Saturday, January 28, 2012


Tonight, I drive through a town with no name and no place, because it is every place. It is just as well not to name it, because naming things corrals them, and sometimes you want them just to leak all over the page, saturating every memory with the same ink to bring them together in the blue wash. To assure yourself you are still the same: The past is not in a different zone, latitudes away from where your eye lands just now. Your past and the people who made it are here right now.

Old buildings carry with them accreted emotional layers, air-dried, of the people who lived in them, one on top of the other. Why do they read as predominantly sad? Why is most life, when over, an encrustation of sufferings? I feel it as soon as I look at it: unhappiness, crushed hope, years collapsed too soon. With a sprinkling of efferverscent moments, joy and the spring of luck and hands caressing skin. That happened in these walls, too.

The redbrick building I pass slowly was built the same time as the one I suddenly recall: in the twenties. At the exact same time that I am in an old Subaru that sometimes makes strange noises, I am inside the building that glides by (a light turns yellow up ahead). That is because I am now in Akron, my hometown (you can be in yours, too, crossing miles and years in a brilliant flash), in the dark interiors of the Twin Oaks Apartments. They were across the Portage Path--itself a road into the past, that of the long-disappeared original peoples who had worn it down to hard-pack under their stolid, moccasined feet--from the Portage Country Club. I daresay no one who lived at Twin Oaks belonged to the country club. My grandmother lived there.

Sometimes we fall. Sometimes we have something we think we will keep forever, and then we lose it. We fall downward.

That is the story of life, and its inevitable tragedy: not the loss, but the belief that in the end excoriates--that we will never experience it. Sure! We will have into old age what we have now--oh, and also that there is no such thing as old age. That which is nothing but a final series of losses.

The front door to her apartment was never used; the way was blocked by a huge dining table wedged into the hallway. It belonged to that past she never believed would leave her, either: the stately Tudor house in the town's best neighborhood, into which she and her husband had clawed their way from the decks of the ship that arrived from Greece to the shores of new hope. Uneducated, but driven--I am educated, but undriven, which may be the true tragedy hidden in the immigrant's story--they worked, each at their trade. My grandfather's was (need you ask) restaurants. The first, the Roxy Cafe, in downtown Akron held great promise. The town was gripped by rubber fever: the newly populist automobile had put every hand to work making tires, and still the workers poured in. The only similar jobs boom one could experience now would be in China, and it might be as pleasant: the work was long, hard, dark, and smelly. But it was work, jobs by the thousand.

There was only one thing wrong with the Roxy Cafe, and it was not its phalanxes of white-draped tables and bentwood chairs arrayed with military precision, its gilt-painted walls and dark-wood booths and neat checkerboard tile floor. It was that it was opened on the eve of the Great Depression.

But he bounced back: there was no choice for a Greek. There would come a time for more restaurants, each more impressive than the last, until the late fifties, and another boom, this time supporting the Continental pretensions of a downtown establishment bearing the name The Beefeater. Thus was a wish attained: the final expunging of any taint of the truly foreign. The way had been made clear, before this, by the gentle twisting of the odd otherness of the family name, Roussinos, into something more palatable: Russell.

My grandmother's work was similar: to study, closely, the customs and manners of the native-born and emulate them. Thus the woman with the grade-school education learned where to send her children to college (cleansed and white bastions of the highest reputation), what clothes to wear (anything from the pages of Vogue, bought on trips to the department stores with velvet-covered banquets in their inner sanctums of couture, where the salesladies knew her name), what to prepare for dinner (House & Garden was the Bible here). The meals were six courses, and though they sometimes contained the best of Greek cuisine--garlic-studded legs of lamb, homemade kourabides, taramasalata--they also reveled in ice cream bombes and ornate hors d'oeuvres bristling with toothpicks.

They were consummate students of the American way, Gatsbyesque. And then, they fell. Perhaps it was my grandfather's habit, American-hopeful, of buying stocks on margin. Maybe it was simply the trajectory of many a life. Downsized. The furniture, most of it, went. Sold, dispersed. I have the canopy bed of their youngest child. My sister has the olive-velvet settees from the living room; my other sister has the wicker screened-in porch furniture. Their dining table, seats for twelve, followed them to the three-room apartment at Twin Oaks. It never fit.

