Monday, May 09, 2011


Memory’s tricky, you know? Even with only thirty-five years behind me, there are things in there that are plenty hazy. Half-remembered. Uncertain of their position in The Timeline, which often seems like a garden hose that’s been drug all over the yard until it’s not at all straight or linear, but instead full of loops and kinks and aw shit it’s caught on something. Sometimes I even think tiny shards of fiction have gotten themselves worked in there, like Memory and Imagination have been leaving stuff at each other’s houses. There’s the Truth of the Matter, the What Happened, and then there’s the Memory of the thing. I guess that’s why we point cameras at stuff. Why we write things down.

I don’t trust you, Memory. But like anybody else, I cling to you.

We were coming back from a place we’d been for a few days, a place that is not our home, a place with an ocean, or if you want to get all technical about it, a great big-ole Gulf. It belongs to Mexico, but they let us use it. It was Mother’s Day when we were coming back from this place, and the path from it to our home goes right through the place where my mother lives. So we made a plan for a little visit on the way back.

“Can you look at googlemaps and figure out how to get there from 45?” my wife asked.
“I can get us there.”
“Are you sure?”
“Uh, yeah.”

So Memory’s not all bad. Driving directions. Not so awful at those. Not yet anyway.

On the way in, we pass through the city’s core, a mass of serious towers wrapped up in ribbons of highway that bring people in from all corners to put in their hours and take home their cut. I point it out to the boys, and in their impressed silence, I can hear the gears turning, the comparisons being made to the downtown of our home city, the only other one they’ve ever seen which, by comparison, is quite meager. In this moment, I suspect, it’s occurring to them just how big things can be.

I spot the building where my mom worked for so many years. At least I think that’s it, the mid-sized white one with the insets of windows creating a stair-step effect up the side. Some architect’s contribution. When my mom worked on weekends, she would take me along with her, me with my bag of toys and, later, homework, her with her bags of...stuff. Thirty-plus floors up, there was a great view, machines that would give me all the soda I could drink, and plenty of desks to sit behind.

There’s something tugging at me as we pass through the core, then beyond it through the tangle of intersecting highways and on into the the northern half of the city. I can’t put a finger or any other body parts on it. The car’s speakers are churning out songs by a band that sounds, to my ears, like they have something to say about what it is to be a person from a place. Some of the band’s members are from this city - one of its many suburbs anyway. I know this, but I can’t help but feel that even if I didn’t, their notes and words would still be perfect accompaniment to this inexplicable churn I feel going on inside. There is no particular memory I can bring to the fore, no specific image, no other bit of sensory remembrance I can grab a hold of, but for a few seconds, I feel like I’m going to burst into tears, an urge I push back because I have zero explanation for it, and bursting into tears isn’t like sneezing or cracking your knuckles where you can just do it and then not explain.

“It’s like everything’s been relabelled,” I say at some point. I’m not sure I’m explaining it right, but my wife gets it anyway. She usually does.

The place where my mom lives is the place where I grew up. The same house in the same neighborhood - a word that some shorten to its last syllable when applying it to this area - on the city’s edge, but outside of it in name only, the kind of edge that seems to extend forever. Saturn’s fattest ring, visible from thousands of miles up.

“That’s the street where Bryan and Wade lived. Wade played guitar, too. We hung out. That’s Robert’s street. He was into Morrissey, did the whole Mexican pompadour thing.”

The main through street is a narrow two lanes lined by ditches so deep they seem to have their own gravitational pull. I saw plenty of vehicles go grill-first into those ditches over the years, plenty of tow-trucks called out to give them a lift. I once ran my truck into a cow to avoid running it into one of those ditches. The cow was fine.

“That’s the trailer park where my friend Craig lived.”

This small patch of land is an odd conglomeration of urban, rural, residential, and industrial whose oddness didn’t occur to me until I was outside of it. But that’s the way, isn’t it? You live in your box and the box is The Way Things Are until one day you poke your head outside of your box and realize that not all boxes are like your box. Some of them aren’t boxes at all.

We arrive at the place that used to be My House, but is now My Mom’s House. I don’t remember exactly when this transition took place, but I suspect it was gradual. We’ve spent the last two days going between a beach and a tent, so my wife and I want to shower, but the boys want to see these old Star Wars toys of mine that they’ve heard so much about. My Mom locates the box among her storage, catching a wasp sting for her troubles. We open the box and show the boys a few pieces of their old man’s past. Various action figures. A snow speeder. A T.I.E. fighter. A blaster, which is always good to have at your side. And the crown jewel, the Millennium Falcon, which is faster than she looks. This will all be theirs one day soon, but not today.

“I thought you had a lightsaber, Daddy.”
“I did, but it got pretty beat up in all those lightsaber battles.” It’s the truth. It’s something I remember.

The visit and lunch and everything are wonderful. I usually send flowers or something, so us being here, children in tow, is an extra treat.

The route out of town carries us through more of the sprawl. Memory flares up here and there, at this corner or that, but offers nothing really solid. It’s all just vague familiarity. Maybe something happened over there one time. Maybe we went there back when it used to be. Is that the street where...? Or maybe not. It’s all different, it’s all the same. It looks like everywhere else. My wife uses a term she read in article somewhere, “secondhand suburbs.” It’s perfect.

The tears have gone back down into their ducts to wait until they are needed again. But I still wonder what it was that called them up in this instance. There’s nothing at all remarkable about these stretches of city, but they were pieces of my everyday back in a life that seems forever ago, though really it’s been less than two decades. The blink of an eye. Not even that much. The start of the eyelid’s downward sweep, the lashes still pointed upwards, not having received word yet that a blink is in progress. Maybe my Memory is mourning the stuff I’ve already forgotten.

After we get home and the car is unloaded, I upload the pictures on my camera from the trip we’ve just finished. Most of them are of my boys on the beach, headed into or out of the water lapping up on the sand. Their joy is clear and unbridled. I stood in the water with them, the camera around my neck, and captured a few moments of it. Years from now, I’ll look at these pictures and smile as tears fall down my face, and I suspect that the question of why won’t even occur to me.