By Brunonia Barry
It is not down in any map, true places never are.
That quote is from Moby Dick, my all time favorite book. It was also the inspiration for the title of my second novel, The Map of True Places, which comes out in paperback this week. As I embark on the paperback tour, I am talking with readers about the true places their lives, and so today I thought I’d share one of mine.
The maps of our lives have changed so much in recent years. There are the usual life changes: people are born, people die, families break apart, new families are formed. Change happens (to borrow a descriptive quote from Hemingway) gradually then suddenly. A few of our sudden changes have radically shifted our perspective: 911, Columbine, Katrina, the financial meltdown. We’ve recently suffered hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and a nuclear disaster. This last week the world was literally rocked on its axis.
So how do we navigate our lives when our old maps have become obsolete? The answer, I think, lies in finding our own true places: safe havens that are home to us and make us feel like our better selves. Sometimes these places are real. Sometimes they exist only in memory and imagination. Almost always, they are connected to the people we love.
The truest place in my life is a real one, a Victorian summer-house on a lake in New Hampshire. It was built by my great grandfather more than a century ago and has been handed down through the generations. The camp hasn’t changed much in those hundred years, which makes it easier to conjure images of the people who have touched my life there, some who are still with me, many who have long since gone.
Standing in the old fashioned kitchen, I don’t have to look far to summon a memory. Over there is the bucket my grandmother gave us to pick blueberries for the pies and muffins she always made. Here is the megaphone my father used to call us back when we swam too far from shore. There’s the soapstone sink in the kitchen and the hand-pump we primed at the beginning of every summer with water from the lake. I can still hear the creaky slamming of the back door and the laughing of children as they rush in and out.
In the washroom across the hall, the medicine cabinet door won’t close properly. I can see my mother’s compact on the glass shelf, and I can see her too, standing in front of the mirror, her lips pursed as she applies Revlon Fire Engine Red lipstick, blots it with tissue, then puts on another coat.
In my true place, my mother still gets dressed to go dancing. She is not confined to her RA wheelchair. My father doesn’t shake from Parkinson’s. I don’t find him scared and frozen in place in the back hall but rather out on the porch playing with the dogs or pitching horseshoes with the uncles. My grandmother, gone many years now, is still the outspoken matriarch who so frustrated her son-in-law, my father, that one day he locked her in the pan closet in the kitchen and wouldn’t let her out until she promised to be nice to him, which she was from then on.
In my true place, I can bring all of the generations back to life at once. My reverie supposes that time is non-linear, and that all the characters exist in their happiest moments. People who never knew each other gather together for a weekend celebration. A favorite uncle who read stories to me when I was little reads the same stories now to my brother’s grandchildren. My first dog, Skybo, rolls on the front lawn with my sixteen year old golden retriever whose hip dysplasia has miraculously healed. Pine needles hang from their ears, and moss sticks to their muzzles. My grandmother sits on the front porch shelling peas with the great granddaughter she never knew.
My true place is always sunny and warm, except at about 4PM each day when a quick thunderstorm follows the curve of the White Mountains and moves swiftly across our little lake. We giggle and run for cover. The storm disappears as quickly as it has come. There may or may not be a rainbow.
We gather for dinner around the big oak table in the dining room, under the clock that has ticked the minutes away since the day the camp was built. When I was a child, the sound seemed so loud that it sometimes kept me from sleep. These days, its ticking is just as loud, I am told, but I cannot hear it unless I’m in the same room. The sixteen-inch rainbow trout my grandfather’s brother caught when he was a young boy is still mounted above the door, and the piano, always off key from the cold that sets in after Labor Day, still sits un-tuned in the corner by the window.
After dinner is over, my grandfather goes to the piano and plays any tune we can think of, in any key, and my aunt sits on top of the piano belting out God Bless America in her best Kate Smith. After that, we play canasta or go for a late swim. The little children fall asleep on the rug where they have dropped from exhaustion and have to be carried up to bed.
My truest place, though real, has the luxury of fantasy. I am, after all, a fiction writer. Fantasy has always been easier for me than reality. Still, this place, with all of its reflected memories, is more real to me than anything in my everyday world, and I hold it in my heart. If all goes well, the family will gather here again next year, and it will, summer after summer, become a true place for the next generations.
Whether real of imagined, true places are more important than ever in these times of great and sometimes devastating change. I wish for true places, real, imagined, or simply remembered for all those who are suffering today.
I’ve told you about the place I hold dear. What are some of your true places?