Saturday, August 29, 2015

Home and Away

I saw online recently where my great-grandmother’s home is up for sale.  It was built in 1900, and so the place holds a lot of memories for not only me, but my mom, my grandfather, and countless cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.  I haven’t been there in a few years, but somehow, just knowing that soon, I will not be able to feel the creak of the wood beneath my feet as I walk around the wraparound porch, go into warmly-lit rooms with twelve-foot ceilings, sit in the bay window seat, and feel my great-grandmother’s presence all around as I move from places still called parlors and salons, saddens me.  She passed away there, just as she was born there, in the very same room.

We used to spend every Christmas Eve there, having dinner in the cavernous, red-carpeted dining room before going to the front den to open gifts.  It was a splendid tradition, one we would always dress up for.

I can carry these memories, of course.  I know I can, always.  But it doesn’t change the sadness of not being able to feel it, go to it, be there, ever again.  I’m no stranger to losing a place.  The house my mom and I lived in the first fourteen years of my life in burned down about ten years ago.  And my grandmother had to sell her house several years ago.  I felt this same loss, then, because I’d spent practically as much time at my grandmother’s as I did at home.  Those were the places I’d started out in life, the places where I began to discover who I was, where I learned of my love of writing and horses, where I made my first friends, where a lot of my family still lives.  But, for some reason, at the time, the loss of these places didn’t hit me quite as hard as the selling of my great-grandmother’s now, probably because I was younger and didn’t realize the enormity of place and home just yet, or maybe it was because I still had somewhere to go when I visited my hometown. 

Now, when someone else moves their family and furniture and memories into the home that has only ever belonged to our family, I won’t have it.  That will be it.  I've known people who think it silly for me to feel this way, who've rolled their eyes when I've tried to tell them the story.  But that's okay.  Not everyone can understand leaving your home or hometown and missing it.  Not everyone knows the feeling of sometimes wanting to move back there so badly it’s becomes hard to focus or even breathe.  I feel this sometimes.  I want to drive down the same, familiar streets and see the old houses, visit the little shops that line the charming town square, see some of the same faces I grew up with on a regular basis, return to the place I know. 

But then I wonder what I might miss here: my kids’ school, our church, my few but close friends here, our little house where we brought our kids home from the hospital, certain aspects of my job, being close to a larger city when I want to go, even driving along the same routes and seeing the same landmarks I’ve become familiar with in the past twenty years.

So, what do I do now with all of these feelings?  Something I’ve done is to preserve the description and therefore, the memory of my great-grandmother’s home in my book that will soon be released, and then my grandmother’s in the one I’m currently writing.  As a matter of fact, I have based my last three books in my hometown.  I have re-named it, to give myself a little creative freedom, but it’s like it’s my way of going back there even when I can’t, physically.  It has become part of my stories, integral, even, to feeling and understanding them.  And it feels good setting my stories there.  I feel like I’m back there in my mind and maybe giving my readers a feel for all the good things about that place. 

I feel like certain writers out there have a lot of power in that way.  Placing a reader in the setting can be so important to the rest of the story, even when readers don’t realize.  I love seeing the little houses and shops in Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove.  I saw and felt the sand and sea spray and the shops and title home in Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog.  I can’t imagine the story without imagining these things.  And then there’s Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.  Take a look at this passage in which Astrid, the fourteen-year-old protagonist observes her new foster home:

“The air in Van Nuys was thicker than in Sunland-Tujunga.  It was a kingdom of strip malls and boulevards a quarter-mile across, neighborhoods of ground-hugging tracts dwarfed by full-growth peppers and sweet gums fifty feet high.  It looked hopeful, until I saw a house down the street, and prayed, please Jesus, don’t let it be the turquoise one with the yard paved in blacktop behind the chained-link fence.
The social worker parked in front of it.  I stared.  It was the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.  It was the gap in the chain of deciduous trees that cradled every other house on the block, defiantly ugly in its nakedness.
The bubble-glass door was also turquoise, and the foster mother was a wide, hard-faced blond woman who held a dumb-founded toddler on her hip.  A little boy stuck his tongue out at me from behind his mother.”

It doesn’t seem like the happiest or nicest of places and that’s the point.  The things she carefully chooses to describe with equally careful word choice all work together to project this image of a hopeless, depressing environment in which Astrid is about to enter and try to make home.  In essence, we get the full sense of place here. 

I guess that’s what I hope to give my readers and myself as I use my homes and hometown to tell my stories.  Because if we get that sense of place and it lives on in our minds, it’s never really lost, even if someone else buys it and makes their home there.    

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