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A few years before my late wife got ill, I began asking her to tell me stories from her childhood. She would talk and I would type them into my laptop (I can type as fast as someone can speak). 

She had been telling these stories for decades; she seemed to have an uncanny memory for even minute details, memory that went back nearly to her infancy. I thought it would be important to preserve some of these, especially for her granddaughters. We knew from our own experience how much we wish we could now ask our grandparents for information now irretrievable by their deaths. Here was a trove to preserve for when the granddaughters finally come to want to know their roots.

Well, their roots are as Southern as they could be. I am from New Jersey, and I always thought the baroque and byzantine tales of William Faulkner were clearly hyperbolic and sensational, but as Carole sat and recalled her life, it seemed ever more likely that Faulkner was just writing what he knew.

I thought I might share a few of these stories that Carole retold me. This group concerns her grandfather, Earl Thaddeus Steele, who she called “Papa E.” He was a character; he hardly worked a day in his life, spending his time hunting and fishing instead. When he was a boy, his family migrated to Kansas in a wagon to start an apple orchard; it failed and they moved back to North Carolina. Late in life, Papa E caused a car wreck in which he lost a leg. He had driven through a stop sign, but he always said that traffic signs were only for people who didn’t know how to drive. 

I have what amounts more than a hundred pages of typewritten recollections. I can only offer a few here. These are Carole’s words, transcribed by me. 

Bucko the Bull

Papa E bought a bull for a pet and named the bull Bucko. Or maybe I named him Bucko. Because each day when I would come home from school,  Bucko would be chained to a telephone pole at the right side of our house, of our front yard. And he was always trying to buck the telephone pole down.

Bucko was very ill-tempered and I was afraid of him. His only role at our house was to be Papa E’s pet. Bucko managed to work himself loose occasionally and only Papa E could catch him. 

There was a sunken well in our back yard, a very dangerous place that Melvin and I were forbidden to go near. We had some wooden Adirondack style furniture in the back yard and Bucko butted it all into the sunken well, piece by piece.

On my way home from school, I always checked the telephone pole to see if Bucko was tied up; he was. So I went down under the back porch to my cowgirl ranch/mudpie bakery to check on things and when I came out, Bucko was standing loose in the yard with red eyes and steam shooting out his nostrils and ears. I tried to run up the back steps, but Bucko cut me off from the steps and I had to run toward the creek. Bucko followed me and I ran around the yard twice. Finally, I saw mother at the top of the steps with the screen door open, and I made a run for the steps. This time, I made it and mother pulled me in the door just as Bucko climbed the steps after me.

The next morning, I looked out the window to see if Bucko was chained up and Bucko was not there. 

I went out into the front yard to talk to Daddy to ask about where Bucko might be, and I saw Papa E loading Bucko into the back of the truck. I asked mother where Bucko was going and she said, “The glue factory.”

The Easter Chicks

When I was a child, Easter chicks were sold at Mack’s 5&10. They were dyed fuschia, green, blue and purple. The purple ones were my favorites.

And one day, before Easter, I saw them in the dime store counter between the toy watches and the rubber balls. So, I bought a little purple one and took it home. I had a colored Easter chick every year, but the poor little things never lived long. The dye probably made them sick.

On this occasion, Papa E was home when I brought my chick in and he thought it was beautiful, too. So pretty that he went up to the dime store and bought 100 of them, all different colors. And he put them in a big metal drum with high sides; he put them under the back porch where the land dropped away toward the river. This open spot was my “ranch/mud pie bakery.” And I was thrilled to have the chicks with me.

I must have been 5 or 6 because I had to drag a cinderblock up to the oil can to climb up high enough to hang my ribs on the rim of the oil can to look down and see the chicks. They were wonderfully beautiful. All different colors. Fuzzy and peeping.

Papa E came down to check them after supper, kicked the cinder block away and held me up over the rim so I could see them again. And then we all went in to bed.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Papa E’s feet hurrying through the house. 

“Get your pistol, Mutt. A weasel’s got the chicks.”

Daddy grabbed his pistol; Papa E already had his. And I jumped out of bed in my pajamas, barefooted and ran behind them out of the house, where Papa E had already located the weasel in the dirt road.

We all went running down the road behind the weasel, with Daddy and Papa E each shooting their pistols as we ran.

The bullets would puff up the dirt under the weasel’s feet, but it ran zig-zagging from left to right, left to right, all down the dirt road and finally ran off to the left into our small swamp, where we couldn’t follow.

We had to give up, turn around, and walk slowly back home and I heard Papa E tell Daddy, “He  killed ‘em just for blood, Mutt. Just for blood, every one.”

Daddy said, “Don’t you look at them, Carole.”

But when we got back to the house, I ran to the oil drum in my playhouse and dragged up the cinder block again, climbed up and hung on my ribs and there they were, 100 colored chicks each of their necks bitten and no chick swallowed. 

Language Therapist

Papa E’s sister, Mattie, married Captain Jack Hawkins. One of their sons was Dewey Hawkins, who ran the pool room. And this Dewey was Papa E’s nephew and lifelong sidekick.

Mattie and Captain Jack also had a son, Wallace Hawkins. And Wallace Hawkins married Mama Piggy’s sister, Valerie. Susie inherited Great Aunt Vallie’s reddish hair and blue eyes. 

Captain Jack and Mattie also had a son who was called Hub Hawkins and Hub could not talk plain, had a terrible stutter and might have been a little slow.