My grandfather died, as grandfathers do. My grandmother lived on, never sure again what she was living for. The small apartment depressed her. It depressed me. The kitchen was so small. She slept in a twin bed. The place still reminded me of him. She bought a lottery ticket every week. She still hoped to pull herself back up, and out of there, Twin Oaks.

She called us often. Get me out of here. I'm lonely. She had never learned to drive. She was a prisoner of the Twin Oaks Apartments. And this is what I felt when I drove by its doppelganger, far away but as close as the mind will sometimes allow. The sense of falling, falling, backward. Into time. Into the past, or into the future, all of a sudden, mine.


Pierre Sim said...

What a blessing, Melissa, to have such a talent as a writer! I enjoyed every line of your piece. I will read it again and again. For a francophone, and I imagine for anglophones as well, your style is great. I can picture your words, it is a delight. Such a good article should be published on the first page of every newspaper in the country. It would change us... from the bad news... even if I can detect under your sentences a little bit of sadness. I think that you and I should stick to your former thoughts: ride a motorcycle -- the future is ahead, frozen hands on the bike are the present, and the white lines which are blurring in the mirrors are our past. Period.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Pierre, thank you for your generosity -- and your advice. Yes, I will!

Catherine said...

I saw that image and I immediately knew it. Driving past I often wondered who lived in those apartments. They always seemed sad (and dark) from the outside.

We drove past them all the time to visit my grandparents, just down the road at 425 North Portage Path (from their marriage in 1923 to 1983 when the house was sold after Grandpa Sei's passing).

Ironically, they were Portage Path CC members but we were not. (I think my father had a thing for being non-conformist, even in his home town.) We went to many family functions there, however. And I always felt out of place.

The more I read of your childhood the more I think we led somewhat parallel lives in different dimensions or something ~ fascinating, really.

Thanks for your words, as always.

brittany said...

My mother spent part of her childhood in Akron, which is one reason I like The Place You Love Is Gone so very much. She used to speak of the rubber smell. My grandparents, now-retired ministers, never had a house there because they always lived in church pensions. Now in their eighties, they're quite poor because they never invested in a home, never built (had? whatever you do with) equity to leverage for retirement. In retirement, they lived in a fifth wheel RV for eighteen years. People thought they were glamorous, criss-crossing the country in a motorhome. Truth was, they were just too poor to afford anything else but fuel. They often spent nights in church parking lots and friends' driveways. I have no physical reminders of where they've lived because they lived everywhere. Even now, in a permanent trailer in south central Florida, it hardly seems like their home. Just another campsite.

My other grandparents' homes in my small hometown have much more resonance. When I went back recently, for the first time in nearly five years, I drove past all of my Gram's old homes before going to see her in the very nice assisted living center where she's well-fed and watched over by people who seem to genuinely care about her well-being. Her Alzheimer's is pretty advanced, but she's extremely pleasant to be around even still. I wanted to put her in the front seat of my car and drive her past the old houses too and listen to the differences she can spot, an adult who once lived in them up against my childish memories. I don't think she's been in a car in years or even out in the world, so I didn't want to overwhelm her. But maybe next time, before it's too late. Shared physical memories, while we still have them.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Catherine and Brittany both: I would love to get together (even if just electronically) to combine these redolent memories of grandparents. There is much confluence. And I don't think they had any idea how much their simple physicality--the smell, the look, of where they lived, and what our small minds were trying to make of it all--would affect us so much later.

And some of us will become that to our own lineage. Gives a slight shiver, yes?

Joe said...

Thanks for this piece...and thanks again for The Place You Love Is Gone. I'm working on using these concepts as analogy for what happens when digital places change, morph, and disappear. How do our digital lives change because YouTube or Facebook redesign their interaction models, their visual design, and their content strategy? How does the prospect of losing Flickr (sadly, probably inevitable) parallel the loss of Eastern Airlines or TWA or Borders or that place you love?

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Who was it who said every advance in technology also entails a loss? It cannot help but be so.

I keep an ancient pack of unopened Tri-X film as a memorial to Kodak, and to the messy past, with its chemicals and mysterious hours in the darkroom. It might have been harder than the digital way, but the difficulties all were dispelled under the safelight, as an image emerged like the spirit of magic on the paper in the bath.