I am traveling nearly seven hundred miles with my wife and three-year-old daughter to the town where I grew up. Most of the Fuller family still lives in upstate New York, although there are some who moved even farther than I did. The trip promises that odd mixture of stress and relief; although I am on vacation from work, it is never easy to find myself in Syracuse. Inevitably, there are more family members and old friends that want to see me than I have time to accommodate. Some have never met my daughter. Some may have never met my wife; it gets harder to remember the longer I am gone.
I feel the social obligations pulling me in multiple directions at once, when what I need – what my family needs – is to take a respite from the obligations of our daily lives, and to spend time with immediate family.
Although we left our house late and made multiple stops that have continued to delay our trip, we stop for an hour for dinner. I watch my daughter devour two-and-a-half chocolate chip pancakes and a couple strips of bacon. I teach her a joke that has been in my family for generations. When someone says, “I’m full,” she is now primed to respond with, “I’m a little Fuller.”
It is late, and dark. We pass by a well-lit train covered in graffiti. Taggers have been placing their marks on nearly every massive car that I can see. Most of it is so highly stylized that I can’t read the names or words they’ve written. One tagger has industriously hit at least thirty consecutive cars, changing colors regularly. His name is indecipherable: Smur? It seems unlikely, but between the shadows of night, the speed of my vehicle, and the sharp angles in the letters, I can’t make a better guess.
I have a condition called topographic agnosia, or “place blindness.” In the past few years, more and more information is coming out about this condition that suggests that this (self-) diagnosis may get a different name soon, but what it essentially means is that I can’t translate a map to real-world conditions. I get lost extremely easily, even in places that should be familiar to me. I have to make my way based on landmarks, and even that isn’t anywhere close to foolproof; if I see those landmarks from the wrong angle, with the wrong light, with a partial visual obstruction – they might as well not be there.
My wife wakes as I am merging onto the last stretch of highway on our trip. “We didn’t take 690?” she asks.
We hadn’t. The GPS didn’t take me that way. When I am driving with a GPS and no other input, it becomes gospel truth. I am incapable of making educated guesses on alternate routes or directions. I knew the trip was different, but it was too dark for me to determine why or how. In GPS I trust.
Once I am off the highway, I know the route, although I could not successfully draw a map of it. I have no sense of scale for distance while I am traveling. Another issue that can arise with topographic agnosia is difficulty in estimating the passage of time. When I am involved in an activity that holds my attention, I can lose track of time completely, so that I am literally unable to guess whether I have been involved in that activity for twenty minutes or three hours. I have driven this route, or been a passenger on this route, countless times in my life, but I have no idea how long it will take to get to my parents’ house.
But I am very conscious that it has been twenty years since I last truly lived here. That passage of time, I feel sharply.
In January of 1995, I visited the college I ended up attending a few months later. We toured a building still under construction, where I would eventually spend most of my time as an undergraduate. As we passed through an unpainted staircase, the tour guide jokingly suggested that if I wanted to sign my name on the wall, now was the time – not after it was finished.
I held out my hand and he gave me a Sharpie. I signed my name, large and looping, like the John Hancock of the campus.
A couple years later, I learned that it had become a tradition for the rest of the campus visits that winter and spring to have potential students sign their names on the wall, too.
Most of them ended up attending other schools.
In the past few months, my younger sister, who still lives in upstate New York, had renovated and redesigned the upstairs of my parents’ house. The carpet that had been in my old bedroom since before we had taken occupancy in 1987 is gone, replaced with wood. The rooms remind me, vaguely, of a bed and breakfast; they are lovely to look at but still retain the comfort of seeming lived-in. I have always been impressed with my sister, but this has me silently marveling at the extent of the skill she has demonstrated. Oddly, this respect is battling with another feeling: guilt. How could I have let our relationship drift to the point where her desire to do this and her ability to do this had surprised me?
Along with those feelings is a third, lesser sense; I can’t help but feel a slight sense of loss. These are not the bedrooms I had known. These are not the rooms I had lived in, even though they clearly are. The work was necessary, and it is beautiful, and I am the one who moved hundreds of miles west, but a small part of me mourns the loss of something I no longer needed.
I am more comforted by the downstairs. Although the carpets and floors have both been changed since I moved away, they were changed bit by bit, over time, and I have had time to adjust to these changes from prior visits. The kitchen is as I remember it. The living room is as familiar as always. The piano sits by the windows looking out at the driveway the way it had since I was writing music in high school. The magazines in the bathroom are the ones I expect to see there: Games and The Smithsonian Magazine (current issue: “Time Travels,” lead story: “Rock Stars; 30,000 Years Ago Humans Painted France’s Amazing Chauvet Cave. Now You Can See It As Never Before”). I know where to go to get a Diet Coke. I know where the Band-Aids are. It is more familiar than the upstairs, and during the first day of the visit it’s easier to stay down.
My mother finds a number of games that are in the appropriate age range for my daughter. We sit down with her to play Candyland. We have a version of it at home that has a spinner instead of cards; this version is clearly older, as it still has cards, and the one-way, no-option path is longer with more potential problems to encounter. The pieces in our version are various sweets; this version has the classic four colors of gingerbread men. Even so, it’s not the same one I grew up with. This one is cuter, somehow. More colorful. Sillier, maybe? I’m playing a board game with my daughter that has gone through multiple revisions, and I can’t remember the one I used to play with. I experience a slight discomfort with the game we have because it doesn’t feel right in some way, but I couldn’t tell you how. I have no specific examples of how it’s different from what I played as a child; I only know that it’s different, and I don’t fully understand why they felt the need to change it, and in some obscure way another piece of my childhood has been deemed expendable.
Once, years ago, I had a regular route home that took me up the same stretch of Indiana highway five days a week at the same time each day. I didn’t have a GPS or a cell phone at the time. I knew the traffic patterns, and I knew when to switch lanes to avoid the worst back-ups. I had become an expert in this route.
And then one day I became distracted by something on the radio. I drove on mental autopilot, not thinking about the traffic or the lanes. When I snapped back to reality, I was lost. Completely, utterly lost. I was still on the same highway, but I had no idea whether I was still five miles away from my exit or twenty miles past it. I began to panic. I knew the mile marker number of the exit I needed (one of my failsafes for preventing myself from getting lost), but I couldn’t see any mile marker lanes through the heavy traffic on both sides of me. I knew I had to get to one side or the other to see a marker, so I put on my signal and swerved in between two sedans in the next lane.
My universe shifted along with my perspective. I was no longer lost. I hadn’t seen a mile marker yet, but from this lane – the lane where I usually drove – the landmarks looked familiar. From ten or fifteen feet to my left, they were completely alien. A minor shift, but it felt like being launched through the air without a parachute or a net.
I can’t make the trip yet. I can’t get myself to go see it with my own eyes. It won’t be new; I’ve seen the photos, and I know what happened, but I can’t go yet. This surprises me. I thought I had come to grips with it, but clearly I haven’t. Maybe the next day.
In the bedroom that used to be my sister’s, with my daughter across the hall in the room that I had claimed as my own after my brother had graduated high school, I dream of the graffiti-covered train, but in dream-logic, it is located in a cave. There are no train tracks; there are deep clawed footprints that I am not educated enough to recognize with certainty. The train is covered in semi-detailed line drawings of horses, mammoths, bears, panthers, and other beasts. There are hand stencils on each car, paint sprayed onto the back of a hand to create a negative space on the wall. One car is covered with a wooly rhinoceros.
It is signed Smur.
In my parents’ kitchen cabinet, I find a box of kitchen trash bags marked Fay’s. This was a drugstore that changed to Eckerd Drugs before I went to college. I had worked there the entire summer after graduating high school, helping them set up a new store. The trash bags are twenty years old. They’re still good, of course; all they exist for is getting rid of waste. Once enough waste has accumulated, they will be gone, too.
Eckerd has now been replaced by Rite-Aid.
I decide to make the trip. It’s a pleasant day. I know the route, even without the GPS. Four turns from the street I’m on now. Easy. I know that as I get close to the destination, things will look familiar – or at least familiar enough that I will recognize the street and make the last turn.
I leave without explaining to my parents where I’m going. It’s not that I don’t think they’d understand, it’s that I’m surprised at my own emotions and I’m not ready to discuss all of it. I briefly wonder if the feeling of melancholy that has hit me is simply a flashback to the teen years I spent in this household struggling with depression and self-doubt.
Losing parts of my childhood, or keeping parts of my childhood? One of these seems to be responsible for my bleak mood. It wouldn’t make sense for it to be both, right?
I pass by one of my favorite places from my childhood – a duck pond. I consider stopping, but I don’t plan to be gone for that long, and I don’t have any change with me to buy food for the ducks and geese.