One day, I saw Hub coming walking down Murphy Street toward our house. Papa E, whose real name was Thaddeus Steele, or Thad Steele, and Dewey were in straight chairs, leaned up against the front of our plumbing shop. They were wearing their pistols in their holsters as usual, which Captain Jack always did.

At this time, Captain Jack was the sheriff, or head policeman. He was the big policeman of the town in that day.

Papa E said to Dewey, “You know, Dewey, if Hub ever got mad enough, he could talk plain as any man.”

And Papa E and Dewey pulled out their pistols and began shooting at Hub’s feet. Hub was, of course, furious. 

And as he was hopping up and down in the middle of the street trying to dodge their bullets, Hub yelled out, “D-Dod D-Dam you D-Dad D-Deele.” 

Flying Squirrels

When I was growing up, I had the most beautiful piece of furniture in the house. It was a handmade walnut chest of drawers and on top, there was a small glove drawer and a small handkerchief drawer, or collar drawer.

It was made by someone in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a relative, but I don’t know who. It would have been someone old enough to be one of my great-great grandfathers. I hope someday Mother will give the chest to me. 

In the glove drawer, I used to keep a little white cardboard jewelry box with a rattlesnake rattle that Papa E had given to me. Every time I came home from college, I would open the little box and shake the rattle, but the day finally came when I opened the little box and the rattlesnake rattle had turned to dust. Rattlesnake dust.

Papa E often gave me parts of little animals when he skinned them. He gave me many poofy little rabbit tails and furry rabbit paws. When I was 5, and we lived in a cabin, Papa E was taking care of me one day and we went hunting. Papa E shot two flying squirrels but first, he had me watch them and he showed me how they spread out their little arms and sailed from tree to tree.

After he shot the two squirrels, he wanted to continue hunting, but was worried about me in the woods, so he found a good playhouse tree for me and stationed me under the tree asking me to take care of the two squirrels and not to leave the tree. I collected a lot of acorn caps and made a tea set; I closed the little squirrels’ eyes and put them to bed for a nap at the base of the tree using dry leaves for blankets. I woke them up and gave them tea.

It probably sounds gruesome, but I had a wonderful time.

The Sock Drawer

The day I thought Papa E was dying. It was late in his life and he was lying in bed and he was wearing a van Gogh style beard and he was growing this beard as a hobby and it was irritating Mother. I loved his beard.

He called me to his room, motioned me to his bedside, asked me to lean down so he could whisper something in my ear and I was scared to death he was going to tell me goodbye for the last time. But he said, “Carole, look in the third dresser drawer, under my socks. Peach brandy.”

Daddy did something similar many years later. And when I bent down to hear what Daddy had to say to me, this was after one of his heart attacks, he said, “Catbird, go out to the Hudson, look in the floorboard of the back seat under a blanket. There’s a new rifle I bought. Your mother doesn’t know anything about it. Wrap it up in the blanket and bring it to me so she doesn’t find out.”

Testing the Edge

One of the funniest things about Papa E was, about the same time as the peach brandy, after he’d lost his leg, Daddy had built an addition on the house, that they called the Florida Room. it had the television and the dining table and chairs, the sofa and a couple of other comfortable chairs for watching TV. 

Mother used to work on the books for the plumbing company in this room at the dining table. And Papa E would watch television sitting in the recliner. And although he was watching television, his chief activity at this time was practicing casting his fly rod over mother’s head. That was the last of a long string of things he did that drove Mother nuts. Starting with Papa E’s guns.

Daddy was turned down by the Army and the Navy because the third finger on his left hand had been shot through at the knuckle near the fingertip. This happened when Daddy was a little boy and had picked up one of Papa E’s loaded guns. 

I remember at least two times in my childhood that Mother scolded Papa E about keeping loaded guns in our house, and Papa E would go get the gun and say to Mother, “This gun is not loaded. See?” as he shot a hole in the living room floor. Or a hole through the living room window.

Knife sharpening drove Mother mad, also. Every morning Papa E would sharpen his straight razor. So in the morning when he sharpened his straight razor, he would hone the edge on a leather strop and the strop would hang inside the bathroom. And he would step outside the bathroom and shave a thin strip of wood out of the kitchen doorframe to see if his razor was ready. 

When winter came, Papa E would leave us and head to Florida to hunt and fish with Uncle Jim and Dewey.

He would return to us with spring and when he did, he would push all the furniture out of Melvin’s room and pitch his tent in the empty room.

Papa E and the Pond

When Papa E and I walked in the woods, there was one special day that I realized Papa E was teaching me important things that he wanted me to remember.

He took me around to all the trees and had me rub the bark and sniff the bark, pull a little of the bark off and feel how wet the wood was underneath. He showed me the leaf shape of many different trees and I remember he told me that sweetgum twigs make good toothbrushes, and to find a sweetgum tree, to look up in the canopy for leaves that looked like stars.

He said, if I saw a tree in the woods that looked like a ghost, it would be a sycamore. There was a big-leafed plant he showed me, and he called it elephant ears. He also showed me what poison oak and poison ivy look like. And then, I found jewelweed and he told me it was a cure for poison oak and poison ivy.

He dug up a little piece of ginseng root and cut off the tip of one of the roots. It looked just like a little bloody toe. He said, he and great grandmother made a tonic of ginseng every spring. That it would keep you healthy.

