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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.

 
 
 
 

north bergen to meadowlands

Northern New Jersey in the postwar years was a patchwork of suburban towns and rural farmland. The part just west of the Hudson River is hilly, with a long irregular slope dropping down from the crest of the Palisades and into the valley of the Hackensack River. The larger towns — Teaneck, Bergenfield, Hackensack — were urbanized with a bloom of soot covering everything. My town, Old Tappan, was changing from one of small farms and Dutch-colonial homes to one in which whole neighborhoods of sameness were erupting in tract housing. The population was a mix of old families that had lived there for generations and the bright-cheeked newcomers looking for their own homes and green lawns and an upwardly mobile place to raise their children.

OT bridgeOur house was a one-off — new, but not in a development. It sat on a gentle hill in what had been woods and included a brook. My father built a wooden bridge over the stream and enlarged a bend in it to become a small pool in which we could wade or recline in the water to cool off in the muggy summers.

Because I grew up there, this patch of planet became for me my umwelt — my inner picture of what the world looks like — it was normative. The wider world I knew stretched from upstate New York along the Hudson and down to the Jersey Shore along the Shrewsbury River. The landscape included such landmarks as the accordioned oil-storage tanks along Route 36 in Keyport, the Pulaski Skyway that crossed over the New Jersey Turnpike, and the three-lane Route 9W that skirted Storm King Mountain along the Hudson. It included forests and streams, and it included heavy industry, a web of highways and the shopping malls of Paramus. pulaski skyway

The center and anchor of this landscape was Manhattan — the gravitational center on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. It was where, as a teenager, I wanted to spend all my time. Museums, bookstores, subways, Central Park, Chinatown restaurants and the great cheap ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

When the family went to the city for whatever reason, and we came home at night, driving up the brand-new Palisades Interstate Parkway, the lights of the city across the river were stars burning in the blackness, outlining the vertical thrust of the skyscrapers, while a thin line of burning beads moved continuously along the West Side Highway providing a baseline. When I was 7 years old, it was the most beautiful thing I knew. nyc night skyline

The landscape of our childhoods is embedded in our minds and memory the same as the language we learn without trying — it is absorbed whole. It shapes the mirror that reflects back everything we live through afterwards.

“The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,” wrote Andrew Marvell in The Garden.

As an adult, I have lived in each of the four corners of the nation: the Southeast, the Southwest, the Northwest in addition to my green years in the Northeast. But no matter where I have gone, outside that comfortable nest of the Middle Atlantic, the landscape remains a novelty. I have enjoyed, even loved living elsewhere, but deep in the folds of my cortex, normal is New Jersey.

That same process works for wherever you grow up. It is Mississippi for Faulkner, Brooklyn for Henry Miller, Concord for Thoreau, Ohio for Sherwood Anderson, Missouri for Twain, Lowell, Mass., for Kerouac. You can find Paterson, N.J. in William Carlos Williams and Asheville, N.C. in Thomas Wolfe. The axis mundi.

Leonardo took northern Italy with him when he went to France. Durer took Germany with him to Italy as much as he brought the Renaissance back north. Beethoven never left Bonn even when he lived in Vienna, and the provincial towns of Czechoslovakia chime over and over through the symphonies of Mahler in the military marches and SchrammelmusikRiver Street, Madison NC.

My wife grew up in Madison, N.C., on the banks of the Dan River. “The river and the creek in the back yard are the back of my brain, the inner part I draw from. The front of my head looks out to the town.”

That is the crux: the part we draw on, waters of life from the inner well.

Childhood creates the fixed inner sense of the world, depending on where you grew up: the flatness of northern Indiana, the short-grass prairies of western Nebraska, the leaden skies and perpetual drizzle of Seattle in winter.

But it isn’t merely the look of the landscape — as if it were a painting — but an entire sense of the physical world and our place and size in it. That includes a paradigm of distance — how far is the horizon, how long is a street before it curves away from your vision, how tall are the trees. These measurements are as set in the forming brain as are our names.

So too are the seasons we live through. In New Jersey, there were four, with deep snow in winter and muggy heat in summer. The further north, the more winter and summer vary in length of daylight. In Arizona, there are two seasons: unbearable heat and relief from unbearable heat. In San Diego, there is barely more than one season. If you move from one place to another, you never quite get used to the missing or added seasons.

That umwelt includes the quality of light we know as normal, the feel of air and its humidity against our skin, the way sound carries or doesn’t carry as it is muffled by woods or snow. It also includes the food, the ethnicities that surround us, the accent we speak in and the population density. All create a “normal” in our minds that we never lose, even as we expand our horizons as we grow. bergen co to nyc

There are those who believe we try as adults to recapture our childhoods, but I say instead, we can never escape them. They are there engraved in our synapses.

I have traveled widely in North America, through all the states save Hawaii, and all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island. And all those states many times. The landscape — not landscape as art, but landscape as the planet your drive or walk through — gives character to each location, as if each location were not just a tract of land, but an entire culture.

The land has meaning.

I am going to try to describe over the next series of blog entries a variety of distinct American landscapes and find in them meaning beyond the picturesque. I hope you’ll come with me.

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.