A couple weeks ago I moved to Iowa for grad school, for fiction. Before that, I worked for a few years at the college I went to for my undergrad. In between these two things, I decided to take a month off in my hometown of Canandaigua, New York. One of the Finger Lakes (the thumb), it’s this kind of place that the word bucolic exists to describe. It was a good place to grow up, but only in retrospect do you come to appreciate it, after the drive to flee has found expression. While home, I aimed to use my time to recharge, to kayak and run and sun, but the Protestant ethic is a hard habit to kick. I wanted to work, and my work right now is writing.
I write to structure things. Life is not usually tidy, but a progression of words can be. You can take what is miasmatic and condense it. Pick away the rot and leave the core. You can look back with greater clarity and, with effort, get that clarity on the page. Especially when writing on a place occupied in your childhood, and especially when you are not fictionalizing it, the temptation is almost to eulogize, to lower your parent’s home into a tidy plot and pat it down with dirt. In looking back, we assume we’ve left the thing behind. We assume control, and we assume it has no power over us.
* * *
While home in Canandaigua, my mother and I planned a trip to her hometown in Pennsylvania: a four-hour drive and a two-day stay. My mom thought would be good for me to see my aunts and uncles. I thought it would make for good reflection. And also that it would be good to see my aunts and uncles.
I began framing my experiences in Pennsylvania before I experienced them. My usual writing process for nonfiction is to collect my occasional thoughts or observations in a document on my phone. Those notes then sync to my laptop to get fleshed out when I’m at my desk. Before the trip, I thought it might be fun to compare what I read as a child with what I was bringing with me to read as an adult. I thought that would say something, if not profound, then at least entertainingly pithy. It would’ve read:
As a child, I would bring with me to Baba’s house (short for Babushka, Russian for grandmother) the latest Harry Potter, tomes that grew larger in tandem with my own corpus. My interactions with my relatives were welcome pauses between chapters. One summer I became enraptured by The Da Vinci Code. Sitting in a lawn chair, ignoring my cousins, I rushed from page to page to see it through. I’d not read a thriller before this, so the thralls of the genre were new to me. This trip, at 25, I brought with me a slender collection of Borges stories. A friend sent it to me in the mail, and I was relishing each weird set-up. Its surreality was a counterpoint to the cellular dead zone known as West Decatur.
Poor West Decatur. It’s become more punchline than place. My uncle and aunt live there. Several years ago, when my parents and I were visiting them, sitting out on their back porch, which overlooks their property and the winding road that leads to their neighbors’ property, a lull came over the conversation.
“Yeah,” said my uncle, quietly laughing under his breath, “I spent a year in West Decatur one night.”
The turn of phrase is funny whether you’re familiar with the place or not. It’s true that there is no AT&T reception at his house. Trying to get a message out to a friend, I found myself moving my device around the house like a dowsing rod, searching for that sliver of 4G that would carry my words to space. Mostly I put away my phone and read. I welcomed this disconnection, actually. I often feel hassled by my collection of apps, all of whom ding or blip to signify that they desire my input, and if I am not there to attend to their needs, I might miss something vital thing that happened to a high school classmate, or I might not know about a college friend’s promotion until tomorrow morning or afternoon. A tragedy, really, to be without that.
My aunts and uncles came to a cookout at my uncle’s place to see my mother and me. It’d been a while since they last saw me, about two years, and considering my upcoming move, it would be at least a few years before they saw me again. The last time we were all together was at a family reunion in Ohio—all the familiar, familial faces, the setting transposed. At the time, I was living at home and looking for work, and my stress level was not, let’s say, tenable. I was not wearing it well, either. I was told by many people to relax. They pointed out that I’d have my whole life to work. They were right, but you’re not capable of hearing it in the midst of the experience. Since then I’ve chilled out a bit and lost some weight, so this most recent trip brought comments like “lean and mean” and “you’re looking good.” It feels especially good to hear these things from family, for some reason. Perhaps it’s because they, more than anyone you know, have seen the whole of your trajectory, which for me included a childhood clutching Game Boys (both Color and Advance) and a young adulthood dominated by extracurriculars like madrigal choir and swim team. When sitting with family, you are all of your selves, from the pudgy to the lean, the introverted to the more functionally introverted.
Previously, these kinds of gatherings would’ve taken place at Baba’s house. She died in 2004. She had a bad reaction to something they gave her while she was recuperating from esophageal surgery. Negligence and human error are nearly synonymous, but different enough. We vaguely considered action, but as with any death, there was nothing to be done that would bring her back, though you wish so. It was also a year in which my aunt was at the victim of a hit and run, losing her left leg above the knee, and in which an uncle was incarcerated. So we, as a family, were exhausted of any retributive desire. A lot had happened, and we weren’t eager for yet more.
