Saturday, May 27, 2006

Back to Ohio: Part 3

Akron, Ohio is a place I can always write about. The city and its western suburban neighborhoods still enter my dreams and stay with me with a resonating chord of permanence. It is in my DNA. It is my childhood home and the place I returned for so many years to see my father, my grandfather and many friends and family after my parents divorced in 1974 (and when we moved to New Hampshire permanently). There is the place of a seemingly idyllic childhood, unmarred by divorce or the trials of adolescence, where everything is always green and lush and ripe with possibility.

Recently, on two separate trips to Kentucky since mid-April (more about Kentucky trip below) we found ourselves in Akron again. It makes the shortest trip from New Hampshire to Kentucky to go to Akron or near it and get on I-71 down to Cincinnati. On the map it looks like the longest route but to drop down from Erie or through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and the eastern Kentucky mountains is supposedly longer, more circuitous, but likely more scenic.

So on our second trip, this time without our children, we decided to stay one night in Akron on the way down to Kentucky and one on the way back (we'll reserve the more scenic route for another time). The first night came at the end of a long day across New York state and we only had time to hit our favorite antique mall (Medina Antique Mall), find a few treasures that I collect (mostly family-related from the rubber and pottery industries), and grab a burger meal at Swenson's (I'm proud to say that NEW YORK TIMES writer and Akron native R.W. Apple, Jr. agrees with me that they make the best burgers in America!). The next morning we bisected Ohio on the diagonal made by I-71 right through its center at Columbus and were easily to our central Kentucky destination within six hours.

On our return to New Hampshire we had a more leisurely day. We arrived back in Akron mid-afternoon, grabbed another Swenson's meal (the ultimate drive-in experience; you have to understand that cravings for Swenson cheeseburgers have at times been so severe that irrational thought kicks into the idea of a whirlwind weekend drive to Akron and back just to satisfy it), and settled into our hotel. We went to see my father's gravesite and planted a geranium, we drove past our old house and explored other neighborhoods.

I had intended to take a picture of 2024 Ayers Avenue. Everytime I see the place it gets smaller and the Japanese maple tree in front of the house, as old as I am, gets larger. The yard has shrunk, the house is less deep (it is likely about 20 x 15 when it felt like twice that growing up), and the neighborhood has diminished from an entire universe to a mere jumble of streets. This time the house looked sad: if houses can have emotion this one does. The grass was long and going to seed. There was no sign of life in front or back. The backyard, once abundant with my mother's effortless landscaping, was as it was when my parents purchased the place in the summer of 1962--a fenceless empty spot, dreary and desolate (it too is probably only a 20 x 15 patch of grass and space but as a child it was an entire limitless prairie).

I have never been tempted to knock on the door or ask to go in. The neighborhood has changed several times in the 32 years since we lived there. The last neighbors whom we knew died or moved away years ago. The street has likely had at least two generations of homeowners since 1974.

I realized on this last trip how remote those years now seem. The places we love often remain but are never the same without us in them, without those we love with us, too. Akron seems an empty place now that my father is gone, my grandparents have gone, and all of my childhood friends or their parents have left for another part of the world. How can a place where we have been so intimately familiar go on without us? Perhaps our memories are the only ghosts that haunt a place: residual emotions of the soul or actions in dreams that play themselves out in the memory of a place.

Once that small Colonial Revival house on its small lot in its quiet neighborhood was the center of an entire universe: where cicadas shrilled and mourning doves sobbed on the powerlines. Where approaching trains wailed their plaintive and lonely cries both coming and going, passing through on their way somewhere else. Where fire flies glimmered and hovered above our lawns on humid nights, as many as stars. Where we built whole towns of Lincoln Logs on the rug or found hidden pathways connecting suburban yards. Where five of us--father, mother, sister, and two brothers--lived our lives together for a brief blip in time, hovering on the edge of an uncharted place with all of its perilous chasms and beautiful valleys. Our world was a safe and secure place where the world beyond was vast and somehow far removed. Where in that once limitless and forever time, now only a moment, we all seemed happy. Is it too much to say that we might have been?

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