When you’re five years old, your family is the barometer of normal. They’re the only context for human behavior that you have, so that’s probably why I never thought it was strange that my family liked to explore abandoned houses. To us, it was just a fun summer activity on our trips up north.
I don’t remember what I thought my mom and grandfather got out of the experience, but navigating those modern-day ruins made me feel like Indiana Jones. We used to visit all sorts of run down cottages and farms throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and my favorite part of these little trips was finding unique glass and metal trinkets to take home and clean up. The dirtier and rustier, the better: I couldn’t just grab a dusty bottle from an old kitchen, I had to go looking around outside.
I loved places that had junk piles, and the farm on Five Mile Road had one of the biggest I’d ever seen. While my mom and her dad went searching in the house for whatever they were after—old books and magazines or something equally uninteresting to me—I went treasure hunting in my scrap heap behind the barn.
On a particularly sunny July afternoon, I found myself decked in full explorer gear—Panama Jack jungle hat, fluorescent green sunglasses and my grandmother’s floral print gardening gloves—and ready to excavate untold treasures from my dig site at the farm. After a while, and after finding some sort of gap-toothed gear or rusted coffee tin that I just knew was amazing and valuable, I realized I couldn’t hear the voices of my family members anymore. The only sound was the droning buzz of the summer flies. Being five, I panicked and started yelling frantically, running toward the dilapidated house, but stopped short after hearing an unexpected response to my cry for help peal through the yard.
Hoo-hoo-hooo, hoo hooooooo!
I instantly recognized my grandpa’s “owl call”, and returned my own falsetto rendition. As quickly as my fear had come, it disappeared, and now I was adventuring again. I got up and ran toward the sound, playing an odd sort of nature-themed Marco Polo with Grandpa. It wasn’t long before I found him on the other side of the barn, grinning from ear to ear and making one last call as I ran into his arms. Hiya, Buckshot! It’s one of my earliest and clearest memories of him.
Thirteen years later, but only a few months after my grandfather’s funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to even think of that day at the farm. After a long battle, heart failure had finally beaten my grandfather, and it seemed like every happy memory I had of him brought more pain than comfort. I started sleeping in the afternoons and staying awake all night, which only added to the feelings of disorientation and loss that seemed to follow me everywhere. One particular sleepless night, about two months after my grandpa’s funeral, I was feeling restless and decided to take my German Shepherd for a midnight walk. We hadn’t even got to the end of the driveway when I was hit with a strong feeling of déjà-vu. I stood still for a moment and it was strangely silent. I lived in a small town, but there were plenty of three-shift factories, and we lived on the main street, so there was usually at least some traffic going by. Even my dog was quiet. The sound that finally broke the silence caused my eyes to well with tears.
Hoo-hoo-hooo, hoo hooooooo!
I’d grown up in that house, spent my childhood summers sleeping with the windows open and I had never heard an owl in our neighborhood before. The only place I had ever associated with owls was my grandpa’s cabin up north. We’d sit around the bonfire and he’d tend the last of the dying coals while I strained to hear the owls. Some nights, if we didn’t hear anything, we would call for them, and if we were lucky, they’d call back. It would give me goosebumps.
To break the silence those nights while we waited for our nocturnal serenade, Grandpa used to tell me stories. My grandfather spent World War II in the Pacific Theatre, and one night he taught me about the Hawaiian concept of Aumakua. The Hawaiians, he told me, believed that our loved ones were never really gone; they watched over us after they died. They provided protection and comfort, manifesting themselves in nature. They could come as a gentle breeze or appear as an animal, he told me, but you’d know them when you saw them.
Hoo-hoo-hooo, hoo hooooooo! (Hiya, Buckshot!)
Standing there in the driveway and listening to the owl call, I got goosebumps again. I felt all-too-familiar tears well up and I smiled as I let them come. I never did end up taking my dog for a walk. Instead, we both sat at the end of the driveway and listened to the owls call until the light of morning crept into the horizon.
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