But best of all the plants in the woods, and I think his favorite, too, was young sassafras. He showed me the three kinds of leaves: the mitten, the ordinary leaf, and a glove, I think. I’m not sure about the third leaf shape. We dug up the roots from one and using creek water, we boiled it in a tin can and then drank the tea. It was wonderful.

There was another thing that Papa E showed me that day about the trees. One was to take off some bark and pull out a wet strip of flexible hickory wood, make a slash in one end of the strip and cut a notched point at the other end of the strip. Then you could thread that strip through a piece of meat to hang a rack of meat strips over coals to dry the meat. As the hickory strips dried over the fire, they shrunk and held the meat fast. He said you could use hickory strips this way to fasten many things.

He also said, small hickory limbs, branches are the best for slingshots. Daddy often made slingshots and was a great expert in their use. Daddy could kill as many bullfrogs as he wanted to with the slingshot instead of a frog gig.

On this day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. Papa E showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.

These days with Papa E were the beginning of my lifelong love of the woods and the woods were my retreat. I was very proud that day because I did not feel like Papa E’s grandchild; I felt proud because I believe he found in me, a sister.

It is a gray rainy day, cold and damp. I am standing at the glass door looking out. I am 70 years old. Yes, that is relevant.

Leaves on the ground, bare trees like leading against the sky, hands on the edge of being numb by the cold. I have my camera and decide to make photographs from where I stand behind the door. How many different images can I frame without moving my feet?

Each of the captures bears the weight of meaning. The leaves are dry, curled and brown. Some make patterns, but most are merely random scatterings. There is no avoiding the match between the internal and external worlds.

I am alone in the world. A lifetime of experience has built up a complex web of neurons in my brain, like interwoven roots. Those connections, alive with electricity, hold seven decades of memory, learning, disappointment, fears, joys and, perhaps more than anything, language. It is the means through which I most interact with the world.

Or so it seems. Yet, it is also imagery that carries meaning. I have been speaking since I was a toddler, reading since before kindergarten, but I didn’t begin making images until I was out of college. I don’t mean snapshots, but consciously trying to find visual analogs of emotional and mental states. Images as art, if that is not too fancy a word.

So, again, through the window, I see the tangle of vines that are axons and dendrites. I see the crisped leaves wet on the ground, their lives and usefulness complete. I see the trees as nudes against the colorless sky, a black-and-white photograph even while in full color. Naked we come into the world; naked we leave it.

The vines are not just a projection of brain-tangle. They are also the way I have come to understand the narrative of my existence. Once, it may have seemed like a simple story line — a plot with beginning, middle and an upcoming end. But the longer I live, the more the plot becomes muddied, clouded, balled like tangled yarn. What was linear becomes a Pollock painting. Where does my remembrance intersect with yours? Where does it knot, where disengage? We met once; which of us recalls? Or perhaps we didn’t.

There is more ahead. I write this as I perhaps begin a new adventure.

313 DeGraw Ave. 1927

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble getting to sleep, I take six decades of my living and slide them aside, like a Japanese door, to open on the landscape of my childhood. I remember the house I lived in when I was five or six years old, trace its floorplan, walk out its door and wander the streets. What is most surprising is how much there is stored in the neurons, untouched for half a century, that can be re-animated. Each door I open opens into a room with new doors to open, that open on other rooms with other doors.

Mom, Sue and Stan as kidsAnd so, I remember the front room of the house where we lived with my grandmother, Nana, in New Jersey just after the war. It sat directly on the town boundary between Teaneck and Bogota at the point Degraw Avenue began its long westerly descent to the Hackensack River. It was the house where my mother grew up, where her father died when she was seven, where she then had to raise her younger brother and sister while her mother worked in Manhattan. It meant that my mother never really had a free childhood, and perhaps as a result, adulthood always seemed to feel like a burden.

313 degraw ave 1927 in snowThat two-family house divided at the front door. To the right was the front room of our apartment. Straight behind the front door were the stairs to the second floor, where Nana’s sister and her husband lived. Tante Esther and Uncle Gerry. That front room led through a wide arch to the dining room, at the far end of which were two spring-mounted swinging doors — one on either end of the wall — which led to the kitchen. Off the dining room to the left, underneath the staircase to Tante Esther’s, were the bedrooms and the hard-tiled bathroom with its claw-footed bathtub. At the back of the house, tucked behind the kitchen, was an addition my father had built where Nana’s mother came briefly to live and finally to die. She was a formidable woman, born Anne Gurina Kristiansen in Norway, but so old by the time I knew her she seemed almost like death already. The fact she died in what became my bedroom hardly registered on me. I was too young to understand.

Usually, I get drowsy by this time, and I descend into a nether world.
The basement, reached by the dark stairs behind the kitchen, was a dungeon in which a large beast of many white asbestos tentacles resided, sitting in the middle of the cavern roofed with rafters and ducts. A coal chute gave some light beyond the golem, and what was once a window to the backyard near the top of the wall was now dark, covered with the addition where the old lady died. A cat once gave birth to kittens in the crawlspace accessed by that window. My father hated cats. I don’t know what happened to the kittens, but it is unlikely he harmed them. More likely he called the dogcatcher to come and get them. At any rate, they disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

That golem, the furnace, played in the cast of the adventures I devised in the cellar, turning used Reddi-Wip cans into space ships, which I shot through outer space with noises I generated in my throat, shooting each other into oblivion. Some days later, my mother wondered what the bad smell was and discovered the remaining cream in the cans had soured, stinking up my cosmos. Reddi-Wip was invented the same year I was born.

captain video

Captain Video

That interest in outer space came from a mahogany box in a corner of the dining room, which had a tiny curved glass window in it on which I religiously watched Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, to say nothing of Captain Midnight. Television was new, quality was dubious, reception iffy, and programming spotty. We all knew the familiar “test pattern” that burned into the cathode ray tube before the day’s schedule began.

