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March 19, 2011

True Places

True Places 

By Brunonia Barry

Byzy at the Lake

It is not down in any map, true places never are.

                                                                                           Herman Melville.

 

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?

 

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Comments

Brunonia... so lovely... beautiful.

My truest places. The apartment over Madelyn Joyce Brown's antique store in old town Marblehead. The King's Rook back room with Sheldon Brown, a tamarindo, and a little square of "European" cheesecake. The band room at Marblehead High. The Roches' house on Rowland Street. The Barnacle - before it got big - when it really was like a barnacle stuck to the side of a rock on the beach. The little house out behind Penny's Market. Wherever the Horribles Parade went. The beach in the. harbor just below Fort Sewall. Crocker Park. The house overlooking the cove where the old lady sold her homemade candy. Our Lady Star of the Sea Church.

As Dorothy said I don't have to look any farther than my own backyard.
It was my grandparent's little bit of paradise. I can see all the times we spent there. My brother and I challenging our friends to see who could stand the tadpoles sucking on your feet the longest.
It's a modest house with many additions and the backyard and the lake.
So many parties. So much fun. Everyone who came fell in love with it.
Mostly gone after the hurricanes but the BBQ still remains and the swinging chair. All my growing up events and my son's events and just miles and miles of memories return every time I look out the back sliding glass windows.
I'm hoping my son comes back here to continue the life this old house still has to give.
And the back yard.
Trees come and go but the spirit inspires your mind and the people who mean and meant the most to you still inhabit every inch of the yard and patio.
It is my truest place.

Beautiful! My truest place isn't tied to any physical home, but is anchored by my family and dearest friends. I live far from most of them, which makes the time I do have with them that much more precious.

Today, my sister is leaving to return to California after a luxurious 10-day visit -- a rarity for us as we live on opposite coasts. We had time to visit my aunts, other sister, brother-in-law, and niece in northern Virginia, with a side-trip to visit my uncle and parents at their resting places in Arlington National Cemetery. I was reminded all over again that these people are my rocks, my anchors, and my center.

With your "creaky slamming of the back door" I was instantly back in my childhood, chasing my cousin out the door of my grandparents' house. They lived on a farm with plenty of space to run and old buildings to explore. We maneuvered a bent piece of metal tied to an old refrigerator door to get bottles of neon colored soda from the scary stone walled basement. We chased chickens and ran from geese, braved "the pit" to play with salamanders, climbed cherry and apple trees to reach the best fruit, and slopped the pigs from a safe distance. When the family got together we all pitched in. The little kids shucked corn, grandma and Uncle Larry cut it from the cob, and my mom and aunts sealed it in bags for the freezer. Dad beheaded chickens and the littlest girls held the headless bodies by their feet until they stopped flapping. (Picture Holly Hobby covered in chicken blood and screaming with laughter. She's a schoolteacher now.) Mom and her brother dipped the bodies in boiling water and pulled feathers, two aunts removed the viscera and feet, and a cousin and I did the final cleaning, removing pinfeathers and stray bits of liver and other gooey stuff stuck to the ribs. Inside I was the guest of honor on grandpa's lap in the wheelchair, scooping fresh pasta laid out to dry on the counters. We hid in living room and shared the booty, giving a little taste to Suzy the dog who sat in the recliner next to grandpa, sitting up against the back like she owned the world. Later, my father mixed up Grasshoppers and Pink Squirrels, shot glass portions for the oldest grandchildren, while my great-grandmother Flossie played cards with her grandsons, wig slightly askew. The next morning, the kids gathered on the floor of the living room waiting for our uncles to finish their wrestling show so we could watch Four on Sunday: The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and the Bowery Boys. My truest place existed, but is no longer accessible except in memories.

This morning I am having a scone for breakfast, and it took me back to the cave under my grandmother's enamel kitchen table where I played on the linoleum floor--and where she kept a large tin of sour cream cookies just for me.

What a beautiful post!

These days, my true place is a summer day as a teenager, after the end of the Viet Nam war, when we actually seemed to be at peace.

Oh, Brunonia, thank you so much for sharing your True Place. I love it--and felt like I was right there with you. I have a couple true places of my own--sitting on my front porch, where my husband and I spent so many lovely evenings when we were dating -- talking and falling in love as my boys came and went and my lab mix snoozed at the top of the stairs. When we sit out there now, I still expect the boys to come running up the steps and the dog's tail to plunk on the wood when he sees them coming up the street. Also, Madison, Wisconsin where I went to college and had my babies and looking back on it now i can't believe how young I was and all that I didn't know.

What a beautiful post, thank you!

My true place is a small town on the eastern shore of Maryland where we were all raised by the "Mommy Network." A vigilant group who kept an eye out for all of us as we freely roamed about on our bicycles - never once afraid that someone might snatch one of us, or that anything bad could happen in our world.

