Memories, Realities, and the Home we Create

Last month my sister and I had a family reunion of sorts in the city where she spent the first ten and I the first eight years of life. Our parents and brother now gone we alone share the memories of growing up together. The funny things about our dad and mom only seem funny to us because of the shared history we possess. My brother could imitate my father in ways that made me howl- the way he pursed his lips and blew an imaginary speck of lint off the lapel of his suit. Or the manner in which he expressed his annoyance with my mother when she farted. “Oh, for god’s sake, Mary! That’s disgusting.”

My mother reclines on her side next to the dog on the floor, her head propped up to watch TV answers casually, “The dog doesn’t seem to mind.” We dared not laugh until we could recount the incident away from the two of them. Neither my sister nor I have the gift of capturing the humor of our family peculiarities quite the way my brother did. Perhaps this was because he spent more time with them than we did. We both left home after graduating from High School at 17. Then mom, dad, and brother moved to Los Angeles where my dad started a new job. My brother, four years my junior, stayed on with them long enough to refine his imitations capturing even the most nuanced characteristics.

My brother was too young to remember much that my sister and I shared in our early years in the Evanston/Chicago area. This was where we met in February for our reunion. We decided to visit certain places that figured prominently in our respective childhood memories. So, we agreed on the Museum of Science and Industry, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, and the row houses where we lived on Maple Street for our weekend reunion.

It has been sixty years since we visited and predictably some memories simply don’t square with on-the-ground realities.

The Museum of Science and Industry

The coal mine in the Museum of Science and Industry was still there. I loved the experience of descending deep into the mine, where the black coal-covered walls, low ceiling and small spaces convinced us this indeed was once a fully functioning coal mine and we were deep beneath the surface of the earth. The two of us looked at one another when we saw the looming presence of the mine before us and bought tickets. We did this knowing very well we risked blowing up a perfectly delightful childhood memory. The memory was predictably sweeter than our contemporary visit. It was an exhibit of course intended to simulate the experience of descending into a coal mine. What the hell, I thought as I recalled how many times I explained to others the mine in the museum had been a real coal mine. Now, deep underground, we board the transport car to take us to the work site. (We are really at ground floor level because we had to climb the stairs to board the elevator that took us “down” to the mine). In the dimly lit underground, our car proceeds along the tracks still deeper into the mine until we approach a crew (of manikins) extracting coal with a large grinding wheel. Our car stops, lights illuminate the coal extractor, and it grinds away (eternally) simulating the function of the machine. The lights dim, the demonstration concluded, and it’s off to the next menacing coal-crunching machine. The visit is finally capped by a brief nod to the challenge posed by the continued use of fossil fuels. It is a benign effort to address a complicated topic, but the exhibit is clearly underwritten by the coal industry, so the coal mine and the mining industry remain the stars. Afterward, we agree to stroll along the re-created street scene pre-dating Disney’s nostalgic re-creations of the early 20th century. We both recall how magical the street felt to us as children. Now-time to break for lunch.

St. Lukes
32 feet High Organ Pipes

The next day we have decided to visit St. Luke’s. It is Sunday morning and my GPS takes us to a pleasant neighborhood that is vaguely familiar to attend the main service. St. Luke’s played an outsized role in my early years. Memories of St. Luke’s were focused on fasting before mass and frequently fainting because of it. A glass of orange juice was sanctioned by the priest before the service and the fainting episodes subsided. The experience of singing in the boys’ choir was life-changing for me and instilled a love for music that still endures. I was in awe of the four manual Skinner pipe organ with pipes as large as 32 feet that shook the earth when Dr. Matthew’s feet skittered across the pedals at the console. Fanfare trumpets under the stained-glass window at the rear of the nave nothing short of royal! But wait! I see there is no stained-glass window. It is opaque glass that allows way too much light through! (Big sigh) The Sunday service was attended by maybe a hundred people. As a child and member of the boys’ choir, we were paid perhaps a dollar per week and ‘performed’ for a Church filled with the devout and faithful at the final morning service on Sundays- 11 am Solemn High Mass. Today, after the service, we chatted with a couple of old timers who knew of or heard tales of events back in those days. They tittered and raised their brows when I mentioned the clergy who were friendly with our family. I knew that one of the 3-4 priests were gay (but maybe they all were) and there had been some sort of scandal. While I didn’t know the details, I was annoyed by the knowing smiles as they exchanged glances with one another and commented, “Oh yes we know OF Father B.” I responded by casually remarking that the last time I saw him he had moved to Palm Springs with his partner and seemed happy enough. The Church was tired looking even as it still retained much of its neo-gothic splendor. The mystery that was so pervasive in this uniquely “high church” seemed to have diminished, if not disappeared altogether. The chumminess of announcements seemed awkward and out of place and the perfectly choreographed sacred dance I recalled the clergy, choir, and others performed was no more.  As we were leaving well-meaning greeters encouraged us to take an insulated Yeti cup with the name of the parish on it. All newcomers were given one.

