Sunday, October 17, 2010

169. You Can't Go Home

So we spent the weekend in Pennsylvania revisiting my childhood home and I have just one question: did I really live here? because I remember almost nothing.

We drove to 819 Featherstone Court where I (supposedly) lived from age 5—10; this was the primary purpose of our multi-hour car trek. Somehow I was magnetically drawn to return to this era of my ordinary and uneventful youth; I needed to come back.  As we approached the house, I searched in vain for something I would recognize—a tree, a patio, a garden—anything.

I turned to the Husband (who lives so close to his childhood home that he can drive past it daily if he wanted to) and said, “Maybe there’s another 819 Featherstone? Maybe we have the wrong one.”

It’s not that the new owners had changed the house drastically (comparing the Real Life version to the blurry Photo Version my mom had taken many years prior), it’s just nothing about it seemed familiar. I had expected, wanted even, to feel overcome with emotion, but instead my brain tricked me: I was overcome with neutrality.

If my chronological memories were sheets of paper and every day was a page, here were 1825 pages to paw through from my youth in Pennsylvania. After I had unearthed the correct pages, I found the once-vibrant ink was faded to the point of being illegible.

I berated myself: why could I remember the Maui hotel and yet Pennsylvania could not be found amongst the torn pages of my mind? We had vacationed in Maui eight years ago, for one week. A mere short story of seven days compared to the unedited manuscript of 1825 days, and yet I could recall in excruciating detail the exact texture of the bedspread, the precise arrangement of flowers in the wallpaper, the surly attitude of the bellman, the refreshing temperature of the pool, the taste of the fresh mango I ate for breakfast.

These 1825 days in rural Pennsylvania: did they happen to somebody else? Where did they go?  I close my eyes and see the papers stacked neatly in front of an open window—a sudden gust of wind scatters them, they cannot be retrieved. 

(Adjacent to the house was a large hill, the hill we would go sledding on.  I remembered falling on that hill, twisting my shoulders and landing hard and bruised in the freezing snow.  Success!  A memory!  But why did I remember only the bad things?) 

The house itself was unremarkable at best, an ordinary split-level relic of bad architecture from the 1970’s. It had been painted an unfortunate shade of blue. I could see a wooden deck tacked haphazardly onto the side, a weak afterthought:  maybe-we-can-sit-out-here-and-enjoy-the-view. 

We sat in front of 819 Featherstone Court for what seemed like a long time but was probably three minutes.  The Husband prompted, “There’s a lady staring out the window at you; maybe you should knock on the door?”

I could see her, too, sitting in what I knew to be the living room—the same living room where my sister Oakley had vomited all those Easter jelly beans years ago. 

Knock on the door?  Huh.  This was not in my Original Plan, but it seemed like an idea. Not a good idea, not a bad idea, just a neutral idea to go with my overall neutrally-themed mindset.

I knocked, and then to prove that I had not been watching her watching me, rang the bell. An average woman a little older than me answered. “Yes?” she queried politely, as if she had been disturbing me instead of the other way around.

“I grew up in this house,” I blurted out, willing tears to come but instead being washed over by a startling wave of neutrality, “my name is MOV and I haven’t been back in 30 years.”

Now if we were in a movie, this is the part where the dramatic music would reach a crescendo as The New Owner would open the door, reach out and hug me, and usher me in as if we were long-lost soul sisters, the missing pieces of each other's puzzles.

This is what happened instead:  she said, "Oh."

Long awkward silence.

And then finally, with a tone indicating she was unimpressed and underwhelmed, “I’m Becky. When did you live here, then?”

We chatted pleasantly enough for a few minutes while The Husband and our sons grew restless in the car, but it wasn’t like I was talking to the woman who cooked on my stove and took baths in my tub. It was more like I was talking to the checker at the grocery store. “Beets are on sale, toothpaste's on aisle three, that coupon has expired.”

