4.25.2004

Going Home is Never the Same

I have made trips like Chris Ware made. They are indeed, very bittersweet. I find that for myself, I have to make them. I am being pulled right now, to make such a trip. I plan on going alone, with one friend, to the village of my birth this summer. I have to go, I don't have any choice. The pull is like the pull animals feel when they migrate. You just know you have to. I'll be making my pilgrimage to see where I as, who I was, who they were, and reconnect with the past.

Chris Ware says it well...
I am only one of many grandchildren, my grandparents having had two children, my mother and my uncle; my uncle’s children also spent many a night at my grandmother’s house, not to mention my mother, who of course grew up there. Thus, not only are my memories of my grandmother and Omaha not unique, I suspect they are generously gift-wrapped by my special position as a child who could be indulged as one’s own might not be, and through which one’s own regrets might be replayed and ‘fixed,’ perhaps. There were dozens – scores – of times my grandmother would slip and call me by her son’s name, never noticing or even correcting herself. As well, I’m certain I’ve afforded a large measure of rosy joy to swell and spill over into the glass that was, at the time, filled by the dry humdrum of life, running the ribbon of my overly-precious memories against the edge of my mental scissors just one more time to give it that extra, fancy curl. But I can’t help it. And why, when my grandmother decided to move away, did she take me to all the houses she’d lived and grown up in, if not to convince herself of something similar?

I had prepared myself for the visit to Omaha in 2002 with the steely reserve one might save for open-casket funerals; I’d expected it all to hit me like a blast of winter air the second I stepped off the plane, grateful tears filling my eyes and nose, ‘mine homeland,’ etc. – but the actual experience was much more flat than that, almost clinical. The airport had been renovated, expanded; gourmet coffee kiosks, backlit advertisements for cell phones, and travelers with PowerBooks plugged into the wall reminded me that life had indeed continued here since I’d left. Even so, I still couldn’t believe that I was actually here, in the literal city of my dreams; I wanted to stop and grab one of the agreeable Omahans by the turtleneck and say, ‘Don’t you realize how lucky you are? Don’t you know that you’re living in the most magical place on Earth?’

In my shiny red rental I felt like an ill-outfitted time-traveler. The ridiculous plasticity of the vehicle clashed with the felty grey memories passing by and through its windshield at me, one after the other, details missing, others plumped up by my thirsty sentimentality. I drove and redrove routes that I used to take practically every day while living there, from my school to my house to my school to my grandmother’s house, and back again. I took hundreds of pictures. I unrolled the window, trying to smell something I’d forgotten. I stopped the car, got out, and stood. I ate snow. I was looking, listening, for something, my wife patiently weathering my prattling on and on about the amazingly familiar cracks in the sidewalk, the hill down which I used to coast on my bike, the grocery store I’d give every cent I’ve ever been paid to revisit with my mother and grandmother for just one hour.

But the more I drove around, looking to see what was still left of me, I began to realize – intuitively at first, and then more sensibly – that the details I was frantically trying to scrape up, dust off, and pick out of the landscape (and, more often than not, not finding) weren’t affecting me anywhere nearly as deeply – as silly as this sounds – as the curves of the streets and the shapes of the hills and bridges that I was traveling around, over and under. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made, both to my memories of the real place, and the dreams I had about it: houses and buildings and tress looked both strange and oddly unfamiliar, of course, due the time that had passed, but the spatial rivulets that had patiently eaten away at my mind from riding in a car from house to store to house countless times as a child were as real to me as the back of my hand, and as immediately familiar as if I’d just been thinking about them a few seconds before. I could anticipate the crest of a hill or the drop of an alley like the passage in a well-known piece of music; I sensed the turn of a corner like the expected sighting of a loved one in a stadium crown; these routes had eroded unique tunnels in my mind through which everything else in my memory – at least it seemed at that moment – to have been poured, a molten lead of three decades of digested experiences slowly setting into its heavy shape in the intestinal ant farm head of an Omaha Nebraska brain.

When my grandmother was dying in the nursing home in Texas, I was able to witness the steady almost measurable deterioration of both her mind and her personality. All her life she’d been one of the most generous people I’d known, the checks and clipped newspaper strips and frozen boxes of Ho-Hos (unavailable in Texas) arriving at my dorm mailbox just a small part of her largess. She’d given of herself in a way that most people don’t try, radiating a reassuring warmth that preachers and proselytizers talk about but I’ve never felt anywhere they tell me to look for it. But in death, she became alarmingly demanding, petulant, almost spiteful, cruelly alienating herself from my family’s memories of her with an unfamiliarity that was only matched by the bloating of her body and the gradual curling of her limbs. Our phone calls, which had been placed every other day for years since I’d moved away, became infrequent, and eventually were so inchoate that they were more of a torture than a relief.

During her steady decline I continued my weekly comic strip for the student newspaper in Austin, but found that I was only able to draw stories of my increasingly littler mouse wandering alone, through a large, unoccupied house – my grandmother’s house. Every week was a torment of my trying to do something that might mean something to a reader waiting to take a Calculus test and balancing the inevitable erasure of one of the most important people in my life. One of her last nights, when we arrived, I looked in on her, and she was laying there, breathing heavily, the blanket clutched tightly in the wads her fists had become, her eyes and tongue lolling back and forth behind half-closed lids and mouth, the machinery was shutting down, the gears were grinding to a halt. Amazingly, however, the attendant nurse said that the had been talking in her sleep, and intelligibly – and that she said she’s ‘gone back’ to the house in Omaha – but that all the rooms were empty, and that, horribly, she didn’t know where anyone, or anything, was.

She died a day or two later, and my mother and stepfather – I don’t know how they did it – took care of all the ugly details; actually seeing her dead, signing the papers, arranging for cremation, the transportation of the body, etc., etc., et cetera. My life went on, amazingly; I moved to Chicago, started drawing a new comic strip, got married, saw my friends have children, get married, slip up, die. Somehow, things happen, and if you spend most of your life sitting at a table starting at blank sheets of paper, they happen fast.

I had driven by my grandmother’s house already on this trip in 2002, but the tongue-scum beige the church had painted it – not to mention the boxy cinder-block addition they’d attached to the former entry, blotting out the window to the kitchen which was, to me, the center of the house – was more than I could stand to see again. My own memories of my grandmother were already so reconstituted by having seen her dwindle from the vital person I’d known all my life into the demanding patient she became that somehow seeing this house, with which I’d so completely associated her, chopped up and redone, was too much of a parallel fro me, and I’d driven on each time. But here I was. What was I going to do, not go?

Though the house was still there, at least in part, it had ‘cooled,’ for lack of a better work, like the remnants of an exploded start. My every-expanding orbit had taken me back; here was possibly where the most ‘me’ used to be – I could still look at the yard and the windows and imagine myself as a kid, playing, and as a teenager, trying everything possible to grow up faster and get away. But whatever solipsistic wonder I had imbued it with was now static, frozen at absolute zero…