When the world becomes far too large, I jump into the car and retreat to the safest place I know; a village thirty minutes south of the Mexican-Californian border. I know the road well. The two lanes are separated by a faint line of white paint stretched over crumbling gravel and exposed earth. To my left, the mom and pop shops that experienced their grand openings when I was a child advertise their discounted merchandise on faded signs. To my right are the gas station and the textile factory. Then comes the billboard announcing the new neighborhood of duplexes, with all the latest features of the year 2000. Even with the outlandish gate of metal and stone surrounding the property, rows upon rows of perfect, cookie-cutter houses can still be seen painted in various colors.
As a child, I was ignorant of the poverty consuming the land I loved. I saw the barren miles of soil that separated one town from the next, and thought it normal. Different from my home across the border in the US, but normal for the country I was born in. I saw the cluster of buildings constructed around the only highway, inhaled the smog that trailed into the car even with the windows rolled up, waved at the people riding in open beds of pickup trucks, and found nothing wrong with any of it. Why would I? It had been this way for as long as I could remember. That meant things were the way they were supposed to be.
Visiting as an adult, I’m struck with grief.
Once on the highway, the road becomes smooth. The buildings trailing along on either side are more in number and better in quality. But it’s only for a few miles. Then traffic thins. It’s just me and the road again. I get off the highway when I see my exit, cross the bridge when it appears, and enter the village called Tamaulipas. It’s always quiet here, even on New Year’s Eve when everyone is lighting bond fires, sipping hot chocolate, and sharing tamales with their neighbors. The occasional firework will crack through the air or explode with a single boom, but once those fade, the silence remains. Each modest home is separated by a yard or some trees. Only two homes stand beside fields, one of which belongs to my grandparents. I park my car along the iron fence and climb out.
My grandmother loves plants. It’s evident simply by looking around the property. Some flowers grow from the ground, some grow in heavy pots and sturdy planters, and others in cracked, colorful buckets or old commodes. A vine stretches over the roof of her front porch and falls gracefully down the side, like a green waterfall with white flowers.
I fell out of the tree in the front yard once. My father told me not to climb it because it was dangerous, but I didn’t listen. My grandfather saw me disobey and promised not to tell, knowing I’d learned my lesson in the fall.
More trees, wild shrubs, and bushes grow beside the house. I used to race along the walk separating the wall from the greenery on my bicycle, imagining I traveled on horseback through a dense forest. Citrus trees line the west side of the property better than any fence could. There I had many a jungle adventure with my cousins.
My father said there were once cows and horses on this property, but they were sold long before I was born. The chickens remained for a time but were also, eventually, sold. Blackberry vines used to grow up the side of the coop and over the roof. My cousins and I would climb up the vine, scraping palms and bare feet as we raced to collect the sweet berries in the summertime.
Today, only the dogs remain. There always seems to be at least five. They flock to my grandmother from places unknown. She feeds them scraps from her table even if she’s never seen them before.
Some things stay the same no matter how much time passes. My grandmother still hangs clothes on a line. They flap and wave at me with the help of the whimsical breeze that always seems to be blowing. She still has the thirteen-year-old watercolor painting of sunflowers my sister gave her for Mother’s Day hanging up on the fridge. Every awkward, horrible family portrait we ever sent her still sits in a frame or in her hutch, telling the story of our development. The battered radio broadcasts the same station while she makes fresh tortillas at five o’clock every morning. Despite being “retired,” my grandfather still wakes up early to tend to his crop. He drops in for lunch at noon, returns to his work, and then comes trudging in after sunset, covered in dust and sweat. Every few years the furniture is rearranged or the house is painted a new shade of creamy yellow or a new appliance finally replaces the one that should’ve been thrown out long ago.
And yet, as I’ve grown up, I’ve noticed the almost magical appearance of things that don’t seem to belong here. Like the landline and the flat screen TV for example, or the laptop and the internet that I suspect were installed to accommodate the needs of our ever-growing, ever-changing family. They’re too strange for me to acknowledge. Most of the time, I pretend these new toys simply aren’t there. The antiquity and simplicity of this place must be preserved.
I don’t remain indoors for long. I can’t seem to fight the call of this land. I walk the well-worn path through the citrus trees, to the edge of my grandfather’s field. I give the tractor repair hangar a wide birth. Because of the sharp machinery, I was prohibited to play near the hangar as a child. The instinct to skirt by remains. I follow the field around the property of an unknown relative, past chicken coops and barking dogs chained to stakes in the ground, to the natural canal that cuts through the village. The earth is different here, dry and powdery. Little puffs of dirt erupt at my feet each time my shoes make contact with the earth. I hike along the bank to the old, old tree.
I don’t know what kind of tree it is exactly. Its bark is rough, with crevasses and fissures running up and down the trunk. Like the weathered face of an ancient, wise man. Its branches are thick and strong, but the leaves are strange. They’re long and thin, like the needles of a pine tree, and they hang down low. Like wispy locks of hair that get caught in the wind. Its roots are firmly buried in the loose, chalky earth, reaching deep into the core of this land. Its trunk curves out and up; its shadow falls over the field. With today’s technology, I’m sure I could look it up by description and find its true name. But it will always be my old, old tree. I crouch at the tree’s base and take in my surroundings. The quiet is deepest and purest here. The breeze hissing through the strange pine-like-needles is all I can hear. From this vantage point, I can see what was once my whole world.
This was it. All I knew. There were times when I’d come here and squint against the glaring sun, hoping to see what lay beyond the horizon hundreds of miles away. Did the field truly go on forever as it appeared? Or was there, perhaps, something greater that lay beyond? At my most adventurous, I imagined myself packing a bag and simply running until I discovered the answer. But then I would realize just how far from home I’d have to go. Home was here, where I belonged, where I would hopefully stay forever.
Unfortunately, this thing called “life” happened. This wonderful, monstrous thing took me away from everything I knew and farther than I ever imagined I would be brave enough to go. Sometimes I’m proud of how I turned out, of the places I’ve dared to venture, and the decisions I’ve made. But the world is never completely discovered and life is never truly figured out. Sometimes I need to return to what was simple, safe, quiet.
I take a deep breath of earth, sunshine, and memory, and rise from the base of that old, old tree to begin trekking back to my car. Because I can’t stay forever. I can’t go back in time. I can only move forward. As I reach the bank of the canal, I can’t help looking over my shoulder. I can almost see the shadow of a little girl, sitting in the shade of her tree, fearfully watching the horizon, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, bare toes curled against the loose dirt. Waiting for life to start.