Sunday, April 12, 2009

home is where the heart is

if you talk to college students or any adult children who have been out of the house for awhile, you'll hear the occasional, uneasy remark about the oddness of 'going home for a visit.' it's surreal, as one friend of mine pointed out: if you're 'visiting' home, then your real home must be elsewhere. i think this is true and untrue in different degrees, and you can argue either side.

i think what is true, though, is that going home, for people who don't do it often, can be the same as going back.

i come home and i find all my old things. my old clothes, my old notebooks, my old stories, my old photos. bits and pieces of yourself that you've shed like snakeskin. but they carry your imprint, and you look at them, and you relive entire years. you remember the years when this thing was a part of you, a real player in your life, and how you were different than what you are now.

it's a tricky place: easy to get nostalgic and romantic about and gloss over the unglamorous aspects. i don't know about you, but i had a lot of acne in high school. lots and lots. not my best years.

still, for the past few days i've felt this bizarre tugging. like all my old things are calling to me. and i didn't really understand what their pull was until i visited my great-grandfather today.

now, you may think, 'oh no. here it comes again. how can one 95-year-old man possibly command as much attention as this blog has given him?'

but my grandfather is an endlessly fascinating person. i think the fact that i have written so much about him is a testament to that.

when i went to see him today, he pulled out a tape for me.

for those of you just joining the program, my grandfather is a musician. he has been writing and recording songs for nearly three-quarters of a century. i won't pretend i like all of them, or that the recordings are the highest quality, but he is dedicated to his music, and has been all his life.

so the tape he pulled out for me was recorded in 1989, the year i was born.

the first thing you hear when you play it is my grandfather's voice - to me, it seems, no different - saying, 'hello, pereleh. this is your great-grandfather speaking. you are two weeks old. someday when you are old enough to understand, i hope your parents will give you this tape and you will listen to the songs. i am here with your great-grandmother, grandma dorothy.'

and then my grandmother says, in the thin, reedy voice i remember so well: 'hello, perel. this is your grandma dorothy. we love you very much.'

then my grandfather sings the song he wrote for me when i was born, twenty years ago.

i do not like to cry. i hate it almost as much as my mother. but i wept when i heard this tape. i wept even though my grandfather himself played it for me - clear evidence that, despite his expectations twenty years ago, he has miraculously lived to show me these songs himself, to talk about them with me as equals. he has, kiayneh hara, lived to see me as an adult, and he is as much himself as he ever was. the tape sounds like a time capsule, like something never meant to be opened during one's lifetime. but my grandfather is still with me. so why did i cry?

we both cried. me and him.

i think we cried when we heard my grandmother's voice.

this puzzles me for another reason.

i loved my grandmother very, very much. but i was not sorry when she died. she was very old and hadn't been herself for years. she was in pain. i was sort of glad when she passed away; i felt like she was free. and i think about her sometimes, but not often. as i said, she had been gone already for so many years.

but i guess there is something about hearing that voice addressed to me. so clear and unclouded, talking to me, not to some hazy shadow of me. saying the things i wanted her to say, with intent, like she meant them. and so exactly the way i remembered her voice that she could have been in the room with me. she could have been right there next to my grandfather, like a ghost.

she told me that she loved me when she was well. i was little but i remember it.

i think that is why we cried, me and my grandfather. it was because for those fifteen seconds that the tape was playing, my grandmother was alive and whole again. she was herself again. and we had her. she was there.

i was surprised by this sudden welling of grief. i never really miss her. why did i miss her then? can you miss someone and not know it?

my grandfather wanted to play the tape again, but i didn't want him to. it was too much for me. i did not want to hear her voice again. i am not sure what that says about me, or him.

but this is what i do think. i think the deep, marvelous appeal of memorabilia and pictures and home videos and tapes lies in their perfectly preserved alternate worlds. they are static, but they feel real. you can step into the past for a minute or fifteen minutes and live there, with the people you love who are gone now or even just older and different than you remember them being.

i think it is not home we visit. home is home. we visit the past; we visit because it's too easy -and too hard- to live there.