Written by Eileen Ryan ETA’10-11
On a path next to the reservoir behind my host family’s apartment complex, I walked past two magpies scavenging in a chopped field. Hopping and tilting their heads, their beady black eyes searched for forgotten grains hidden under scattered, dry stalks. Another hop, a dip of the head, long black and white tail thrust up in the air, and one magpie raised her head again, gripping a pearl of barley in her jet black beak. A field that appeared so barren to me — lifeless compared to the shining gold affair that glittered on my last walk there a month before, when autumn was still lingering — had yielded what was perhaps a feast in magpie standards. I imagined the magpie would return nestward with her treasure and excitedly regurgitate the meal into her chicks’ small mouths. Perhaps I just needed the image of a nurturing home after three months living as a guest — provided for but still not a part of my host family — and five months away from my own home. I missed my family.
I walked by the reservoir often after I returned to the apartment from my first real job as an English teacher at Wolbong High School. As a teenager, I used to fantasize about this part of my life when I’d have a self-sustaining income and live in an exciting new place, far from the too-familiar city of my childhood and removed enough from my parents and teachers to live in the luxury of independence. But reality dimmed the idealistic glow of my high school daydreams a bit. In the early winter of 2010, I was a “grown-up” with my own job, money, responsibilities, and adventures, and I was achingly homesick.
That afternoon, on the other side of my path from the barley field, the naked, gaunt, brown trees danced in the distorted mirror of the rippling water, which also reflected the white-streaked, winter sky. The sky was blue like my mom’s eyes, a pale shade that appears clear and chill, but to me holds a warmth like home. The sky and the water surrounded me and the lonely trees, and the color that reminded me of my mom made me feel warm and rooted despite the weather.
Farther down the path, the apple trees that had been heavy with fruit a month before were relieved of their burden. Their branches, which should have been springy again, seemed lightened in a sad way that made me think of empty wombs and nests, and my mother’s blue eyes the way they might have looked when she remarked on the phone that this was the first Christmas season she and my father would spend alone, buying and ornamenting a tree and baking cookies to prepare their own nest for my brothers and me to return to, only for a few days. I remember when the idea of leaving the nest was a thrill, when any suggestion or command ruffled me. I chose to fly far away to the other side of the world, where the birds — cranes and magpies now — sing songs I don’t know. Did I need to leave home, to get all the freedom and space I could ask for, to realize how connected to my home and family I am?