Day 18: Going Home

DSCN5043Yesterday, my mother and I held a garage sale.

Packed into that single sentence is an entire twenty page essay.  It would involve a large discussion of my father, his death, our grieving.  I would tell you about the house. Not this one, but the OTHER house, the one that emptied. I would talk about the move, the apartment, the second move. I would tell you that I could chart my mother’s grief with locations.  I would describe for you several bedrooms worth of unused things.  The essay would grow longer. I would wonder if memoirs could be the size of a novella, then I wouldn’t worry because the novella would expand into a book, and suddenly, that one sentence would become my entire life’s story, starting with the scattering of homes we occupied in Ohio and Oregon, flinging itself past and through cancer, and ending with $183.49, yesterday’s earnings.  In case you can’t tell, this is a post about the ripeness of writing about home.

I have just spent the last 10 days in California.  I type this from the airplane.  I post this from a terminal in Phoenix.  I’m about to hop on a red eye to Indianapolis. These are the things I cannot get out of my head:

From the garage sale:

  • One of the biggest argument my mother and I got into was about whether or not to sell my sister’s bed.  My sister did not want it. My mother did not want to let it go.
  • The stuffed leopard we spent $20 trying to win at Reno’s Circus Circus? It sat on said bed for about ten years.  It now belongs to a very destructive dog and, by now, has probably had its stuffing scattered around some woman’s home.
  • In twenty years we had collected an enormous quantity of baseball caps, ranging from Golf tournaments to tourist caps to free caps given out at McDonalds in the mid-80s. At least thirty of these ball caps are now warming other people’s heads.
  • My brother’s dog pissed into a box of my old VHS tapes. No one wanted them anyway (the DVDs were another story), but I still felt crushed they wouldn’t find a new home.

From my hometown in general:

  • This Bloomington Building still bears the sign of its Coca Cola origin.  Now, it's " full service catering business owned and operated by Middle Way House, an abused women's shelter"

    This Bloomington Building still bears the sign of its Coca Cola origin. Now, it’s ” full service catering business owned and operated by Middle Way House, an abused women’s shelter”

    Nothing is what it was anymore: the Blockbuster video is now a Wells Fargo bank.  The high school painted its orange beams beige.  My tennis backhand has no sense of timing.  There are no video rental stores left in town.

  • El Asadero, our favorite Mexican restaurant, is still El Asadero, and the hamburger painted on the wall still makes us reminisce about strawberry milk shakes and Bub’s burger.  And that empty lot turned into an Albertson’s and now that is vacant again.
  • In six years my grandmother went from still young and spry to an 89- year-old woman with a failing mind.  When looking through some old photographs, she pointed at her ex-husband and asked, “Who’s that?”  She, too, wants to know why I’m in Indiana.  She asked me this question nearly 100 times.
  • The kids are all new, but they look awfully familiar.

What has struck me about this trip in particular is the way the simplicity of ‘before and after’ has lengthened to the ‘before and after and after and after that.’  I find myself looking for people and landmarks that no one but my siblings seems to remember.  The last time I drove into town, I got lost.

In 2010, I attended the AWP Conference in Denver.  One of my favorite panels was a talk about place.  One of the panelists, a writer whose name eludes me, discussed the way her understanding of place revolves around an intersection between one’s landscape and their mind-scape.  This includes both the way a place can hold a memory/memories as well as the way our minds can remember and know the history of a place.   Today, friends, if you are looking for some inspiration, why not mine your stories from your own encounters with home by playing with the conflicting images of the land that we hold within our minds.  Here are three writing exercises to get you going.

#1:  the garage sale search

Take a notebook and pen and filter through your garage or the thing that stands in for your garage… a hall closet, an attic, the top shelf of a closet.  List the objects you find.  Spend no more than fifteen minutes doing this.  Then, return to your writing place and let these items appear in a scene or poem.  Let yourself take tangents on why a particularly useless item might have value.  You may also want to consider the way different people have different takes on the same objects.  Maybe one of those people even suggests the other throw the thing away…Or, you may want to consider which of your items you would or would not be willing to sell.

Our possessions packed into two crates, ready for the journey from ABQ to Bloomington.

The alternative: which items make it to the move and/or which items do you unpack and wonder why the thing made the journey?

#2:  the mental map of your home/hometown

Draw your hometown in as much detail as possible.  List the homes and businesses of places you used to go. If the places have changed names or ownership or colors, also list what the places are now.  List back as far as possible.  Now, use this mental map in a scene or a poem.

#3:  the random encounter with a “stranger”

Write a scene or write about a time when you or one of your characters has a chance encounter with someone from your/his/her past.  Where does this meeting take place?  Who is the stranger? Who were you to this person? Who are you now?

6 thoughts on “Day 18: Going Home

  1. Thanks for this great post, Samantha.

    I love writers who make place a character in their stories. Elizabeth Strout is, for me, the American Thomas Hardy in the way she makes landscape a character in her stories.

    Eleven years ago, I moved back to what is the closest thing I can call a hometown (I spent my first ten years living in Southern California (true Northern Californian that I am, I don’t count those first three years as California years), Oklahoma City, and Saudi Arabia). I call Livermore my hometown because the best and worst of things happened to me there between the ages of 10 and 18.

    Visceral memories were awakened by sounds, smells, and the sight of familiar places. When I rode my bike on an early summer morning, the cool beginning to the day, the sheer joy of being a child on my own flooded me. I rung the bell to hear the ding, ding of the moment. I remembered the flickflickflickflick sound of a playing card, attached so the spokes of the wheel would catch it, propelling me forward.

    I was 52 when I moved back. Returning was also like facing an emotional buzz saw. Things I thought were finished discovered a new life, forcing me to delve deeper into my own experience of what it means to be human.

    My writing took off. I found my voice as I dug deeper to find just the right words and the order they belonged in. It grew stronger with each trip through the buzz saw.

    Place. II think there is something that happens when we plant ourselves in familiar soil and then write from that place.

    As I said, the best and worst of things have happened to me here.

    Thanks for the great writing prompts.

    PS: Do you mind telling us the name of your California town?

    • Hi Karen,
      I love Elizabeth Strout. She feels so fitting to think of today. It’s gray outside my bloomington window, and my imaginings of Olive Kitteridge look like this. Such a difference from Merced, California, my old hometown. I know Livermore but only by driving through, some grade school soccer tournaments, stray conversations. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story. I hope today’s writing goes well.


  2. If I do any substantial digging, I’m sure I’d come across my copy of the 2010 AWP program. (just thinking about It brings up memories of a road trip with a bunch of crazy writers and an astounding quantity of booze in a motel bathtub… Where was I? Oh yes,) I could probably dig it out if you’re really curious to know the name of that writer.

      • Unfortunately, it appears I did part with that program the last time I actually did the archeological dig of my old papers. I was able to find in a much less satisfying way—a Google search—more information about that panel. Was it Writing the West: The Transplanted Writer as Literary Outsider? The panelests were Summer Wood, Pam Houston, Robert Wilder and Uma Krishnaswami. I think I wasn’t there, because I doubt I’d forget it if I had been.

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