Nostalgia

Yesterday, a friend and I shared a long, rainy-day conversation about childhood. It was the sort of conversation I look back on with equal measures of hope and apprehension; did I do this right? Was I really listening? Did I say anything wrong? No matter what’s happened in later years, I acknowledge that the years I spent in the three-bedroom red rancher with my family were good ones. I coasted with a sense of permanence and safety, unconsciously certain that the little timber-lined neighborhood and its inhabitants would always be there.

If you’re lucky, reality is content to wait a few blocks northwest by the highway, until you take the right turn yourself and batter into it with a car full of boxes. Or maybe I wasn’t lucky; maybe those safe years left me unprepared. Maybe it doesn’t matter. They happened, here I am, with no love for small farm towns but a powerful attachment to Care Bears, tomato gardens, homemade pizza, and – the catalyst for the aforementioned rainy-day conversation – vinyl records.

My mother has an impressive collection of vinyl albums, purchased until the price and availability of vinyls became too challenging. When I was small, the turntable made a fixture in the living room, topping the silver-chrome layer cake of a stereo system. I was too short to set the needle, but I could make requests and Mom would fish the black platters from their sleeves: The Jets, The Bay City Rollers, The BeeGees, The Police. I knew the yellow cover of a ‘zany hits’ compilation album; my maternal DJ eventually put an embargo on “Snoopy Vs The Red Baron,” for everyone’s sake.

Time marches on. My parents updated the stereo to one with an eight-disc CD changer and no turntable; the old one relegated to the basement. I discovered a record store in a nearby city; my first purchase was Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I sat in the basement with the old record player, writing fiction in a yellow notebook, to be transcribed later on the brick of a Compaq Presario laptop. Then the old stereo heaved its last sighs and died, and our vinyl collection sat silent for years. Nobody sold new turntables then, at least nobody in reach of a tiny rural Illinois girl.

Shortly before I graduated from college, we got a new player. This one stood alone, linked into the entertainment center that now dominated the basement wall where the old stereo once lived. My record collection now included REO Speedwagon and Journey, but I burrowed away into a life online, writing characters that played violins and built homes with Drowish jewelers in fictional text-based roleplay worlds. I started my first job and two years later moved out, leaving my records at home. I wouldn’t own a turntable for another ten years, during which time my family crumbled and my life exploded into chaos. I’m not kidding or dramatizing; I actually had brain surgery at one point here.

There’s a chasm between me and that rosy childhood today. The memories of what it’s like to feel safe and permanent are across the way, reachable only in glimpses over the reality of a shattered family and the gaping blackness of mortality. It’s hard to feel safe when you know, really know, that you’re going to die. It’s hard to feel permanent when the roots of you were yanked from the ground on the way home from a movie. When you answered your brother’s phone call and heard that your sixty-something father was gone, having packed his belongings into his pickup and waited until a convenient moment alone to abandon you. When, in the messy year that followed, extended family dropped away from you like fighter jets, barrel-rolling out of formation, and you understood for the first time that anyone could leave at any time with no justification or warning.

But the records? They still play.

The yellow-jacketed vinyl exists, replete with cartoons of Snoopy and a woman in a too-small polka dot bikini. I have a turntable again, and new records have joined the old: Fleet Foxes, Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Mumford & Sons. And when I put on the needle, I have a thin line back to that sense of safety and permanence. It’s an illusion, gossamer and golden. I think that’s what ‘nostalgia’ is – a thin tissue imprint of a feeling swabbed out by experience and time. We can’t have it back forever, because it was never real in the first place. We can only visit it; let it filter our vision for the time it takes to drink a mug of tea and fold open an old yearbook; play a Doors tape; visit a childhood schoolyard.

Or, play a Billy Joel record.

A Vegetarian Roasts a Turkey for the First Time

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and for the first time in my life I roasted a whole turkey on my own. I’m a vegetarian (one struggling with getting enough iron and protein, which complicates my food choices), so this wasn’t what I’d call pleasant. I strive to make meat-free meal choices, but when I’m in a situation where it’s unavoidable, my personal view is that wasting the food is disrespectful to the life of the animal. The turkey was a donation from my mother, originally gifted to her by her workplace because, unlike monetary bonuses, food isn’t taxable. As its fate was sealed, and as a dear friend says – sometimes you just have to feed yourself – I made my peace with the bird and what I was about to do to it.

It was a frozen bird, going about a slow thaw in my mother’s refrigerator until she delivered it to my refrigerator on Wednesday night. Thursday morning, once I was conscious enough not to make any irreparable mistakes, I retrieved him from the fridge on his plate, in his plastic wrapper and netting, and built a foil nest for him in the roaster. It’s my hope that he’s gone on, maybe waiting for the spring, to be sealed into a fresh egg laid in a shadowy wood and hatched into a new life far away from the Jennie-O farm that brought him to my counter. After a moment or two of thought, I put both hands on his cold breast and thanked him for his life, and for feeding my family. I may have also promised not to fuck this up. I don’t remember, I’m pretty sure he handled it with more grace than I did.