My father aided and abetted my fascination with space travel by fabricating for me and for my younger brothers what we called “space boards,” which were masonite panels we could hold on our laps, filled with various buttons and switches we could flip and push, in imitation of the control panels of our space heroes. It is amazing how easy it is to amuse a young boy with an active imagination.

But it wasn’t only space that captured my imagination, it was also cowboys. Because there was so little programming available for the early TV stations, they recycled endless movie re-releases to fill up the time. Many of these, at least on morning TV, were Westerns from the 1930s. I came to know and love Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele — the “Three Mesquiteers,” and above all, Hopalong Cassidy. William Boyd had struck a coup by buying up the rights to his old movies and now refitted them for television, and later making a whole new series of TV adventures. Boyd was my favorite.

At the age of three or four — at any rate, before I began school — I remember my grandmother getting on my imaginary horse, Whitey, with me and riding her from the kitchen to the front door to see her off to work in the morning. Cap guns and cowboy hats were always the preferred Christmas presents.

Richard Newburgh 1949 copyThis isn’t about nostalgia, however, but about how a small boy experiences life. As an adult, one has a well of experience to draw on, a series of related moments forming a net, so that each new occurrence has some resonance with its past. But as a child, each thing is new and as yet unconnected to the rest. There are things taken as given: family, the house, the yard; later, the school, the way to the grandparents house. All these things ultimately mesh together, but those early memories are discrete; it is only as I pull them together while trying to doze off, that they begin cohere.

In those first years, the world was largely circumscribed by the house and yard, with the rooms, the mystery of the understair closet, with its odor of dust and uncovered lathe, the cavern of the cellar, the apple tree in the back yard from which Nana made a yearly batch of applesauce, and the vacant lot next door, which was our cow prairie or our moonscape, depending on what we were playing that day. Or, for that matter, our jungle when we took our shirts off and “went native.”

Beginning with kindergarten, the world opened up. I walked the mile to school each day and the mile back, and the streets became tentacles of geography on which I built my picture of the world. Each street was a different reality. To give a summary picture of that geography: Degraw Avenue ran basically east-west; the few blocks on which our house sat was a plateau; down the west side, into Bogota and Hackensack, the road went downhill; and in the east, from Queen Anne Road on, it went downhill the other way toward the Meadowlands, Overpeck Creek and Fort Lee. That was the spine of my earth. Crossing it, almost like shoulders and hips, were Queen Anne Road and Palisade Avenue.

Home territory map

Our house was on the corner of Degraw Avenue and Farrant Terrace, which was the street that ran along the side of our house, took a 90-degree turn and continued down to Queen Anne Road as a kind of anastomosis, leading the same place as Degraw Avenue. My best friend, Tommy, lived in a house where Farrant Terrace bent. The Clems lived in the house next door to us; they were an older couple who treated us like an aunt and uncle. Their back porch had jalousie windows, a fact that much fascinated both me and my little brother.

The other arteries in this circulation all came off this main armature. It is difficult to express just how central this picture of the world was to one in the process of piecing together a whole self. At that age, I knew nothing of Nebraska or Timbuktu; it was the spine of my streets that were the core, the seed on which the crystal grew. From those first certain streets grew an internal sense of how the entire globe might be pulled together in a single flash of connectedness.

Ricky 20 mos copyOut the front door of our house and across the street was Crestview Place, which ran uphill steeply to Fourth Place in Bogota, where Nana’s mother-in-law, Aase, lived, upstairs in a house where her sister lived downstairs — Tante Marie. The two were very old, very wrinkled and very powdered. When I was still pre-school, Aase lived with her ancient husband Thorvald, who wore thick black wool suits with a vest and a pocket watch, had wire-brush whiskers and the distinctive smell of old man. He died early on in my life and Aase — whom we called “Bestemor (Norwegian for “grandma”) — lived on into her nineties. I spent many a day at Bestemor’s house, climbing into the attic to play with the toys she still had from the childhood of my mother’s brother, painted lead cars and airplanes.

Down the hill to Palisade Avenue is where my father had his hair cut by a barber named Dick, who wore a white coat and had one of those pencil mustaches one knows from Hollywood movies of the 1930s. It also led to Olsen Flooring Company, where my father worked as office manager and accountant.

Down the other way, to Queen Anne Road, led to the A&P, the delicatessen where we bought potato salad, and across the street from the deli, the bakery where we bought “mudballs” — a round, chocolate covered cupcake that we loved as kids.

At the point Farrant Terrace ended at Queen Anne Road was a tiny private grocery store whose floor was covered in sawdust — a common occurrence back then, now frowned upon by health codes — and a stationery we called the “candy store,” where I spent my nickels on Three Musketeers bars, Necco Wafers, and a particular favorite, a packet of five sweet jellies called Chuckles, whose flavors were cherry, orange, lime, lemon and licorice.