So lovely, Brunonia.
I think that I only visited my true place one summer, the house where my rather stern grandparents lived in Brevard NC, with it's 5 acres of 'back yard' that my grandfather mowed himself, blueberry bushes and melon plants to supply the blueberries and honeydew for breakfast. Upstairs, the attic was my grandmother's studio where she hooked THE most beautiful rugs every evening while my grandfather read aloud.

Wonderful, Brunonia. I want to come visit you in your "now" place, and play canasta with you. Nothing reminds me of my aunts, so loved, now long gone, like canasta.

My true place is in the arms of my mom and my dad, who are warm, strong, alive.

Oh, Nancy, I love that! My grandma also showed her love through baking -- no one can quite match it because her recipes were of the "handful of this and just enough of that" sort.
I get all misty when I hear "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and start imagining the big reunion that I hope is coming . . .

Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful true place. It transports me to mine, where the blue jays dip and chide, the air smells like hot grass and the train whistles long, far away, almost gone.

What tender memories you've stirred up, Brunonia.

My true place when I was in high school was the cemetery across the street from our home. Don't laugh; it was peaceful and pretty, near the war casualties area, where there is a serene pond with trees and other plantings overhanging it. It was my refuge on fair days, when I would go sit next to the pond and heal a sore heart, if need be. Even though it was a public place I was almost always completely alone there, hidden from the rest of the cemetery. To this day cemeteries are respites for me.

For the last four years my truest place has been a beautiful creek crossing on our farm, where water is constantly flowing, even on the calmest, driest days. It's an area that is surrounded entirely by our own property, and the rocky area around it invites one to sit and think. It's about a mile from the house, but I can't visit the farm without hiking there or taking the four-wheeler down the lane to the crossing. Such a peaceful place. And there is a pioneer cemetery on the hill above it. The former owners wanted to build a house there, where they could hear the creek gurgling from the hillside. If we could figure out how to get a road there we might be tempted to do that, too.

All of your images are so beautiful, you left me breathless. Thank you.

Reine: I did my first writing at the Rook, sipping on grenadine and soda. I miss the place so much.

Xena: Your image of the swinging chair will stay with me.

Kerry: My family and I lived on opposite coasts for many years. Time together is so precious.

Sandi: Beautiful images! I love Suzy the dog in the recliner. Our dog, Byzy, used to do that.

Nancy: Sour cream cookies just for you? Now that's a wonderful grandmother!

Kathy: I remember that moment of peace. I'm holding that image.

Judy: The front porch. So important. "Talking and falling in love." I remember.

Kaye: Our neighborhood was a bit like yours, I think. Nothing bad could ever happen.

Holly: I love the image of your grandmother in her studio and your grandfather reading aloud.

Harley: Yes, please come for a game of canasta. And please hug your mom and dad once for me.

Mary: My grandmother wrote down a cookie recipe for me. It features "butter, the size of an egg."

Shelley: "...the train whistles long, far away, almost gone." ...Wow, just...wow!

Karen: This may be one time when a road makes sense.

Thanks, Brunonia. You've gotten me reminiscing again about my mom's parents. Their home was paradise for all of their grandchildren, and especially for my siblings and me. We grew up in a housing project, a not particularly safe neighborhood, and were unused to having a yard in which to play. At our grandparents' home the yard was not just ANY yard - our grandparents had a sandbox, a wading pool, a picnic table, a swing set, a glider, trees that we were allowed to climb, etc. They had gardens: flower, vegetable, and fruit. We were allowed to pick and eat the fruits and vegetables, and we did! Indoors, we had the run of their tiny apartment (they owned a two family house; they lived in three rooms on the first floor); our grandmother provided us with drawing paper, paints, crayons, coloring books, modeling clay, magazines for kids (Highlights for Children, Jack and Jill Magazine), comic books, story books, the most educational toys that were available at the time (this was the 50s and 60s). Our grandmother told us her own version of popular fairy tales, and she acted out all the parts! We always begged her to tell us the stories whenever she wasn't busy with something. (It was definitely NOT cooking! She was NOT a great cook, preferring instead to spend her time gardening and visiting with people.)

My siblings and I remember their yard as a huge tract of land. Three of us were in that city a year and a half ago for a family funeral, and had some spare time later in the day so we took a ride over there. We were surprised to see that the lot is about 50 x 75 feet! We will always remember it as Paradise, though! We were free there to do anything that we wanted to do.

Last summer I was at a family reunion hosted by one of my cousins. The youngsters who are the great-great grandchildren of my grandparents wanted to hear stories about them and about our experiences with them. All the kids were full of comments such as "oh, I wish I could have lived then..."; "you were so lucky to know them..."(And we certainly do know and appreciate that!) What my siblings and my cousins and I think is most special about our grandparents is that each and every one of us KNEW that "I am the favorite grandchild; there's no doubt about that!"