All of the proper removals and retrievals were done after extricating him from his packaging. Believe me, believe me, every explanation that this was my first turkey provoked “Remember to take out the neck and giblets!” from almost total strangers, with the kind of desperate hope reserved for advice about job interviews and wedding nights. The process was cold, but not ‘gross,’ as my childhood encounters with raw chicken all seemed to be. Maybe I’ve matured (I doubt it) or maybe my respect for the animal I was preparing mitigated that. Maybe after a certain age and a certain amount of loss we get numb to the sensation of dead flesh. I moved him successfully to the roaster, anointed him with stock, sage and thyme, tented him in aluminum foil, and put him in the oven.

My cats’ noses were in the air in an hour, prompting them to search me every time I sat down because apparently my title in the pride is The @#*%& Food Hoarder.  Or maybe they think I’m a food piñata, to be browbeaten until I produce something magical. Multiple times over I was forced to prove that the pot of potatoes, bowl of oatmeal, my cross stitch project and multiple glasses of iced tea were Not, In Fact, Turkey. They made their disappointment in me obvious for this apparent failure.

The turkey, however, was not a failure. He finished perfectly. My mother seemed proud of me for this, although to be honest turkey preparation seems more trust and patience than skill. He fed my family and helped create a new memory to layer in over this new home. The leftovers will feed the welcome stragglers who arrive piecemeal over the weekend. Wherever he is, I wish him a rich reward, with whatever joys the soul of a turkey might desire. May he have broad wings to soar, nights without fear, and freedom.

The Meaning of Home

For a contingent of American culture, November and December are months of homecoming. Families gather together for Thanksgiving, for Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s in the light of this holiday season that my thoughts turn towards the concept of home, and what it means to me.

Home is an entirely subjective concept, compounded of life experience and personal needs. In the case of my exceedingly large maternal connection, an amalgamation of Thanksgiving and Christmas is scheduled on a weekend, in competition with neither the in-laws’ plans, nor shotgun deer season. While ‘home’ under that definition at one point was the family farm, it’s now the people and the foods of family mythology. This family gathers at a rented facility and celebrates a homecoming in news, stories, mandarin orange jello salad, cheesy potatoes and cherry cheesecake bars.

I write about it with nostalgia, but not from immediate memory. Years passed, I exited childhood; ideological differences turned into awkward silence and distance. A certain unwillingness to have hard, real conversations, or seek one another outside the confines of what we all seem to see as a mandatory annual duty. We aren’t all this way, of course, but even the peacemakers among us quietly drew away into agreeable corners, preferring safety with a few to the danger of scooping out corn casserole at the table opposite the bleeding-heart liberal, the conspiracy theorist, the cultish Christian, the hippie outsider girlfriend, the alcoholic, the emotionally fragile new divorcee (and the equally emotionally fragile children threrof).

I say this all with a desire to change that, and an uncertainty of how to go about it. In this scenario, I’m the bleeding-heart liberal with the weird job. My questions are always answered, but it’s with surprise and an air of disinterest and suspicion – like how could I possibly care about their lives, with my white collar office job and my art studio? I feel like I’ve become part of the culture they disapprove of. When I chose a life in a metropolitan city over gravel roads and pastures, those doors of welcome home began to creak shut. They’re polite, and they do love me at least in the abstract, but they have never given me a sense of home.

Since I left my parents’ three-bedroom red rancher on the fringe of a rural township, I haven’t qualified anything as ‘home.’ Does home happen when you stop hiding your laptop on the closet shelf before you leave for work in the morning? When you buy your first couch? When you come back to it after a long absence? When others come to share a meal with you at your table? Do you need a housewarming party?

When I would talk about where I lived, it was ‘the apartment,’ or ‘my apartment.’ My mom’s house – my childhood house – was still ‘home.’ When I struggled with anxiety and depression, when I needed to heal, my apartment was my foxhole. But not home. And why not? I celebrated Christmases there. I welcomed people I would come to love, danced in the living room; perched with my elbows on the windowsill, listening to the raucous bar down the alley. But not home. Once a month, I was reminded that someone else granted me the space, in the rent checks I paid and the note announcing the pest person making his rounds, whose entrance I could not refuse. Every season, my windows needed to be changed out, my fire extinguishers inspected, and every two years the city apartment inspector would arrive to critique the cat hair on my rug.

I had no permanence. Apartments are transient – they’re cubbies that bear our name on a sticker, for a while, so long as we’re not too loud or too smelly and we take our garbage out every week and our neighbors aren’t allergic to cats.

‘Home,’ to me, is a sense of something being there when I get back. Not necessarily ownership (although ownership does lend itself), but an understanding that the space is recognized as my territory and other human beings can reasonably be expected to stay out until I invite them in.

In October of last year, I bought a house. Over one year later now, when I talk about ‘home,’ it’s this house. It’s a quirky place, old and worn in spots. Not modern enough for some. But I have doors that lock and latch and bolt and I choose who else has access. The walls will be what colors I choose; the carpet will come up when I have the wherewithal for new wood floors. The windows will open to the air in the middle of December if I overheat the kitchen. There is space for all of me and more. The Christmas tree this year will be real.

I am responsible for my own spiders; my own fire extinguishers; my own cat hair on my own rug. Home may be subject to the critique of others, but nobody’s opinion matters except mine. Home may just be an elaborate illusion of control, overlaid with pleasant memories – but I can’t say I mind.