Here I Stay

“Here I stay,” she said, and they wrote it on her tombstone.

Most of L.M. Montgomery’s books get on the last hot end of my nerves. Dewy-eyed protagonists naming every moment of nature that crosses their paths? No thank you. Even today, I drove down my brand new, prosaically named neighborhood road and felt a malicious glee at how Anne with an “e” would respond to my particularly unmelodious street address. But I’ll tell you who I always did like: Emily of New Moon. The little dark-haired orphan with a grim history and a strange, unsettling young adulthood on Prince Edward Island spoke to my soul as soon as I met her in the pages of her trilogy in Tenth Grade.

Like all Montgomery’s displaced characters, Emily would rather not be where she has ended up, living with emotionally-removed aunts instead of with her beloved father, who has died. But she is also a wanderer and an explorer, always open to the possibilities of story, and at one point, she finds near her new home the bleak grave of her twice-great grandmother, Mary Murray, with no words except a name and the epithet: “Here I stay.” Emily unearths the back story, and it’s funny until you see through to its sadness. Mary Murray, we’re told, rolled miserably across the sick-making waves of a cross-Atlantic trip, from England to Canada, and when her feet hit dry land, she proclaimed – well, as it says on her stone. Her travel companions meant to go on to Quebec, but she wasn’t going anywhere. She dug in. So her husband set up life where she stood, resolute, and the New Moon story goes that she was pretty happy, they both were, relatively fine and blessed in their newfound home, but still, when she died all those years later, it was her husband who quoted his dear, departed wife on her grave, carving out the words unto eternity. “Here I stay.” Something had rankled.

Why did this particular story stick with me? I’ve read a multitude of books between the New Moon trilogy and now, and of those three, there were more essential moments to put in my pocket for future consideration. I couldn’t have known when I first read the series back in early nineties’ high school that I’d leave my home state in 2005 and spend the next decade moving, moving, moving. At one point, we seemed to settle down long enough to buy a house, but always with one eye to the door and the road and a different job possibility than what we had at the moment. My husband and I might stay somewhere long enough to, say, get a functional kitchen going, but not to unpack the china. Long enough to fill the bookshelves with our favorites, but not long enough to pull the childhood books or college tomes out of storage. You get what I’m saying.

“Here I stay.” For the last couple moves, I’ve felt the strong, strong urge to echo Mary Murray. I’ve thought of her, and wanted to be like her, and get the same solid results. And at the same time, I knew Montgomery had drawn her character’s end truly. She may have had a good life where she stayed, may have loved and been loved, even, but there was that something that rankled, whatever it was. There was something wrong with the way she dug in and declared what she did, and her husband felt it, and though he loved her, there in the end, he had his chilly final say. He set it in stone. No. I did not want to grow that way in my heart, hardened around one intense desire to the exclusion of all other possibilities, even though I sure was tired of going anywhere but here.

But then, lo and behold, after years of job searching and option considering and plot hatching that led nowhere firm and settled: a job offer. Out of a field that moved us hither and yon and into a business that would keep us local. It was a no-brainer. We moved cities for this new opportunity because it wouldn’t make us move around any longer. It was, even, a soft move, back to a place we’d been before. Community at the ready, roadways and grocery stores familiar. We checked our finances and were surprised to find we could, actually, buy a house, so we did. And then the packers and the movers and the goodbyes (because we loved our last town and I could have “Here-I-stayed” there easily) and the drive and the packers again, unloading, and the hellos and nice-to-meet-yous and the slow unpacking that is still going on. Slow this time, because there’s no longer an urgency to set up shop right away. I’m undriven by any pending move a year or two from now. What’s the hurry? Thorough this time, because our earthly belongings can all come out; we won’t have to repack any of them anytime again soon. We think.

The “we think” haunts me. How, I ask my husband, how do we settle our emotions between these two binaries? That God has given us these very good things; we’ve wanted them for so long: a house, a home, a place to settle into for (we think) the long-term. Stability for our girls, schools, and people to know long and well. But there’s also this: this fallen world. This sad world, whose disappointments you can almost count on. Also, God’s ways that are neither fallen nor sad, but are above our understanding, and so often different from what we expect or want. How not to live with a sort of fear that what has come true might at any time come undone? How to keep from shifting our feet toward the door – which we don’t actually want to go out of anytime soon – just in case we have to go, just to protect our little hardened hearts against the pain of leaving once again . . . Good grief! We just got here. Why can’t I believe that I might just get to stay? Or live like we’re going to, at any rate, without having to know for sure what’s around the corner? Because if the future is written in stone, it’s no tablet I’ve got my hands on.

“If you want it to last,” says my friend Elizabeth Dark Wiley in her recently-published essay of the same name, “don’t write it in stone.” Well, they put it on Mary Murray’s tombstone after she’d rounded all her life’s corners, so we know for sure her heels stayed put pretty close to the ground she dug them into. I think I want to know what’s around the next corner so I can bolster my emotions, but no. I don’t actually need the luxury of that kind of hindsight about myself or my life; tell me what’s on my gravestone after the fact, which really means don’t tell me at all. I’ll be somewhere else for permanent by then, and I hope you won’t catch me looking back to see what folks needed to say about me. But I get ahead of myself. The moment in question is now; the place in question is right here; my desire is to stay. The question is how to stand firm without digging in. Or how to be where I am altogether without fearing future change, come as it may – or not. 

If the future is written in stone, I believe God has his hands on it. And if I can hang onto the recollection that He is good, then I think I can take my shoes off and leave them forgotten in the hallway. I can be here. This life is, indeed, a liminal kind of place. We’re not here; we’re not there; we are here; we will be there. So yes, okay. Set whatever ended up happening in this meantime on my stone. And if you’re not still here to do it, then that’ll mean you left this place before me, and I’ll be seeing you there. Where we’re sure to stay.

Rebecca D. Martin lives with her family in Central Virginia. Her essays and poems have been published with the Curator, Brevity, Proximity, Isele, and (upcoming) Taproot Magazines, among others. Her memoir—full of books, houses, and neurodiversity— will be out with TS Poetry Press in fall 2023. She can be found on Out for Stars at Substack.

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