When Wisdom cries aloud in our streets, what is she saying?
This past Christmas I was home for the holidays. By home I mean my parents’ house on Long Island. I was sleeping in the bedroom I grew up in, albeit much improved since I was a child. The bright green paint is gone from the walls and handsome white furniture, my father’s handiwork, makes the small space look grand.
My mother and I were out for a walk. We ambled down one of the side streets my siblings and I took often as kids; it led to a swampy dead end that was perfect for puddle-stomping. No doubt for that reason the street is always wet in my memory, the cattails bowing under their own sodden weight, the canals full to the brim and hazy with mist.
Appropriately, it was raining this day. Marshlands sprawled to the right of us, clean-cut suburban lawns to the left. Docks jutted in between driveways and play sets. We walked with hoods up and boots on, speaking easily, as adults, as something like friends.
We were talking about the sadness of our family living far apart from one other. My parents raised three capable, eager children and sent them, each one, to college out of state. None of us came home.
No doubt my mother’s questions are at least a decade old. No doubt she has asked them many times in the quiet of our empty house, enduring—with my dad but apart from him too—the strangest and most private grief of parenthood. But here at last, walking with her youngest daughter, now almost thirty, down the street to our old puddle-stomping grounds, her questions came out, fronted by maybes and what-ifs and posing as the thoughts of the moment, as casual, harmless hypotheticals. “Maybe it was a mistake to send you guys away to school.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. There was no accusation in her voice, but I heard the clip of tears in it, the tremor of emotion. An invisible hand tightened around my throat. She went on. “What if you had just gone to community college like your cousins. They’re still here.” There was another long pause, and I wracked my brain for counterevidence, for comfort. “Maybe you still would’ve become who you are today. Maybe it would have been just as good. And you’d all be here. We’d be together.”
“Ma,” I said, forcing myself to speak and almost interrupting her in my urgency to take this new vector and bend it in another direction. But no defense occurred to me. I stumbled through a few disordered thoughts about college sports and friendship and the value of new places and experiences, all the while aware of how weak and trite and young my answers seemed beside my mother’s questions—a decade old at least, and heavy.
We bowed under their weight that day like cattails in the rain. Both of us were full to the brim, and hazy.
My mother’s questions are not so different from my own. After all, my parents did not in any straightforward sense send me away to college. They did not point in the direction of Route 80 and bid me pack my bags. They raised me to desire education and make my own choices. I chose to go. In doing so, I left the place and people to whom I first belonged and, in time, gave myself to another place, another people.
I have not ceased to belong to my parents, my brother and sister, my childhood friends, my hometown. My forfeiting of daily life there is like consistently giving up a meal: I manage, but I feel it, some days more sharply than others. I go without the scenes and smells and sounds that I know would fill me: my mother’s hair pulled back as the pots simmer on the stove, my father’s table-pounding laugh, the seagulls’ incessant cawing, the gathering wideness of the Connetquot River emptying into the Great South Bay.
To return to them, though, would merely be to switch the meal I go without, for while I have not ceased to belong to them, I have come to belong to others as well. As a seventeen-year-old I drove 400 miles down Route 80 and landed among hills and rivers and cracked cobblestone streets. A dilapidated steel town received me, and it took me in as one of its own.
These people became my people. A decade of living passed in our midst: funerals, weddings, births, baptisms, and the rolling plains of sadness and joy and tender ordinariness that stretch between such peaks. I accompanied a college professor through the deepest grief of her life, and when loss shattered me in turn, she was the one I called. My godson was born with a pallet of dark hair atop a smushed head, which transformed into the most adorable blond curls and the sweetest smile. He learned the shape of my face, then the shape of my name. My best friend and I hiked through the blistering yellow of a gorgeous Pennsylvanian fall, past happiness, past even speech.
Neither my mother nor I will ever know what would have happened had I stayed on Long Island, what life, what ordinary beauty would have unfolded to the soundtrack of seagulls and cicadas and my father’s laugh. My mother is grateful for the love I have known in Western Pennsylvania. She would not undo such love, I know. But longing does strange things in us, and her questions remain.
There is wisdom in her questions, even if their answers are buried in an unrealized and impossible future. There is wisdom in her caution, in her longing. We are too easy with leaving, my generation more than previous ones, perhaps. And yet it is an ease we have been taught to prize and to practice. Pursue this degree, take that job, don’t lose out on that opportunity.
At great cost to herself my mother has begun to question such teaching. What of home? What of family? What of the terrible hunger that becomes daily bread when no thread of place, no web of people, tethers you to the earth—and no ordinary moments of belonging exist, therefore, to feed and fill you? Is this what we hope to give our children? Is this what we hope to gain for ourselves?
Of course not. And leaving does not always equate to loneliness or lead to regret. Education, travel, opportunity, these are no devils. We shouldn’t attempt to regain some lost romantic age in which one’s future was happily confined to the village of one’s birth. I imagine we are just in questioning the happiness of those so happily confined.
At the same time, in our and every age, wisdom cries aloud in the streets. I think she was crying that day between the cattails and the overflowing canals. There were tears on my mother’s cheeks.
In the wake of wisdom’s tears, I am asking other questions. They are about choices not of the past but of the present and the future—questions of commitment and autonomy, chosen limits and given loves. I attend to them in the hope that the next time wisdom sounds in the streets, it will be with shouts of laughter.
Deanna Briody is a writer and poet who works as a business analyst at a software company in Pittsburgh.