Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Scale of Memory

Colonial street level in New Castle
I spent my first 11 years in New Castle, Delaware, a small town just south of Wilmington. It’s a town rich in colonial history. To walk through its streets is literally to travel back to that era. Many of the buildings from that time still stand, and are still lived in by residents. When walking through the town, one is struck by the different sense of scale. When I visited again back in 2002, after an absence of two decades, I walked through the town, armed with an enlivened sense of the colonial era in America. I snapped pictures, which are lying in a box somewhere in the house. One building in particular compelled my interest. There was a sign in front that informed the passerby that it served as a tavern during those times. I stared at the façade. It was red brick, with long windows, a two-storey affair. But again, back to the scale. I noted how much smaller the doorway was compared to modern domiciles. Most peculiar of all, if I had walked right up to the front of house, it appeared that I could’ve reached up and easily touched the bottom of the second storey window. It was almost as if I were confronted with a massive dollhouse. I knew colonial men and women were smaller in stature, due at least in part to a diet much lower in calories and nutrition than ours today. But this building, and many others like it, looked as if it could’ve been built for hobbits. I only wished that I could’ve toured the interior.

That was one form of time travel on my trip then. The other form was more personal--staying with my cousins a few miles away from town. They still lived in the apartment above the garage of my aunt and uncle’s house, where they’d lived when we moved away back in the mid-70s. When I came to visit, they let me stay in the main house, which was then occupied by their oldest daughter. I stayed in the secondary bedroom. It was comfortable enough, but immediately upon arriving, I was haunted by ghosts. All of those who had inhabited the past I’d left behind, my memories of it like ancient insects trapped in amber. So much of the setting looked the same that it was difficult not to call them up in my mind. The stage was there, ridiculously intact, which made their absence that much more keenly felt. I remember standing in the kitchen, looking around, seeing myself and my aunt and uncle in their customary places. All of us around the dinner table, amid the buzz of conversation. The taste of my aunt’s wonderful dinners. The spot in the spare room where I played with Christmas presents. I had an earache that year (what was it, ’74? ’75?). The living room where I watched Phillies games when they were on, Harry Kalas calling the play-by-play. That same room where, when it was time for us to go, I would sneak up on my uncle, who had his face buried in the day’s paper. I would punch the paper, brimming with evil mirth over his unfailing reaction of surprise. Until one day he tired of it, and became visibly irritated. At that point, I figured it was time for me to outgrow that stunt. Looking back, I’m amazed at how patient and indulgent he was for a long time before that day. I don’t think I could’ve equaled it.

They have a decent-sized property, and the back yard held similar nostalgic inducements. I would spend hours there, batting a ball around by myself, pretending I was hitting home runs in the bottom of the ninth. Becoming my heroes at the time, who were Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, among others. The same yard where I would raptly gaze at the myriad fireflies as they danced in the evening air of summer. As I walked out to the yard on my return, I immediately found a familiar woolly bear caterpillar, crawling along in the grass. There used to be more meadow backed by woods when I was young. When I returned, it was long gone, replaced by housing tracts. The area where my uncle had a garden was now someone else’s yard. The human population bomb had exploded all over the ground of some of my happiest memories.

I had taken a notebook down with me to do some writing. I recorded how I felt at the time. I wrote that my aunt had died just a little over a year before, but it felt like she’d been there the previous day and I’d just missed her. I reported feeling “down and a little overwhelmed”, but hopeful about reconnecting with everyone. It was a good trip in the end, with some sense of coming full circle by the time I left, though it wasn’t without some tension. I came down one evening, after 10, to find the kitchen table and a chair tipped over. The house was silent and I saw no one else, though the bedroom door was shut. My cousin and her boyfriend at the time must’ve had an argument. I righted the table and chair, set everything back in its place. I was a little mad that such an emotional stage for me had been, in a sense, vandalized. It was my cousin’s house now though. The rest of us had only been passing through, like brief gusts of wind, as my cousin was doing now. At some point we would all be gone, as vanished as those colonial tavern-goers, and the mental histories we cherished would be overwritten by others.

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