Tag Archives: place

plot

 

1plot \`plat\ n.  1 :  a small area of ground  2 :  a ground plan (as of an area)  3 :  the main story (as of a book or movie)  4 :  a secret scheme : INTRIGUE

 

I have been going by the house for years now, every time I am home for a visit. It was just a shell of where we lived but I felt compelled to visit every time I was back in New Orleans in the years following Katrina. A few months ago, my mom sent me an email to tell me that the house had been razed. It’s just river sand now, she wrote. She said she picked up three pieces of brick (one for her, one for my dad, one for me), a small piece of wood, a small piece of latticework—the traces that were left behind. She said she wanted to lie in the sand and make a sand angel, to place her body on the earth itself, but a truck drove up so she just pretended.

I knew, then, what to expect when I went by 3324 Vincennes Place, and yet, I was surprised all the same. I was taken aback by the shock of green grass usurping the plot. I had expected river sand, but since my mom visited, there had been time for old seeds to sprout up. To fill this hole, this gap, this absent space.

I thought: how odd to witness so clearly an absent place that is so full, this place that occupies so much space in my in my memory. The lot looks enormous without our house on it (hadn’t my mom mentioned that in her email as well?). Just one small block of green. It was hard to imagine all those rooms, all that our house contained.

I pulled out my journal and tore out a perforated page. On it I wrote: THIS WAS HOME. This (space). Was (past tense of “to be,” as in is no longer). Home (a place where families are born, where dreams are dreamed, where mornings break and evenings are put to bed). I took pictures of the sign resting in the grass in front of the plot. I took portraits of myself with my arm extended, holding the sign. I walked around the perimeter and traced the word HOME with my finger in the river sand. Then I took a stray stick and signed my name in the corner of the plot before tucking the stick in the back pocket of my jeans. Three trees stood as sentries at the back of the land and then there was just the span of grass and sand and the neighboring fences on either side.

 

 

The sidewalk had 3324 spray-painted in orange, over a version painted in white. This now marks the address since there is no longer a house to mark the space. Addresses are random numbers and letters we assign to places to make them ours, to make them home, to tell people where to find us. While I was sitting in the car across from the plot where our house was, a mail carrier, mail in one hand and a bag crossing her body, walked by the empty lot on her route.

I scanned my body. I felt tears behind the lids of my eyes—held, not held back. There was a sort of soft gnawing in my belly. I didn’t feel sad really but rather vaguely numbed out.

This was a place I had been saying goodbye to for years. A place I came to visit as one does a deceased family member in a cemetery, over and over again. Our home died to us and now the traces of it, save a long thin piece of wood with blue paint that I found and took, are gone as well.

And although this moment felt like it should be the natural point of closure, the final goodbye, I couldn’t imagine stopping my visits: even if there was a new house there, even if there was a new family in it. In the movie version of my life, we might end here as the protagonist bids farewell to her childhood memories and her childhood home and steps off into her very bright future. Maybe there would even be a flash-forward to her home-to-be, complete with husband in the doorframe and children eating breakfast at the kitchen table. So why do I feel its not over for me and this land?

It’s not a compulsion, this desire to visit. It’s more like coming to sit in silence with an old friend. There’s a kind of peace that comes from being there—from remembering what was and seeing what is real now. I can sit with all the fond memories and the painful loss of this place. It feels real. It feels authentic—this mix of beauty and joy with grief and sorrow. This house taught me how to live life and bear it all: how to grow, how to be nurtured and to nurture, how to love and also how to unexpectedly and without warning, let it all go. To say goodbye. To unhand expectations of what the space you rest your life in looks like.

 

 

I feel I owe this land so much—the place I was born into, where I took my first steps and read and wrote my first words, where I learned how to embrace and be enclosed in the arms of somebody who loved me. I learned to cry, to mourn and to go on, still and always, with the movement of life. I learned about the richness that lies in details—in the shape of a sill, in nicks, slants, the flaws we perceive as such or the ones we find charming. I learned how to observe and how to write those observations down.