Chuckles Candies

By the time my mind wandered around to the candy, I would probably be asleep. But if not, if I still couldn’t drop off, I will wander around that circumscribed world as I did when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I walked to school every day and home afterwards, doubling that inner map of the world. A friendly policeman stopped traffic on Queen Anne Road to let me cross the street. I recall Mrs. Winters and my kindergarten class, the naps we took, the milk containers we drank from, the rhythm bands, the finger painting. I remember the playground around Longfellow School (now closed and turned into a church) and my Aunt Sally who was the school nurse, and little Willie Shydecker, whose fifth birthday party I went to in a house just two away from where Aunt Sally and Uncle Bernie lived. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to Willie.

former longfellow school streetview 1

Longfellow School today

But it was walking home from school that left its biggest mark on my being. I wandered. I didn’t always take the same route. I took what I called “short cuts.” These led me miles out of my way, exploring where other streets might lead. If I have traveled much as an adult, it was only a habit set in motion when I wandered down Fort Lee Road, past Amman Park with its small fountain, and up the hill and back down to Bogota and the broad mainline railroad tracks — at that time six tracks wide; now most of the tracks are ripped up and gone — which I would stand over on the bridge and watch the trains pass, shaking the ground. The boy is father to the man.

My wanderings amazed my parents, who thought it odd that I would walk so far out of my way, but they never seemed to think it might be dangerous for me to do so. I think they were quietly proud of their boy for being able to find his way around so easily. They also showed me off to the adult world for my prodigy ability to name all the cars on the street by make from the time I was two or three. One Fourth of July at a fireworks display over the Hackensack River I was carried around by my father on his shoulders who showed me off to uncles and grandfathers by pointing at cars parked in the lot and having me name them: “Pontiac, Studebaker, Packard, Rambler, De Soto, Kaiser, Crosley …”

1949 Frazer sedan

1949 Frazer

Other times, he would test me, sitting on the front porch of the house and I named the cars as they passed on Degraw Avenue. From that time on, tests at school were never frightening; rather, they were a chance to show off again.

The odd thing remains that these memories of Teaneck seem to have a different reality from later memories, almost as if they were of a different person. I can draw a straight line from me at 68 back to me in fourth grade, me in college, me during my first marriage, me when I became a writer. But there is a kind of memory lacuna between that me and the me of these earliest thoughts. It is as if I have to dig down into the layers of soil separating me now from me then, like an archeologist, to discover this fragment or that, and then piecing together the shards into a full pot.

313 De Graw now

313 Degraw Avenue today

We all have a story-line in our memories, that continuous ego, that who-ness that we are. It is a novel told straight through. But these earliest memories are more of a collage, the bits and pieces reassembled in no particular order, the scents, the memory of being picked up and held, the doors swinging open to the kitchen, the golem in the basement. They are a preface to the story, oddly unconnected, yet, still of a piece. Tributaries to the river.

The box still has many pieces unrecollected here. I can take them out and play with them again next time a churning brain keeps me awake.

Big Baby

I have slighted a good deal of the state in these writings. So much is left out. I have barely mentioned the Navajo Reservation, an area the size of West Virginia. I have loved visiting the Rez, and the Hopi Reservation swallowed Jonah-like inside it. I have left out huge chunks of Arizona that I love and remember well: I scarcely nodded to Tucson, Aravaipa Canyon, Fort Huachuca, the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Payson, Showlow, the Mogollon Rim — the list is too long to number here. All of it fascinating either for its geology, its history, its development, its politics, its beauty or its characteristic ugliness. Whatever it is that makes it memorable.

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

I feel bad for not being able to squeeze it all in.

Cottonwood bark

I began in Phoenix, drove south then southeast; then up north and across Interstate 40, making a grand spiral. If I followed that logic, this entry should begin at Hoover Dam and continue on a plumb line south to Yuma, where the excursion should end. But I have left out the middle portion of the state so far. And I should like to be able to mention such prodigies as the pile of rocks at Granite Dells, the prehistoric ruins at Tuzigoot, the Verde River valley and the sliding town of Jerome.

Jerome

Jerome

This imaginary roadtrip began because I was feeling homesick for the state I left four years ago. I have seen its distances in dreams, when I wake and only half-remember that my eyes now open in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. (When I lived in Phoenix, I often had this same homesickness for the Eastern forests and hills). The fact is, I want to engulf it all, sweep it all into my innards and swallow the map whole: I have loved travel more than anything in my six decades and eight years.

Verde River

Verde River

So, I finally recall the dusty streets of Kingman, the old road through Oatman, and the wastage south, through Spring Break Gomorrah (Lake Havasu City), and on to the remains of the internment camp at Poston, with its memorial (although more moving are the stumps of concrete foundations you can find throughout the area, where the barracks used to be that warehoused Japanese Americans), and Poston’s irrigation and farmland, all on the Indian reservation.

Poston

Poston

South of that, you follow the Colorado River to Yuma, where you can walk across the river most times of the year and hardly get your ankles wet. The green farmland along the river, all the way down to San Luis, remind you that so much of Arizona remains agricultural.

Crazy cactus

I have loved it all, and more: It has become a part of my inner landscape. Drop me anywhere — Burro Creek Canyon, Yarnell, Mormon Lake, Old Oraibi, Gila Bend — and I will know where I am instantly. I have soaked Arizona in like a sponge.

Yuma

Yuma

But I have lit out for the territories — in my case, that is returning to my past in the Blue Ridge, among the beech and oak and ash and dogwood, where bears scavenge my garbage and a pileated woodpecker knocks the old red maple in my front yard.