Brunonia, thanks so much for the trip to a true place. It all looks so charming now. But when I lived there it didn't seem charming at all. It was just - home. I loved the Rook so much. Learned to play chess there. Braving the tourists, a fruit frappé in the summer. Haunted the section with books and bought my first grownup book there. Wrote poetry and listened to classical music, something that never happened in our house around the corner. The old brass espresso machine. Sheldon took to wearing the eagle on top of his cycling helmet. Now the Rook and Sheldon are gone to a truer place.

Sweet memories, Brunonia. My true place was a stand of virgin longleaf pines deep in the woods back of our house. They were so old and so tall and shed so many pine needles that nothing grew beneath them. When sunlight shafted through the branches, it was like walking in a gothic cathedral. At the edge, under an oak tree, was an emerald green mossbed that I kept swept clean for the fairies I was sure danced there every night.

Broke my heart when an uncle talked my grandfather into letting him cut the trees for lumber. The tractors tore up the mossbed, too.

Oh Margaret, that makes me cry.

What a beautiful post; the true places it evoked are in Hunter,New York which is in the Catskills. I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, hiking along a hot sunny road with my mom, looking for wild raspberries, to pick. She is talking about the summer camp that had to be closed, due to the polio outbreak; we are very serious, but it feels so close and warm to be with her. She has been dead for twenty five years, but I remember hiking up through lush, moist, forest paths to the top of Hunter Mountain, and feeling absolutely removed from the difficulties of life. Hunter Mountain is now a ski resort. A lot has changed in sixty years. Thank you for this.

My truest place is the farm I grew up on 4 miles outside Loma Rica, California. We lived there from just after I turned 5 in 1959 until the fall of 1970. It was a great place for a nature loving semi-civilized kid like me. It was also the preferred place for bigas family gatherings, from thanksgiving to 4th of July.

It's different and yet the same now. The old house burned to the ground in a wildfire back in the early 80's and then the folks who bought that half of the property built a new house. The folks who bought the other half of the property, across the road, built a house, too.

Still, the olive orchards are intact and the southwest couple of acres is still a swampy area that a small creek drains into. The hills behind the house are unchanged and, in fact, are now a wildlife refuge. There hasn't been any big buildup of homes like there was just a few miles away. If I go back there, it's really kind of a time warp where I can still see everybody as they used to be.

The north Alabama mountains are the true-est true place I know.

CONGRATS on the paperback release of TMoTP---I LOVED that book! LOVED it.

Thank you so much, Joshilyn. That means so much to me!

Brunonia, this is truly a beautiful blog.. the images and philosophies are so touching.
My dearest memory might be the time my Mother and I saw "The Al Jolsen Story" movie and then walked home from the streetcar stop. It was a cold, winter night and we went by our public outdoor rink where beautiful music was playing in the distance. I was five years old but still remember that evening.

What an evocative image, Marie! Thank you for sharing it with us. I love the idea of the distant music and the cold. And, of course, your mother.

Oh, Brunonia. Thank you. Difficult to type through tears.

Brunonia, the story of your dad and your grandmother!! That is priceless! I just love it.

The Kansas prairie is my true place.

Hank: Thank you. Sorry to make you cry.

Nancy: I think you write the poetry of the Kansas prairie. I will visit again, any time your words beckon.

Brunonia, you brought tears to my eyes. Thank you very much for those sweet words.

My true place is a rented summer cottage in Plymouth, Ma. The weeks spent there in the summer with my youngest son hold a most precious place in my heart. The cottage was not fancy, just a tiny Cape Cod style house with a braided rug in the living room that was constanly filled with sand from the beach. Each morning I would wake to sea breezes fluttering the curtain of my room, and roll over and watch the fishing boats go off for the day while I was chasing the sand man away. Our days were spent exploring the beach, building amazing sand sculptures, laughing as out little beagle tried in vain to chase the seagulls out to sea. Simple things like a tall glass of ice water, marathon games of crazy eights and serious puzzle making rounded out our days. I was never so at peace with the world as those days spent years ago.

BTW, I have had the pleasure of spending time at your true place in NH, Brunonia...and have enjoyed a cup of your grandmother's special coffee (with the egg in it)! It is a wonderful place.

Jeanne: The cottage in Plymouth sounds like perfection with sea breezes and crazy eights and your wonderful dog. Please come back to the camp anytime, and I'll make you the coffee with the egg!

Great posting. No wonder you're such a gifted writer. The description of the summer cottage...the megaphone, your Mom putting on her lipstick (twice)... are very inviting.

Hi Rick. Thank you! Some memories just won't release their hold. A good thing (that I'm sure you understand).

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