Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Ordering of Place

I was reading a memoir recently, and the author talked about sitting down to draw a detailed map of a home where she felt safe and happy when she was a child—her grandparents’, I think—and I took a breath because I have done the exact thing; once, I pulled myself from bed to draw a recollection of my grandmother’s house, blueprint-style, with what I imagined was true-to-proportion squares and rectangles for each bedroom, the hallway, and the kitchen where it was always cool, clean, and bright. My grandma had a house that would be considered cramped by today’s standards—three small bedrooms, a living room, a dining area within the kitchen. No family room, no loft, no “bonus room.” And yet in it, she raised three children with my grandpa, and continued to live there after he died in his early sixties. I was eight years old when he passed and do remember my grandpa a bit, but I still think of the house as hers. To this day, I can visualize her well-organized closets and cupboards and what was kept in each one. I remember the sheen on her dining room table, the pattern in the dark green carpeting.

I wonder if everyone thinks about special places this way, or if it’s those of us drawn to some sort of creativity. Among writers, there’s lots of talk about place and how it figures into the stories we spin. But when we say “place,” surely there’s much more involved than the placement of linens, the size of a bathroom, the view from a quiet bedroom to the empty clothesline outside. It’s not where the rooms are, of course, but how we felt in them.

Perhaps this compulsion to document the layout of my grandmother’s home is a way to begin to give order to memory. This ordering must come first, because while it’s very well and good to talk about how wonderful it was at Grandma’s, someone has to make sense of it—the whys, the hows, the everlasting ripples of memory, what it meant to be warm and safe and happy within those walls. This sometimes unwelcome task falls to the creative types, I suppose, just as certain tasks fall to grandmothers, and grandfathers, and children whose only job it is to absorb, and live, and love.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka