Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Selling Childhood

This last week, a relative put on the market the last piece of property my family owned: a cottage near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. My family was in good fortune to have four properties over the generations - the house I grew up in, in Appleton, Wisconsin; a greystone in Chicago, Illinois; my grandmother's house in Woodstock, Illinois; and this cottage. All of the other properties got sold closer to the deaths of the folks who owned them initially - this one stayed in the family.

It's been a long process, including digging up the cremains on the property so we wouldn't leave a graveyard there. Not easy. When the listings did finally appear, I was a bit shocked - there it is! Some parts of it look exactly as they have for over forty years, some parts are newer because of some room remodeling. Nothing unknown, except that kind of aspirational zen quality that comes with empty rooms, a sort of "Hey, maybe I could make this work for me," feeling that always crosses my mind with property for sale and rooms empty like blank canvasses.

Here, though, there are some extra layers: 
-the last of my childhood places being sold
-a locus of many memories, not all of them positive
-my childhood connection to nature
-a place I considered using for writing retreats for myself, but it simply didn't work right.

The first thought that came to mind I no longer consider true, but it was powerful and built with a punch:
"Your childhood is up for sale right now."

I felt it in my gut, a bam in my intestines, and I cried for a few minutes on Ilana's lap. Then I laughed - for chrissake, I write memoir. If anyone is selling her childhood, I am. I don't hold that relative accountable for keeping one of our childhood places in the family. It's time to move on. That final grasping feeling is just a part of the process.

This makes me curious all around, this quality of selling our stories, and if it feels like selling our truth, selling what we know, if we are, as Annie Dillard directly states, cannibalizing our memories? For me, the act of writing memoir has done little but improve my memory, make me question them for the better, see things in a different perspective.

And this, after all, is what seeing the cottage up for sale is doing - making me see my family's time there, and my time there, in perspective. Last year, I visited an old friend of my mom's, and she had pictures from the first winter after my grandparents bought the place - wood skis, outhouse, fire and all. It was powerful to see these photos - we have some ourselves, but from someone else's viewpoint - my family as seen by another family, even long before I was born.

When it comes time to professionally edit my childhood memoir and put it up for sale, when it comes time to actually read it aloud at book readings and see how others react, I am sure all of these thoughts will come up again. I am glad it all came up now, safe on the couch with Ilana, so I could contemplate - and question - it all. Again and again.

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