Which begs the question: if I don’t remember it, can I just reinvent it? Later we drove by a stunning brick Colonial in an adjacent neighborhood: can I just claim that one for my own? It’s much prettier than the split-level. If I don’t recall it anyway, can I go ahead and trade in my memories, sort of upgrade them?  I can imagine myself living there, I can imagine playing in the yard.  Is imagination better than memory?

What purpose does memory serve anyway? 
The town itself is well-known as the home of Famous University. Everyone in Famous Town assumes that’s why you’re here: to visit Famous University. They don’t expect that you lived here when you were five.

“Would you like to buy a Famous University sweatshirt, maybe in green or navy?” the hotel front desk clerk chirps while she shoves one across the counter towards me.

I glance at their mascot emblazoned on the front of the sweatshirt, Big Animal. He looks mean.  “Uh, no, no thank you,” I smile weakly.

“You know, Ryland’s Souvenirs doesn’t sell them any cheaper, if you’re comparing prices.” She blinks, daring me to argue.

“I’m not. Comparing prices I mean. I just don’t want one.”

“Oh, you already have one. I understand. I forget that most people already have a shirt from Famu.” That’s what the locals call it, Famu, but they say it like “Fay—moo”. “You can always order another one, maybe as a gift for someone special back home?”

“Yeah, I’m all set for now,” I confirm.

The clerk nods at me, she’s happy now. Sure, sure, I have one, if that’s what you want to believe, just give me my damn key so I can check in.

Later that evening, we try to replicate more wrinkled pages of my childhood by dining in the cafĂ© my mom and I used to frequent, Magnolia Grill. The four of us walk in and ask the hostess for a window booth.  The Husband searches my face for some expression, “Well?” he whispers, leaning in. He’s looking for legible ink, at least a few vague scribbles.

My memory is Switzerland: no opinion, no preference, no distinction, just utterly and painfully neutral.  The pages, what's left of them, have turned a grubby shade of beige.  I give a non-committal shrug. I face a new and pressing question: am I a victim of amnesia? or early-onset Alzheimer’s?

The server takes our order and proceeds to lose it (aha—maybe the lost order is cozying up somewhere with the lost pages of my mind). We re-order and after a long wait, we finally receive our burgers which are practically oozing grease. The check comes to $73 for the four of us. We walk out of Magnolia Grill into the cool night and I’m actually relieved to finally have an impression of something, even if it's bad.

If it’s true that we have selective memories, why wasn’t my brain selecting any of these memories?  I realize that Pennsylvania was merely the backdrop for my childhood, the set design, if you will.  But not remembering the set design for "Miss Saigon" or "The Phantom of the Opera"—isn't the set design the whole point?  Why had the pages of my personal script disintegrated to the verge of the unrecognizable?  Was I merely a reluctant participant in the events of my own life?  

Being a mother of two small boys, I immediately project my situation on to them. If I remember zilch from these so-called “impressionable” years, would they also remember virtually nothing from their childhoods?  Why was I working so hard to give them a charmed life, a Norman Rockwell existence full of fun and laughter and books and museums and summer camps and sports?  Why? Why did I do it?

Will they notice? Will they remember? Or will their pages be ripped and faded too?

(“Mustn’t Overanalyze Vacation”)


  1. Or, as Thomas Wolfe says, "You can't go home again." Last month, because I was going to be in New York city, I looked up my childhood address in the Bronx, and. . .it was still there. . .and I did stop. And I did remember so many little things, but the neighborhood had changed, very urban and "edgy." Van Cortland park, which had been a favorite place to play, did not look the same. But I am glad I did stop, but no I did not knock on the door. I wish I had.

  2. Very deep. I don't know why we remember some things and not others. Why do some smells bring back a flood of memories when sometimes being physically in a place does nothing? The brain is a complicated organ. We would do well to respect it.

  3. thanks, couse. This one WAS deep for me, you're right!



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