Nonfiction | May 10, 2012
The Kuhreihen Melody
Winner of the 2011 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Essay.
Sometimes, while drifting off to sleep, I play a game with myself. I imagine myself in Bethel, Connecticut, my hometown, circa 1964, when I was six or seven. I imagine myself walking down Main Street, slipping into its shops and stores as they were back then. The object of the game is simple: to piece together, as comprehensively as possible, out of the Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, and Lego bricks of memory, the place where I grew up, down to the smallest trivial details. Store by store, night after night, I reassemble my past.
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Meet the Author:
Unlike many writers, my memory isn’t strong. In fact as writers go I may have the worst memory in the world. Part of my need to write, to nail experience to the page, stems from this deficiency, from the need to recover memories, which, after all, form so much of who we are. I think to some extent all writers are nostalgic, but the better ones are careful not to confuse their nostalgic reveries for the truth and risk sentimentalizing the past. Since this essay addresses the issue of nostalgia head-on, in a sense I get a pass on sentimentality.
For me those lucid dreams I write about in the essay were a great bounty. And yet by putting me in mind of so much that was lost, they also exacted a psychological toll. Until I began to have them, I hadn’t processed my losses. It never would have occurred to me that Bethel’s streets and stores, the names and faces of kids from my neighborhood, that all these things had touched me so deeply. For years I’d been telling myself, “You’re a cosmopolitan, a New Yorker. Where you grew up is irrelevant.”
In part that stance was my way of dissociating myself from the uncomfortable sensation I had while growing up of being an alien in my own back yard. My parents were European immigrants, fresh off the boat, so to speak, from Italy, though they shared nothing of the typical immigrant experience. My father, who came here in the thirties, earned his PhD in physics at Harvard and within a decade was running the patents division of what was then the National Bureau of Standards, in Washington, D.C.—a cushy job that he shrugged off to become a full-time inventor. He spoke with an Oxbridge accent, and pedaled a rusty Raleigh to the post office in a Magoo cap and black knee socks. My mother, on the other hand, had a thick accent and looked like an Italian movie star. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang meets Green Acres. To the neighborhood kids we might as well have been from Neptune. Mine was a happy childhood, but tinged with the sense of not belonging.
Much of the essay, by the way, was written in the Danbury Fair Mall, at a dining table near the merry-go-round installed at one end of the food court—one of those settings where, in blocking out all kinds of noise, writers achieve a diamond-tipped concentration. Writers need something to push against. At the mall, I pushed against noise, depression, and mixed feelings about what it means to go “home.”
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