Going Back

Posted on Mon, Sep 14 2009 1:46 pm by Gwen Westerman Griffin

The end of summer looms. Many of us have been traveling, reluctantly or readily, going back home for family reunions or ceremonies, coming back home from vacations or powwows. “Back home” implies a return, a cycle of returning, as if it is expected, natural, a fact of life. During the Loft’s Native Inroads program this summer, our group realized that we all had written about families gathered around kitchen tables, about connections to generations before us, and about journeys we make to or away from home. We laughed, and cried, as we saw ourselves in each other’s work through descriptions of relatives, meals, loss, and fulfillment. Back home is a place we are all trying to get to, a place where we belong, where the landscape is familiar, and where our roots are the deepest.

In our family, that sense of connection to place is strong. The Dakota word for “mother” and for the earth are the same: Ina. Place-names in our language—Mahkato, Owotanna, Winuna, Shakpe, Mnisota—remind us daily that this land is where our grandmothers’ grandmothers played as children. Home is so important to Dakota people that there are at least sixteen different verbs to describe returning home, coming home, or bringing something home. No matter how far we go, we journey back home through the language and songs of our people, and in the stories of our grandparents that we share with our children.

For my grandmother, “back home” meant where she was born. She left there in search of work and ended up in the shipyards of San Francisco during World War II. Letters from her family were few and far between. After the war, she came back to the Midwest, but packed a few clothes in what she called her “Indian suitcase,” a brown paper grocery bag, and went back home to visit her sisters every chance she got. From my earliest memories of those trips with her, each time we passed it, she showed me the “old home place” marked only by tall pines in the rolling hills along Highway 100. After she retired and moved back home, I continued that simple act and would point it out to my own children whenever we went to visit her. The last time we traveled that way together, much to my surprise, my son said, “Look, Mom! There’s the old home place!” My grandmother is now buried not far from there.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California, to welcome my son home from his second tour in Iraq. Military homecomings are highly anticipated and emotional events. Anxious families have been waiting, waiting, counting the months, then days, then hours and minutes until we see our sons spill out of nondescript white buses in a stream of desert camouflage that makes it difficult for even a mother to distinguish one Marine from another. It wasn’t until I could see his smiling face coming through the crowd that I knew my son was, at last, safely back home. While he was gone, I sent the Sunday comics each week and a letter describing the changing seasons and landscape during his seven-month deployment. It was a small gesture, but it kept him connected to home while he was gone.

I am back at home now, on a small hobby farm we bought this summer. It’s a place where our nearest neighbor to the north brought a plate of freshly baked cookies a few days after we moved in, and where I can stop at a roadside wagon to buy fresh sweet corn and tomatoes and leave my money in a yellow box. The names of the towns echo our continued presence on this land—Blue Earth, Sleepy Eye, Good Thunder. It’s a long ways from the “old home place” and from the California desert, but there is a kitchen table and a familiar landscape here. How do we reconcile that famous saying by James Agee, “You can never go home again,” with the revelation at the end of The Wizard of Oz that Dorothy “always had the power to go back” home? Whether it is a place we seek, a sense of belonging, or a welcome from those who knew us first, we go back home again and again, traveling, always traveling in search of stories about who we are and where we came from—and then we write ourselves home.