Quartzsite

Quartzsite

I have lived in the four corners of the continent: born in New Jersey, schooled in North Carolina, taught in Virginia, tested in Seattle and ripened in Arizona; visited every one of the contiguous 48 states at least a half-dozen times, not counting all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island, and I’ve internalized it all. Now that I am old, and driving long distances is torture on my knees, I can revisit the places I know by writing about them. I recommend the maneuver to everyone: Write — or draw, or dance, or sing — and reconnect with the life you have led, with the world you inhabit. Everything written is a new Genesis: the world is created once more, and the world needs to be reborn constantly.

Tacna

Tacna

three brothers 1978Some years ago, I began writing an autobiography. Don’t worry, you’ll never have to read it.

I didn’t begin it with any thought of publication. I may have worked at a zoo and lived in a coal bin, but my life is not so interesting or important that anyone else should be forced to know about it.

It began with a deal with my two brothers: I’ll write my life if you’ll write yours.

I realized that I didn’t know the details of their lives. We’ve always been close enough that I’ve known the basic direction of their lives, but from the point I left for college 40 years ago, the details became fuzzy. And it is the details that add up to create a personality.

So, I tasked them to write down the major points of their lives so we might better know each other: who their girlfriends were, what jobs they had, what books were important to them.

In the process, I thought, we might also get a different point of view on the shared episodes of our lives in childhood. Perhaps what I thought of as roughhousing, my younger brothers might have thought of as terrorism. Perhaps an uncle I thought hilarious, they might have found tedious.

But writing it has been one of the most engrossing tasks I have ever set myself.

I realize now, too, that this task really began when I visited my aging parents and began asking them all those questions that too many people ask only after their parents are dead. I recorded their recollections on my laptop and wrote up a piece of oral history to send to my brothers. It included family trees for both sides of the family, memories my mother had of her childhood and that my father had of World War II in Europe.Boys April 1956

It was a revelation: Relatives that had been vaporous ghosts in my own memory were brought back to life and their interrelationships made clear.

I came to know my parents much better and began to admire things in them that had been previously obscured by what I had taken to be their faults.

Perhaps, I reasoned, this same sort of thing could be undertaken amongst us brothers.

“Something like 20 pages,” I told them, “It shouldn’t be too hard.”

Neither of my brothers is a writer by trade, as I am. I didn’t want to make it too daunting for them.

But when I began writing my own version, I found that 20 pages was a mere sneeze.

I have now written about 250 pages and haven’t even gotten to the moment when I met my wife. The first 50 pages only get me through high school.

It turns out that writing one’s memoirs is an endless unfolding of  memory. Each tiny recollection is a door that opens into rooms with more doors. And each of these doors open on yet more. A memory, it turns out, is only an iceberg’s tip. Perhaps you recall a family picnic, but as you write about it, you discover you remember the way your mother made a certain sandwich, which connects, more surely than any internet link, with the larger issues of her cooking and the part food played in our family dynamics.Jack in Fla

We are each one of us a Proust waiting to unlock our own brains.

It is astonishing what is buried in the synapses, unused for decades, but still there for downloading.

The other lesson of writing an autobiography is to see the shape of one’s life unfold: What had seemed a jumble of unrelated episodes takes a narrative form and you discover that what you did as a 5-year-old flows with the certainty of a great river into what you do as a 50-year-old. It is all of a piece; the child is indeed father to the man.

It has been a while since I continued writing it: My brothers never took up the challenge. Now, one of them has died; I’ll never learn about his life. The other brother has more important things to do than write his autobiography. My version sits in my harddrive, worked over and rewritten several times, unread by anyone but me. The fervor for self-expression has died down like last week’s campfire.

One of the things that has dampened my enthusiasm is that as I’ve gotten to be an old man, I recognize how useless it is for anyone else to know about my life. It is one of the futilities of age that you recognize how much you have learned over six decades of life, and how little it helps the younger generation, who are feverishly intent on committing all the same mistakes you made, and are deaf to any guidance you may offer. This should be no surprise: I didn’t listen to my elders when I was young.

Perhaps one day, my granddaughters will want to read about their grandfather. I certainly wish I could have talked to mine, to find out more about the long line of people that led up to my entrance on the stage. But when I was young, I had better things to do. It wasn’t until after my grandfathers were both long dead that the wish came upon me to have asked them important questions only they could have answered.Craig in Fla 2

So, for whom am I writing these notes? Clearly, for myself. One doesn’t start an autobiography for the benefit of readers, but for the benefit of oneself, to find and delineate the patterns found in the weave, to discover or create the plot that conveys meaning to the life lived. We have a sense of ourselves not merely through our five senses, but through the remembered narrative we have created of our transport through this single, unexpectedly short lifetime. Pulling the memories out of the doors behind doors behind doors of our synapses gives us the matter for this novel we are writing by getting up each morning.

So, my autobiography is unfinished; it may remain so. I learned what I needed by the doing — I sifted through the first 35 years of my life to find the turns and bends that led me to this now. The subsequent 33 years have taken their own shape through the living. The only person I would wish to share them with has no need of my notes: She lived those years with me.

I would, though, love to read her version of those years. Perhaps I will attempt to persuade her to write her autobiography. It would be enlightening to compare notes.

Mrs Semendinger's second grade 2
I recently came across a photograph of my second grade class and something odd happened.

