Saturday, April 12, 2008

Atlanta's a distant memory, Montgomery a recent blur . . .*

Today, around lunchtime, we fly to Chicago (American Airlines, of course) and then on to Istanbul. This will be, I calculated recently, our sixth move over the past six years. Somewhere along the way, two kids appeared.

These moves haven't always meant a new job or a new city, and often they haven't even involved transporting furniture (most of the places we've lived have come furnished). Still, six moves in six years, and now with two kids. Too much moving.

Thursday afternoon, I drove up to Rome, Georgia to attend to some minor business. My father's family is from there, though my father himself grew up in a small town about 15 miles south of the city. So I've been visiting that region all my life. On the way back to Atlanta, I decided to drive through my father's hometown.

The first thing that threw me was simply the struggle to find it. I don't mean that I didn't know the way to the town, which I visited frequently as a child. What I mean is that the roads around there have been re-mapped into 4-lane highways, and there's the ubiquitous profusion of fast-food and discount stores on the outskirts, and whatever bearings and landmarks I'd used in the past to navigate into town were so lost or obscured to me that I drove around and around, knowing all the while that I was on the edge of the town, but struggling to find my way to the part still recognizable to me. I nearly gave up, but eventually I got there.

In my experience, so much has changed, and still changes, that I don't quite know what to make of it when something doesn't. It's a little disconcerting. When I was a kid, I tried to imagine what the world would look like by the time I was my parent's age, a nearly unimaginable chasm of time, and the best I could come up with was something utterly alien to everything I knew. Of course, the elementary school readers we were given, with fathers flying to work in helicopters and mother's preparing dinners in a kitchens copied from The Jetsons may have pushed me on a little in that direction.

When I finally found my way into town, and drove past the house where my father grew up, not only was it still there, it was still exactly as it was, or as I remember, from when I would visit in the summers as a child. So were all the other houses on the street, and on the next street, and the next. Years ago, my brothers and I would ride, unaccompanied, from Atlanta on the train, if you can envision this, there to be met by my grandfather at a small, white clapboard station. This was so long ago that these memories are like a few worn snapshots uncovered at the bottom of a drawer. You have to gather yourself before you even recognize what you're looking at. "Oh," you say, after a moment's pause of uneasy confusion, "there I am, standing with my brother at the beach we used to visit every summer, the one where we'd pick up sand dollars and skim them across the slough." These meager recollections swim up to you from the depths, and you realize that large chunks of your own life are mostly unrecoverable.

My grandfather disappeared forty years ago, from lung cancer. But the detached garage next to his house, where I sat in his lap while he sharpened his tools on a foot-driven grindstone, is still there. The color of the house, the gravel drive, the small screened porch, the slatted fence in the backyard, all as it was when I was young. And - so my father told me when I shared all this with him later on - just the same as when he was young, in the 1930s. He can't remember the house ever having been anything other than white with green shutters, and that's all it's ever been every time I've seen it.

I also drove out to my grandparents' cemetery plot. I didn't have any particular reason for doing this, since I wasn't going to be cleaning the headstones or leaving flowers, but it was something I wanted to do anyway. The stones looked almost new, though as I've said, my grandfather died forty years ago, and my grandmother nearly thirty. I didn't really know what to do there. I didn't have anything to offer, or to leave.

I liked looking out on the graves in the cemetery. I recognized at least half the names carved into the stones, probably more. These were names I hadn't thought about or even heard in 25 years, names remembered from when my grandmother would come to visit us, when she updated my father on all of the small doings in the lives of people he'd known growing up. Some of these names may even have belonged to distant relatives. My father's parents lived in that area long enough for third and fourth cousins to become blurred with friends my family had always known, at least in my mind. Sometimes, as a kid, I wasn't sure if the people we we drove out to visit in my grandmother's car were relatives or just someone or other she'd always known. My confusion was, in a way, understandable, because I'm not really describing the world I grew up in. I'm describing a world I knew only occasionally and intermittently, many years ago, a world my grandparents inhabited, and one my father could hardly wait to flee. He made his escape as soon as possible to Atlanta, a full fifty miles away. His parents must have admired his daring, but then again, he'd already seen Europe in the Second World War, so maybe the leap to the city came easier.

I haven't written much here lately. There seemed little reason to chronicle the mostly tedious and sometimes stressful steps involved in moving, particularly moving overseas, and what else was there for me to write about? When I'm situated in Istanbul, and have access to a computer, I'll write something new. But that'll probably be a while. In the years to come, I hope I write more and move less.

* From the song 200 More Miles by the Cowboy Junkies. You can view a sort of warbly live version here. Or maybe you'd rather just read the lyrics.


Theodore Breehn said...

"Somewhere along the way, two kids appeared. "

You are much younger than I am. I thought they explained this in schools of your era?

Hope you are settling in.

Black Sea said...

We've been in Istanbul for two weeks, have rented an apartment and are getting settled in. Once we have the internet hooked up (I'm at a cafe right now) I'll write more.

So far, so good.

Theodore Breehn said...

Can't wait.