Then it was on to Maple Street and the row houses where we lived. We parked across the street and surveyed them one by one naming the families who had lived there as our neighbors. All our staring, pointing and laughing caught the attention of a man who was carrying a Trader Joes bag of groceries into the Matthison’s home to the left of our front door. Dean, Scottie, and Sarah lived there. Their father, who looked like James Arness, my dad called Matt Dillon. The man with the Trader Joes bag stood on the Mathison’s porch and looked at us, no doubt bewildered by all our attention. “You see the window there?” My sister pointed at the second-floor window above the front porch. “That’s your old bedroom!” More laughter.

The Row Houses

“We grew up here.” I shouted to the man standing on the porch we shared with the Mathison’s. His face broke into a sunny smile oozing delight and he generously invited us inside where we swapped stories. I told him of the carnivals and spook houses we kids hosted each year, about playing army on the hillside at the Methodist Church grounds. How odd it was to see that hillside just thirty minutes earlier, now discovering it was little more than a bump in the lawn next to the Church. I wanted to tell him so much more because the row houses contained the extraordinary stories that shaped my sister’s and my life. But it was time to go, and the stories had abandoned the row houses decades before. Indeed, we had taken them from the row houses as if they were our property, and the groceries needed to be put away, and we had promised ourselves a late lunch.

At lunch, my sister asked me how I felt about it all. I wasn’t really sure. I said the visit to the Church was somewhat deflating. I knew the Church would be different. I also knew the pressure to promote fellowship over mystery and so understood the change. My sister commented, “well, they say, you can’t go home again.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” I agreed passively.

But what I felt was a mix of feelings that only now I’m beginning to consider. The places we made a point to visit appeared somewhat shabby, worn, and tired. This was true even though the context in which these specific places existed had all undergone considerable upgrades; facelifts, as it were. The Museum of Science and Industry was filled with gleaming new exhibits which one of the volunteer guides encouraged us to visit. But I didn’t want to see the submarine. I wanted to see the coal mine. Evanston is filled with refurbished grand old and clearly high-priced homes, but our old neighborhood looked tired and in places threadbare. Down the street where Carol Matthews lived, was now a shelter of some sort with weary-looking people sitting on benches out front. There had been a fire in the Church many years back that one parishioner speculated may be the reason the window I remembered and the window that I now saw were different.

The visits were not unsatisfying. In fact, they were fun and evoked great conversations between my sister and me. But the lessons of such a visit are important reminded me that the places we dwell are only a foil for the experiences we have that create our memories.

Memories belong to the one’s who construct them. They are never fully objective or subjective but a mix of both, colored by time and the frequency with which we visit them. We surely tinker with them as we visit them again and again. And as we grow old, they may weigh us down or perhaps lift us up. The sheer quantity of all these memories is bound to leave us full and content or bloated and burdened. Regardless, we carry them with us wherever we go like a snail his shell. Our memories are never left in the places where they were acquired. Wherever we go, there they are. Our constant companions who have earned the right to opine on all the choices we make and things we do. And as they do so, they shape still more new experience, giving birth to new memories. In this sense, memories beget memories; a proverbial snowball rolling down a steep hill, increasing in size exponentially. As long as we exist, the land of memories continues to expand its borders.

It is all nothing short of miraculous, this land of memories we collect and organize. Why should we be so attentive to collecting all these memories, one might fairly ask. To share? To keep us company? I don’t know. But it is no wonder the old should spend so much time in the magical land of memories. As I consider this it occurs to me that perhaps we can go home again. Home is the sum total of your memories and always close and never far from you. In the land of memories, places are preserved and resist decay. Sure, go ahead and visit the places where home was created but expect they will be largely unrecognizable having aged and grown shabby. The treasure you sought to recover is no longer there.

The truth is, we stand at the center of it all. Places are just places where people meet, and events occur. The alchemy of turning places, people, and events into what is ours alone forever is the work we perform. Memories will take shape, form, and coherence as they gestate.  They will live on in us as our burdens, our consolations, our joys, and our sorrows. Finally, our memories will in large part define us as they co-mingle with the mystery of something we call the Self. In some strange way, we are the sum of our experiences plus one. Our Self is ever the repository for the experience we obtain, the interpretation we apply and how we will catalogue it. I wonder if it is this Self, which houses but is not our memories themselves is merely a transient receptacle or an eternal home for the weary work of having made so many memories. It is an appealing notion to think after life is lived, it wouldn’t all just go down to the dust.

Like a snail we carry our memories of home wherever we go.

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