I hadn’t thought of these young faces in more than 50 years. Yet, as I looked into their faces, their names popped into my brain. Where those names and faces had been stored, I have no idea: some forgotten warehouse in my mind, like the scene at the end of “Lost Raiders.” These were faces from nearly 60 years ago, and in their fresh-faced innocence, they barely show the traces that would line them even in their eighth grade graduation photo. 8th grade class 1961

I left behind my life in New Jersey four years after that second photo, going off to college and what seemed to me to be “real life.” I wanted to forget New Jersey — more exactly the banality I saw in the suburban stultification of my home state — and dive into the deep end of art, music and poetry.

But now, a half-century later, I saw the faces in that picture and names I have not uttered in 50 years reappeared magically, jogged out of the synapses of my brain like dust between the floorboards.

What connects, ourobouros-like, our lives now with our lives then? The disconnect seems immense: There is so little of then that survives into my now; yet, the person — the sensibility I am — is a continuous existence, a line drawn without the pencil once being lifted off the page.

There is a danger, when looking back, to fall into the miasma of nostalgia. You see it all over the internet: “Share if you remember when the milkman delivered milk to your door?” and “Remember when cars had running boards?” Rotary phones? Party lines? As the American population has aged, PBS stations ask for money to a soundtrack no longer of septuagenarians playing Glenn Miller standards, but now to septuagenarians singing doo-wop music and recalling, with a wistful gaze on their faces “the music of our times,” as if this shared experience created an us-vs.-them world in which we remain the good guys, who really knew the score, and they are the johnny-come-latelies who have ruined it all. Patti Page

So, it is easy to make fun of the elderly, watching reruns of Lawrence Welk and wishing music still had melody, like the tunes of Patti Page and Perry Como. Or the Beatles and Barry Manilow. Or, sometime in the future, of Nirvana and Coldplay.

Nostalgia is a trap we should avoid. The past was not better than the present; it was different. I, for one, would not wish to retreat to a time when segregation was enforced by police, when women had to wear girdles, and when everyone, everywhere, at every hour of the day, sucked cigarettes.

What interests me in that second-grade photograph is not a warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but a hard, difficult and confusing problem: How much of that is me, is still me? How complete is the link between that little boy and this old, bearded senex? What is the mechanism of selfhood? How come a flash glance at an old picture can fire off a neuron after a half century and cough up the name of a Linda Muth or a Lenny D’Angelo. Why do those names persist in the neurobiology of a 67-year-old writer, who has left them all behind? And what else is buried under a lifetime of experience, ready to be excavated by a chance trigger?

A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting her hometown in North Carolina. We stopped at a gas station to refill the car and she got out to go into the quickie-mart. Inside, while standing at the cash register, a voice called out behind her, “Carole Steele, do you remember me?” She turned around and saw an old man, cue-ball hairless, nearly toothless, with a vast beer belly and dressed in denim overalls — clearly an old farmer. “Thomas Bullins,” she said, in instant recognition. “What happened to your red hair and your freckles? And how did you recognize me?” Carole was now 70 years old. “Your hair,” he said. When they were in the first grade, little Tommy Bullins used to steal the ribbons from Carole’s pigtails.

He smiled that toothless smile, and Carole reached up and kissed him on the mouth. Some vast and unnamed chasm had been spanned in an instant.

What traces of the six-year-old Tommy Bullins remained on the wrinkled, pudgy, puffy, weathered face that Carole could see so immediately? “There is an X on the faces of all the Bullinses,” she says, “that I saw in the gas station.” Not an actual X, but a lineup of features that suggested an X there, that signaled that this was Tom Bullins.

I don’t know the mechanism for memory. I’m not sure anyone does. But I know its persistence, and I know that somehow that persistence is necessary for the development of a self — that sense that the boy is truly father to the man, that the me in New Jersey 60 years ago is the same me in the mountains of North Carolina now, despite all the midden of experience that has piled on in the intervening years. Would my mother recognize the little boy in me now? I know that Carole recognizes the little girl in her 50-year-old daughter; in fact, she hardly recognizes that Susie is all grown up.

We push through time like snow plows, leaving a cleared path behind us. That wake is our selfhood. Longfellow School Teaneck back

Through Facebook, I recently reconnected with a boy (now man) I first met in kindergarten at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School in Teaneck, N.J. He now lives on the other side of the continent. When my family moved from Teaneck to Old Tappan and I began the second grade at Charles De Wolf Elementary School in Old Tappan, he was there, too, his family having also moved. This makes him the person outside of family that I have known the longest.

The contact brought up a welter of memory, of playing in a rhythm band in kindergarten, of taking those daily naps on the classroom floor, of seeing him and other classmates singing “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,” and of walking every day — at five years old — the half mile from home to school, and later, walking back. The entire geography of my tiny life was back before me: the A&P I passed on the way, the firehouse on Morningside Drive, the ballfield outside Longfellow school, the deli, the stationery store, the old grocery with its sawdust floor, the Italian pushcart merchant that wandered up Farrant Terrace calling out his wares, the two collies that lived down the street that scared my younger brother, who thought they were lions — the inside of the closet in my home, with its lathe-and-plaster walls. A whole world wells up. Where has it been sitting? Why is it all buried in there?

A few years ago, I began an autobiography, not for publication, but to share with my brothers in a group project: They would write theirs, too, and we would get to know each other better — what they had done after leaving home for college, and we lost daily contact.

