We went back to the east coast by way of Newark, and though it was spring break we made the kids wear coats, and I packed a scarf. We got a rental car and drove to my grandmother’s house in Bethlehem where my uncle Jim now lives alone, he’s getting it ready to be sold. We ate hoagies and chicken salad sandwiches and Jim taught Charlotte how to play backgammon. With no Wi-Fi or TV, no stereo, it was just the sound of the appliances and people talking in different rooms. Jim has a flip phone but he’s going off that too, about to turn 65, still has his amateur radio license (they’re good for 10 years), could use that if he really needed to reach someone. In the morning the poster board from my grandmother’s funeral still leaning in the corner where she sat, with photos of her in various stages of life — and I walked up the road toward the sun, the grass crunchy with frost, snow shovels still left out front of the homes, the roads cut up and broken from the weight of all those east coast winters, all that salt and snow.
Driving around my home town trying to reconnect places with memory from a time I didn’t drive, routes more circular than linear. And my aunt describing what it was like to go into her 92-year-old uncle’s house after he died, like a horror film how it was lit, with only a pathway from room to room, trapped by the mind with so much stuff inside, he had to just sit in the driveway in his car to get some relief. All that stimulation of memory for me driving to the old apartment on Lehigh street, walking the same alleyway I did as a kid, what the sea of memory coughs up by way of the tides. It was like the end of that book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, when the author goes back to his childhood home but it’s anti-climatic, it’s no different than life: all those climaxes or revelations you expect come in everyday ways instead, and either you notice them or you don’t. Here, the people living in our old apartment were likely poor, but hanging on. All the apartments looked the same when I was a kid, but I imagined each one had different qualities. And after just 5 or 10 minutes walking through I’d seen all there was to see, and got the hell out.
I drove down to the next house where we lived, parked by the E-Z cash store, past the coin-operated laundry, a place advertising Guns & Ammo — down the side streets I played as a kid, it all looked the same, but not in a good way — it looked untouched since the early ’80s with all the peeling paint, the dug-up concrete footers and tarps and bags of trash, building materials…projects half-started, never going anywhere…hard to tell if some places were just abandoned, the garages didn’t even have doors, just random stuff inside not worth stealing. I hurried out, feeling a bit sick, wanting to take my kids there so they could be proud of how well we’re doing for ourselves…or maybe I just wanted that for myself, for my own pride.
Sue and John got their new house built, but out back many of the trees need to be taken out: they’re the awful Tree of Heaven species, the Ailanthus altissima (“foul-smelling tree,” in Chinese): cut them down and they’ll only sucker out, and get stronger. You have to hack them at the base with a hatchet and fill them full of Roundup so they suck it through the roots and die from the insides. And they attract a spotted lantern moth that kills all the neighboring trees. And the Tree of Heaven smells like rancid peanuts, used gym socks, or semen. (source: Wikipedia). It’s all that spit up on the beach by the tides of memory, of objects found there smoothed over, carried from another time and place, better handled with plastic gloves, garbage bags, Roundup and axes.