I’m just back from a weekend visiting the elders of my family, the people who refused to escape to Florida when they got the chance, who instead endured the Northern winters with a stoic pragmatism. We celebrated an 88th birthday and talked about the past. It took me only a few hours to notice their words coming from my mouth, the way my voice picked up the pattern of their speech. The ‘shall we say’s and ‘Oh boy’s, and a new favorite of mine ‘he was really hauling mail’ for some one driving too fast.
When writers think of a sense of place they often describe a setting, the trees or lack of them, the richness of the landscape, the breezes, the humidity. I’ve read about buildings and castles, but so rarely does place include the thing I steeped in all weekend: history.
Not history in the global sense, but a personal history. This was where your great-greats had a country store. This was where the people you love were baptized. This was the ice cream shop we went to after baseball games.
I write about small towns because I love them. Yes, I think they could use a little excitement (usually in the form of vampires and werewolves) but that sense of place and belonging draws me back. The way a neighbor remembers you from childhood, the way you give directions based on businesses that closed years ago.
There’s ritual too, ones that my elders practice without realizing it. They eschew air conditioning and after supper a nightly dance happens where each neighbor opens the doors to the house and sits out on the lawn enjoying the cool breezes. There’s another practice of going to the graves of our loved ones, telling the dark spots in the earth our latest news. It’s hard to imagine the people I love down there, tucked under blankets of wood and concrete, sleeping in earthen beds, but I go along just the same, telling the same stories to the air with each stop on our graveyard tour.
The corn grows up right next to the graveyard; taller than I am and planted so thick you can’t see between the rows. There’s a farmer’s market where I buy a few ears, each as long as my forearm and powerfully sweet. We eat German pastries and listen to the radio. I tease that I’ll force my elders to get internet access, they’ve barely accepted that the television is better than the radio.
There’s a difference in values. They endure things, like hot summer nights where the heat stops you from sleeping and the many tragedies of growing old, while I want to fix things. They force me to take step back and rethink my choices, to remember my history. I find myself wanting to reconnect, to return to the times they talk about, but only hours after I arrive home, I’m grateful I can’t, happy to be in conditioned air, eating sushi, and checking to see if my DVR caught all my favorite SciFi shows.