It occurred to me as I sat across the street from my childhood home that while I thought I had been coming back to grieve and let go, I was also coming back to honor and pay tribute to the home that held the space for me to become who I am, to the sacred spot where my mom, dad and I became a family. I realized I have continued to come back, all these months, all these years later, because I am so deeply grateful.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under other words

Germany

Germany* (jûr m -n ), n. a country in north central Europe, on the North and Baltic Seas; area, 182,471 sq. mi.; pop., 65,899,000 (1946): in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, administered respectively by France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, in 1949, the United States, British, and French zones were constituted as (the Federal Republic of) West Germany and the Soviet zone was constituted as the East German Democratic Republic (East Germany): capitals, Bonn (West Germany), Berlin (East Germany): German name, Deutshland: abbreviated Ger., G.
*reminder that the dictionary I typically pick from is from 1955

What is it that defines a place? Its borders? The way it is placed in our collective memory, in our history books? How is that a place comes to conjure certain emotions? What about the way in which people use the land? What about the personalities, values and passions of the people that live there? How do these people’s way of life embed the place with meaning? The study of geography fascinates me because of all these questions. When people move thousands of miles from their native land, why do they often choose places with similar topographic features or climate? How do their bodies or souls gravitate there? How do they know where to go—to the place that feels most like where they come from, the home they left behind? And how does what humans do in a given space define it permanently?

Although my last name is Irish and my mother’s side is mostly Acadian French, a good chunk of my ancestry is German. And I remember when I found this out not wanting this to be the case. I had learned about the Holocaust and was horrified by the stories I read, the black and white photos I saw. I remembered the image that Elie Wiesel wrote of in Night that described babies being thrown up in the air and speared by German soldiers bayonets. And I wanted to not be from there, from the place that produced ethnic genocide, suffering, death, pain. I wanted to not be associated with or related to people who were able to participate in the mass slaughter, in a very methodical and personal way, of millions of people solely because of the God they worshipped and the way their features were shaped.

In knowing that my ancestors came from there, even if it was long before the Holocaust, it somehow made them and me complicit or related to these unimaginable actions, this behavior so divorced from the human capacity for compassion, understanding, kindness. So I found pride in my Irish roots, my Cajun roots, and I ignored my German ones.

And I wonder how we untether a place from its history. We can’t, I guess. And we shouldn’t. But what if a place only becomes about the painful parts of its history? I grew up in the South, in Louisiana—a place lush with cypress and magnolia trees, with humidity, with music streaming out of bars and out of the bells of brass instruments. This is also a place with long ugly celloid scars from the scourge of slavery and the racism that followed (and continues to follow) long after the Civil War was over. And yet it is my home. There are so many things about my home that I am proud of. I see that it is not one thing or the other, not evil or good, not about suffering nor about the overcoming of it. This place, as with all places, is defined by it all.

I also don’t know how to reconcile the fact that the suffering of a place and its peoples also shapes and informs the important and positive cultural identification of that place. Before Katrina, New Orleans was 65 percent African-American, and it is the spirit, music, family and cultural values of the African-American community that is the foundation of the streets we walk on back home. Without this community, New Orleans is not New Orleans. And this community is there because their ancestors were brought over to be slaves to white colonizers.

Germany is not just the Holocaust, but the scars are there. And the scars are visible not only to Germans but to me and the rest of the world. When I went to Germany on a high school trip to Europe, we went to two places. We walked around the cobblestones streets of Munich, where we visited the Hofbräuhaus and watched the Glockenspiel tell the hour in the evening. And yet all the time, I was thinking of the next place we were to visit: Dachau. It was raining and cold when we visited Dachau. We walked around and saw the empty plots, with wooden borders to show where the camps had been. We saw one of the brick ovens (a reconstructed one? A remaining one? I don’t remember now).

At some point, I distanced myself from the crowd and went with my umbrella to stand off alone taking in the scene. I remember thinking: This is where the Jews were persecuted. This is where they stood in rain and cold like this except with threadbare clothing and shaven heads. And I wanted more than anything to cry. But I couldn’t cry. The truth was that I could not feel their pain. How could I? I had never had to experience the sort of suffering they had undergone. So all I could do was stand there and try to understand.

I have had a hard time writing this post because whenever I thought of Germany, these thoughts came to my mind. And I thought, is that all there is to write about? I guess that’s not what matters because this is what, I suppose, I needed to write about. That my Grandma’s name is Rothermich. That my great grandfather’s name was Hupfer. And that it is problematic to come from a place—from multiple places—in which human beings were impossibly cruel to other human beings.

The key to understanding a place, I suppose, resides in the ability to not only read or understand but absorb the feeling of it all as much as possible. To see the broken down barns as well as the stately mansions, the dead trees and the ones that bear fruit. I guess it is about never forgetting the human-created sorrow that will never be absent from the place and yet to not allow that feeling of sadness to be the only feeling. To know a place, in my mind, is to know that it is a space in which both hurt and healing can occur. What happens in that space, all of it, should never be forgotten. And our responsibility to that place is to try to tip the scales, to be better to each other than future generations were and to repeat their kindness but not their cruelty.

Leave a comment

Filed under weekly words