterflies, quite possibly relatives of the one that I watched in its chrysalis every day for two weeks until it emerged one spring day. And there lie the bones of the garter snakes and box turtles that were descendants of the ones I would catch, observe briefly, and release. There are stones that I stood on, lifted up to explore the life hiding underneath–snakes, crickets, centipedes, and more.
I won’t go back this trip. I won’t go back to try and find any last remnants of my place. I can’t bear it. I know I shouldn’t hold it against the new spirit of this place that is just being born. All places have spirits, including built-on ones. And I’m sure the pharmacy building now there will develop its own spirit over time.
But it’s not my place. The spirit of the place I knew is dead. Gone. Living only in my memories, and maybe in the remnant memories of a few other people who saw it as more than just an open lot.
All I have left is one single pine cone. I was going to go back at this trip and collect a few more mementos. I’m glad I have the one that’s left. It’s on my place altar. I hope it can stay safe there. It’s my last physical connection to the place that had so much meaning for me.
When I get home, when I can get back to that pine cone on my altar, I’ll spend some time looking for the pictures on my computer, and put together a mourning ritual to help me grieve. I’ll wait until I get back to a place where I know my anger and my sadness will be respected for what they are, instead of having them minimized and invalidated. I’ll go to where I can be safely held in my hurt, and remember the place that held me when I hurt so many years ago.
Until then, it’s not “just a place”. I’m not just “making a big deal out of nothing”. I have to remember that. I can’t let my grief be derailed by others’ expectations of how I should feel or what should be important to me. I spent too much time living up to the expectations of others, and I’ll be damned if I deny my hurt any longer for a place that formed me in ways no human being ever did.