One of the first things I ever seriously wrote was about Baba’s house and that awful summer. I wrote it in high school in my first creative writing class. I’ve not read it since then because I want to remember it for the intent of it rather than actual text, which I would undoubtedly find clumsy or hackneyed. But my mother keeps a copy and reads it often, she tells me. She says I was able to capture (at “such a young age”—emphasis hers) so much about what made her mother, my Baba, special. In reality, Baba made it easy. She was a fastidious coupon clipper who kept a pantry of cereals and other breakfast goods in her house. She often gave them away to community food pantries or other causes, but I would sometimes get a sugary cereal to take home to New York. My mother was very health-conscious with me growing up, and now I thank her for that, but sometimes when you’re nine you just want some Cookie Crisp, and badly. The house Baba lived in was a big brick one in a style I don’t know the name for, but which seems very prevalent in the State College area of Pennsylvania. They all have these little porches and are, overall, very boxy. It also had an ideal address for nostalgic remembrance: 1000 Walton Street. You’d get that workshopped out of a story if you claimed it as fiction, but as nonfiction I find it equally comforting and mythic.
* * *
The reoccupation of childhood spaces in adulthood surfaces questions of identity. In the basement I occupied last month, there are pictures of me from various points of my childhood and young adulthood. One is a senior portrait, where I sit in front of a baby grand, one hand resting on the keys, the other on the casing. I am wearing a pensive stare that, at the time, I probably believed would make me appear thoughtful or deep, but in retrospect I simply look pained. Our faces often betray us. Another portrait is the basic class photo you receive in elementary school, with the spacey blue background. My hair was still straight when it was taken, but thankfully the bowl cut had phased out at this point in my development. My face is roughly happy, but you can tell I hate taking photos and want, eternally now, for it to be over with. Then there’s the one of my sister and me going down a log flume at Disney World, and I’m just out of my mind screaming while she laughs.
I am, at present moment, the healthiest and happiest I’ve ever been. I like who I’ve become and am excited with the direction I’m heading in, with the growth it entails. Like anyone, I’m not unequivocally proud of all that’s led me here, and I think that’s what’s so strange about coming home. With the friends I’ve managed to catch up with while in town, I find myself falling back into old behavioral patterns—a fancy way of saying “who I was in high school.” Almost instinctively, I become more sarcastic and biting in my jokes: not explicitly mean, but not nice either. And I become the joker, always joking, looked to for comic punctuation of humdrum conversation. And there’s nothing wrong with being the funny one, but the reason I took to that kind of humor in high school was because I was insecure in myself and wanted to deflect attention elsewhere. I found it hard to talk about whatever issues I was struggling with, and so instead I would make light of the situation or poke fun at another person, often at their expense, as a defense mechanism. I was called out on this behavior by a close friend in junior year, and since then I’ve worked to be less and less that guy. I found it easiest to change in a different environment, college, and that should be no surprise. Freed of expectations, you can more easily change those aspects of yourself that need changing. What is odd is how those changes become more difficult to maintain in old landscapes. I think of myself as an individual whose development will carry with him regardless of setting, but it seems who I am, or at least who I play at being, is more determined by the without than I may have thought or hoped. That I am cognizant of this backwards slipping suggests to me that the progress will stick, but it’s troubling how easy it is, and how comfortable, to regress.
I am starting to meet people in Iowa. Besides my landlord, they are all writers. (And maybe my landlord too, for all I know.) I am able to introduce myself to them as I see myself now. Unless I reveal it to them, they won’t know what led me here, what made me—though of course these things are revealed, consciously or not, subtly or unsubtly, in our work, so they’ll probably ferret some of this out eventually. It is interesting to see what propels people to write, which parts of their history come to roost in their sentences. In my own, elements of my hometown are reproduced or reimagined for setting. A repurposed, carpenter gothic schoolhouse by the lake has made an appearance in a new story. A grandfather’s silo filled with grandchildren’s junk serves as a visual interjection in an otherwise thought-heavy narrative. West Decatur, too, has a cameo, with a reference to Black Moshannon beach. It’s possible that, for me, the impulse to write, to narrate, originated in these towns. The piece I wrote in high school was a bald attempt to make meaning out of a time that felt senseless. In making places into prose, I exact control over them and fit them to my purposes. But in revisiting them in life, not on the page, you find they are not wholly dormant or malleable. They are equally capable of acting upon you.
The interstitial month of return, to Canandaigua and to Pennsylvania, was clarifying. A return carries with it elements foreign to the reoccupied place, and you are the body to which these elements cling. Placed in an environment that previously conformed to you (or you to it), you find you no longer fit as neatly as you once did. You note those parts that fit too loosely, too snugly, and even those that still, after all these years, fit just right. If you are lucky, as I am, your family will be among the latter category. You love them and they love you. It is simple and profound and you are, at every moment, grateful for it. It is painful to leave them behind, to leave the basement, at least until Christmastime, when you will again sleep on the pullout sofa-bed, bearing witness to the dehumidifier’s quixotic effort to keep these subterranean quarters free of must.
Grayson Morley is a writer studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When he thinks to, he updates graysonmorley.com with new pieces about music, games, and walking. You can follow him on Twitter if you like at @eightysevenkeys, but he doesn’t tweet that much. He’s sorry.