The thing that most astonished me about the writing was that every memory I retrieved was a room with three other doors, and behind each of those doors was another room with three more doors, on and on, like some Borges story. I was dumbfounded at the amount of information that was still there to be recovered. Many were not anecdotal stories, but rather, sense memories, bits of things and locations that fell back into place when recalled.

It must be the same for everyone. I know that when I ask my wife to tell me about her childhood, she can go on for an hour and we have to stop, but the next day, we can start again and there is an endless stream, an bottomless well of material. In her case, it sounds all like a Faulkner novel and I have tried to write it all down. A fool’s errand: There can be no “all,” because it never seems to end. I write it into my laptop as fast as she can speak it, but I’ll never have the time to go back and edit the notes, because the next time, there are all-new stories, and another cast of characters.

I want to save as much as possible, not for publication, but for the sake of our grandchildren, so they can have some sense of their grandmother. If her stories can become part of their memories, then their interior lives can retreat five generations, back to Carole’s grandparents, who were so central to her life.

In the end, this has given me a powerful sense of the onflow of life, of the piling on of detail, of the continuity, not merely of selfhood, but of family, of history: a line that Carole calls “the long man,” which reaches back past Eve and Adam, past Homo habilis, back to our reptilian life, back to our eukaryotid beginnings, all a wholeness. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The author, age 20 months

I see the scrubbed face of my old picture, holding my favorite ball, and I see myself now, aged and worn, and there is an odd reversal: The baby photograph is now six decades old and the ancient me is brand new. And in some inexplicable way, they are the same.

 
 
 
 

moviola 1

We travel in time as much as in space.

And just as there are moments when you stand on the top of a rise and see grand vistas and the lay of the land suddenly becomes clear, there are moments when you climb up out of the hollow of local time and the years spread out in front of you as one vast temporal landscape.

I had such an experience this summer in New Jersey.

I was born and raised in the Garden State in several communities between the Hackensack and Hudson rivers. I left for college and have rarely been back in the intervening quarter century — family and friends had all died or moved away.Old Tappan 2

But on this trip my wife and I passed through Bergen County and managed to stop by some places I knew well as a boy.

Now I’m not about to wax nostalgic. I abhor nostalgia; it is a kind of morticians’ wax applied to the dead face of the past, distorting everything we once knew. Times were not better then and never were.

But things clearly have changed.lein's grove

The first change is purely psychological: Everything has shrunk. The landscape that was so sprawling to my boy’s eyes is now condensed to a few tight city blocks. What seemed like an expedition is now walking distance. Skyscrapers are now bungalows.

Many people have experienced a similar sensation.

But the second change is more profound: The snapshot of New Jersey in my brain has remained static while time has bounded forward, so that when I revisit Teaneck or Old Tappan, I’m seeing what is in effect time-lapse photography: All the changes are accelerated so that what has moved invisibly day to day is now telescoped into a rush.

It isn’t just that there is more development. Bergen County has for a long time been the very model of suburbia; there are tract homes everywhere and more spring up every day. But nature has somehow kept up with the construction: Housing developments that were raw muddy wounds 30 years ago are now green and shaded under sprawling trees. For all the decay of time, there is a matching fecundity.

And when a quarter century exists between frames in your movie, it is a small step to move back yet another quarter century and then another, so that the history you learned in school no longer sits inkbound on the page of a book but begins to breathe as another scene in the movie you are a small part of.eisenstein

So you can slide the film back and forth in your mental Moviola only a dozen equal frames and you are in the era of Peter Stuyvesant and Dutch colonialization. It’s a blip from now to 1655 on the time line.

Frederick Haring HouseThe Old Tappan I grew up in was dotted with farms and old stone houses, built during the Dutch era. The houses are thick-walled and covered in lichen, moss and ivy; they are overarched by spreading oaks. They have, as it is said, settled.

Such houses were constructed of brown sandstone quarried by slaves.

It isn’t often remembered that slaves are a part of New Jersey’s history: In pre-Revolutionary times a settler was given 175 acres of land for every slave he imported. By 1737, slaves accounted for 8.4 percent of Jersey’s population.

Slave insurrections — in Hackensack, Raritan and Elizabeth, among other places — were a continual occurrence and citizens felt themselves stuck with the damnable institution. In 1772, a law was proposed ”obliging owners of the slaves to send them all back to Africa at their own expense.”

The law came to naught, but by that time free labor began to replace slavery and indenture.

I mention all this because when my boyhood home was built in 1956 in Old Tappan in northern New Jersey, the excavation turned up the stone foundation of slave quarters. It had been buried in woods for centuries and was now opened up to the sun for the first time.

It seemed little more than a curiosity then, and it was soon buried once more under the landscaping in our back yard. Its reawakening was brief.

Old Tappan 4The house has had two or three owners since I lived in it. I doubt that any of them knew what was buried under the Zoysia grass. But I thought of it again as I visited on vacation and saw how much the old house had changed: new paint, grown-up trees that were once bushes, a new bridge over the creek that cut through the property.

You play the film through the Moviola: The whole of northern New Jersey was once covered by a forest of oak and hickory. That was cut down for agriculture; the slave quarters behind my childhood home was evidence of that. But the fields grew once more into trees and were once more cut down to build the house.

The field next to the house was still pastureland when I was a boy. Now, it is dense with willows, birch and maple, on its way once more to growing oaks. If I look into its future, I can see more housing.

Time is fierce; it consumes the world.