A madeleine, a chive
On a plane last night, I sat next to a young man on his way back to college, where he was enrolled for summer semester. He told me that, as a kid, he’d dreamed of being a commercial airline pilot, but now he was “doing computers.” His current courses were Calculus 2 and Algorithms. He was already finding that the light course load of the bonus term meant that he could absorb more of what he was being taught, and since he had time to really understand it, he found it more interesting.
Though Algorithms was never a part of my own college curriculum, I could relate. For me, there was always more reading to do than time to do it, which meant things went unread, or half-read, or only partially understood. Assigned books or journal articles were overwhelmingly academic texts with sentences of unspreadable thickness. I’d get to the end of a paragraph and, realizing I had absorbed nothing, return again to the top of the page, now on the hunt for a subject, an object, a central verb.
My first year of college, I took a somewhat storied requirement-fulfilling class called “Philosophical Perspectives.” We read, among other things, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I can’t tell you if I finished the book, which is really just the first book of a longer work. The only part of it I retained is the work’s most well-remembered passage, the part where he tastes a madeleine cookie and the experience transports him back to his youth (figuratively, not literally…at least, that’s not how I remember it). Even at 18, the ethereal power of the senses to conjure memory resonated with me.
Last Saturday, I had my own ethereal, surreal four-way collision of past, present, sense, and memory. I was back in Porter, Indiana for a celebration of the life of our friend Cole Murray. It was like an inter-class reunion of former showchoir and theater kids, teachers, and even some parents, held in a park just a mile away from the house that I lived in from the ages of 8-18 (and for summers until I was 22). My 3-year-old godson was there from Maryland, chasing and being chased by the son of a high school friend whom his mother and I hadn’t seen in maybe 20 years.
The celebration (which was reminiscent of the endless stream of traditional graduation open-houses that marked every summer of my high school years) went on for hours. A couple people would say their goodbyes, replaced with many more friends and well-wishers just arriving. So around 5pm, I decided it was time for me to take a walk. I walked down the park’s winding driveway, which runs along Coffee Creek. I paused at an overlook that hadn’t been there when I was a kid, just to take in the overgrown lushness of the marshy creek. As a kid I had imagined the wooded Great-Lakes greenery of my neighborhood as a kind of enchanted playground, but the years since had colored those memories merely as a child’s overactive sense of wonder. But now, I was back again for a late-spring evening, listening to the birdsong mix with the resonant tone of a distant fright train, and it all felt justifiably awe-inspiring.
I walked on, over the freeway, down the still sidewalk-less stretch of Waverly Road, and toward the street I grew up on. I wrote last year about the experience of driving past my old house, but approaching on foot was like time travel. That was the way we got around back then, of course, traipsing along the grassy embankment that separated the old neighborhood from Hunters Glen, the new subdivision (now nearly 30 years old) across the street. Just like that marsh, the trees were impossibly green and full, dripping their leaves onto the hot, gray asphalt.
I don’t know what’s happening at the old house. Someone is mowing the lawn. They put windows in the roof to add light to the attic. But our name is still —STILL — on the rusted mailbox, 17 years later.
When the houses of Hunters Glen were being constructed, half-built homes were often left unattended, no progress being made for days or weeks on end. That was when the neighbor girls and I would take the opportunity to give ourselves a little tour. We climbed plywood staircases and listened to our voices echo off of unfinished wall panels. I once lost a shoe in the mud of a fresh construction site. I suppose that’s the spirit that possessed me when I decided to walk down the overgrown gravel driveway, around the side of the garage, and take a look at the back of the house.
I didn’t intend to linger. I just wanted to get a glimpse of it. It was both wonderful and terrible. It was the weather-beaten version of exactly how I recalled it. The brick-colored paint that had been chipping away was still chipping away. The rusty, barn-shaped metal shed out back still threatened to be filled with dead leaves and a family of possums. And though the half-barrel planters on the porch looked ready to collapse, the volunteer chives we used to snack on were still thriving.
I never really thought I’d see any of it again. And here I was.
The house is over 100 years old, and even 25 years ago, my mother had constantly worried that the wooden stairs were at risk of rotting out or mossing over to a treacherous slipperiness. So, was it sad to see her fears come to pass, or wonderful that she’d been right? Do you want to see your old home made new and different — the improvement of the skylight windows, say — or is it more satisfying to see it be reclaimed by time and nature, the vinyl letters of your last name stronger than the very paint of the mailbox beneath it, now chipped and rusted away?
I didn’t try to climb the back steps. I was trying not to linger, as I said, but regardless, they didn’t look like they could stand the force of the climb. But I did reach up to those planters and break off a stem of the chives. Tasting it, I had the advantage over old Proust. I was transported through time, sure, but the place was the same one from memory.
I didn’t sit down today to tell you this story. I was going to write about how the old showchoir kids surprised ourselves by still remembering some of our dance steps from high school. I wanted to tell you the story of having an instantly-deep conversation with an old friend outside a new coffee shop (one that was built after both our parents had left town). “I’m Walking on Sunshine” came on the radio and without even acknowledging that the song was playing, right in the middle of our talk, we simultaneously waved our arms through the air on the first “Ohhh—ohhh!” It was choreography from a show that had been performed exactly once, at the end of some school year or another. But our brains and bodies had held onto it.
It was a good trip home.