Last semester, my fourth in Iceland, was a challenging one in many ways. I started working a part-time job in January. The focus of classes shifted quite a bit and became, in my opinion, much less practical and much more academic, with research papers replacing conversational practice. And I was dealing with pain from a chronic injury that started bothering me in December. With finals approaching, I made a sudden-but-not-so-sudden decision: I returned to the States.
It was a scary decision, of course, not knowing exactly how things would shake out with my grant and with immigration if I up and left during finals. But at the same time, once I made the decision I knew it was the right one. I needed to take care of myself physically and emotionally and in order to do that I needed to leave for a while. I bought a one-way ticket on the last day of classes and flew to Portland the next day.
The purpose of this trip was very much to rest and to get some answers from my doctors about the pain I’d been dealing with for months. Jumping through health insurance hoops is a pain in any country, but it was a relief dealing with medical issues in English rather than in Icelandic (or choosing to use English but then feeling guilty about missing out on a learning and practice opportunity). In any case, everything worked out and I found out that all my pain could be traced back to two teeny tiny extra bones in my right foot which made me prone to tendonitis, which I developed last winter from a combination of slippery streets and poor footwear. I am now a 28-year-old woman who must wear supportive footwear like a grandma. Oh well, better to look dorky than to be in pain.
Because I made the decision last-minute and because I really was not in any condition to be social when I first arrived, I spent most of my time at home with my family. My mom and I spent a lot of evenings in good conversation. But easily the greatest unexpected gift of being home was getting to join my family at our summer home on Lopez Island.
Earlier this year, my mom told me they would most likely be selling our island home this summer. Since I had no plans to return home this summer, I had sort of reconciled myself to the fact that I would never again stay in the Lopez house. On the one hand, I was relieved that I would be away when the house was sold, because I wasn’t sure I could bear to actually say goodbye to it. On the other hand, of course I wanted the opportunity to do so.
It’s hard for me to put my feelings about Lopez into words, let alone condense them down into a blog post. It’s a place that’s always been a part of me, that’s shaped my identity and given me joy. My connection to the island deepened in 2010 when I moved there to live and work full time. Over the next two years, I not only saw the community in a new light, I became part of the community. And in a way, my time living on Lopez led me to Iceland. It gave me the longing for an even greater adventure, and the confidence to seek one.
Before this trip, my entire family hadn’t been together at Lopez in years. One of us was always in school, or working, or living in Texas or Iceland. For all five of us to be there together, even for just a couple days, was a small miracle. Mom and Dad and I arrived first. Scott came early the next morning and stopped at the bakery on the way to the house, so I woke up to find my brother and a fresh almond butterhorn waiting for me. Finally my sister arrived too. Over the past months, my brother has made several trips to the island and has been slowly cleaning out the house. If I would have gone to the house a year ago, it would have been filled with remnants of my AmeriCorps year – piles of books I got from the take it or leave it, shelves and lamps I brought from home when I moved up there, tutoring materials I used at the school, sticky notes with phone numbers of island friends new and old (four digits only, since all Lopez phone numbers begin with 468), approximately a dozen scarves I knitted or crocheted my first winter on the island. But all those things have gradually been boxed up and carted away, posters peeled off the walls, leaving behind little more than the house itself: the faded gold and green shag carpet, trampled by forty-something years of feet big and small; the dark wood paneling; the macramé decorations; the clock on the wall and other wedding gifts my parents received in 1975; the defective set of drinking glasses with the bottoms that don’t sit flat but rather spin like tops; the closet full of classy board games, like our perennial favorite, The Dukes of Hazard.
On my last night in the house, my sister and I shared our room like so many summers years ago. I thought about what it was like to share that room with her as kids, to share it with friends over the years, and I thought about the first night I spent in that room alone after moving to Lopez. My eyes filled with tears. Imagining another place ever meaning so much to me is almost impossible.
The reason for my family’s trip to the island was actually to honor my uncle’s memory. My dad’s oldest brother Lyle passed away last autumn after dealing with cancer for several years. Everyone in the Summers family is deeply connected to Lopez Island, but no one more so than Lyle was. Like my dad, he spent every summer at Camp Nor’Wester from a very young age, and when he was too old to be a camper, he joined the staff. Like my dad, he purchased a house on the island some forty-odd years ago. Unlike my dad, he never married or had kids, and he remained involved in camp the rest of his life. Conveniently, his career as a teacher allowed him to devote his summers to camp.
I was of course grieved to hear of his passing last fall, but I was not grieving so much for the relationship we had but rather for the one we didn’t. At least when it came to blood relatives, Lyle was an intensely private person, rather chilly and withdrawn. Many years ago, he chose to make Camp Nor’Wester his true home and its staff and campers his family. During his illness and after his passing I heard testimonies from many camp people about what a warm, funny, caring person Lyle was. Again, it made me unspeakably sad that I never knew that person, but it was also a comfort to know that so many people carry that memory of him.
When it comes to my dad’s side of the family, we are not close-knit and we don’t often get together. But the one thing we share is a love of Lopez Island. This place roots us and connects us in an indescribable way. Wherever else we may live, Lopez will always be home.
On a warm and shimmering Sunday afternoon in early May, we gathered at Lyle’s property, which overlooks the entrance to Fisherman Bay on the west side of the island, to sort through his belongings, discuss matters related to the sale of the estate, and scatter some of his ashes.
With Lyle’s property being sold and our house soon to follow, the Summers family will no longer own any property on Lopez. It makes my heart hurt to say goodbye to the home, but I try to remind myself that no one can take away my connection to the place. There may no longer be a physical house for me to return to, but I can still return home to the place where my heart feels most at peace.