I remember being here once with a girl I was dating. I remember kissing her and simultaneously questioning why I wasn’t enjoying it. I remember afterwards thinking that we both knew the relationship wasn’t going anywhere, and admitting to myself that it was mostly because I was using her as a placeholder to try to stave off the loneliness that I felt. I assumed she was using me for the same reason. We broke up shortly thereafter.
I had forgotten about her almost completely until today. I find that a lot of people have a tendency to slip out of my memory if I don’t work at maintaining the relationship. Not for the first time, I wonder what that says about me. Far more people remember me than I manage to remember. I don’t know if the problem is my memory, or my personality.
As usual, I choose not to think about it. I drive on.
I spent some time standing in the room that was my first bedroom in this house, just looking at the décor. I remembered getting in mild trouble once because I had written in pencil on my wall, assuming that I would be able to erase it cleanly. When I realized that I couldn’t erase it without making a nasty smear of graphite on the paint, I gave up – and wrote more. I can’t remember what I wrote. Small drawings, I think, and a few words here or there. Lines of poetry or lyrics? Probably my name at least once.
The paint cleanly hides any evidence of this. I assume that a prior layer of paint had already covered it over, or that someone had figured out how to clean it up after I was long gone, because it definitely hadn’t been there during my last several visits either. It’s only now that I think about it.
Several years ago, I took a friend to Iowa to help me do research for a book I was writing. Afterward, we traveled to a theatre in Quad Cities where we performed in an improv show. While we were there, the manager of the improv troupe showed us where other guest performers had signed their names on the wall. After our show, I completely forgot about it, and it was only a week later that I realized I had missed my chance to write my name on their wall.
I had written it on a wall designated for such a thing in Milwaukee during a guest visit years earlier, and in the sound booth of my current troupe in Indianapolis near other graffiti. But I had missed the chance to prove that I had played in Quad Cities.
Since then, they have relocated. I will be back there in a matter of weeks to perform again. I intend to sign something.
I am considering driving to the town in Iowa that I had investigated and donating a copy of my book to their library. I’ll sign it, of course.
I drive past the St. Agnes Cemetery. There are about 5,200 graves on this hill. It’s not even the largest cemetery I’ve driven past on this short trip; before I had even reached the duck pond, I passed another cemetery with nearly 9,000 graves. I was once lost in that large one, having accompanied a friend who liked exploring cemeteries and who then wandered into the large tract of forest behind it. We were starting to get concerned about how long we had been walking in circles when two other teens on four-wheelers showed up and started talking to us. After a few minutes, we realized that one of the four-wheeler teens had been one of my best friends in first grade, over a decade prior. I had forgotten about him.
I make the turn onto the dead end street that is my destination. This is the first street I remember living on. I am surprised by how small and short it seems. It’s not my first visit since moving away in 1987. It’s not even my first visit in the past five years, but it still seems smaller and shorter than I ever remember it being before.
It’s my first visit since the house I grew up in was demolished.
I very nearly drive past the empty lot, it’s so small. I remember the inside of the house with unusual clarity for me, but I can’t help but wonder if the memory is accurate. I remember how massive our front porch was, considering how many times there would be a dozen of us playing there – but the lot seems so narrow that I can’t even envision the house sitting there. I remember a hill from our house to the next one up; it barely looks like a small rise in the dirt. I see the garage, still standing, behind where the house used to be (now a patch of healthy-seeming grass), and I remember my brother attempting to destroy it by practicing pitching for hours on end. I thought for sure he would have played professionally, at a bare minimum in the minor leagues. I still think he would have, if he hadn’t gotten hurt. I find myself feeling guilty again because I can’t remember what the injury was, or even if it was just one or if it was a combination of smaller ones just taking its toll on him.
I remember playing games in the backyard, and games that involved running around the house. I remember the car stolen from the driveway in the back of our house, and to my surprise I can’t even spot where the driveway would have curved back behind us.
I had thought that I would park, but I just stop for a moment and then drive up the hill. I think about the people that I can remember from the various houses. I’m not sure how many of those families are still there. I turn around at the dead end and stop again on my way down, staring at the tiny empty lot.
I leave the street and on impulse turn into St. Agnes Cemetery.
The people who created their art in the Chauvet cave 30,000 years ago didn’t give any indication of why they did it. There are suspicions that there may have been a ritualistic aspect to them, but nobody really knows for sure.
But what is the point of any art? Why do we write our names on walls and on train cars? Why do we give real estate to the dead and carve their names on stone? Why do we sign the books we write, and why do we write them in the first place?
Why do improv, where there is no written record of the experience and generally nothing but the memory of the feelings experienced?
In the Chauvet cave, there are hand stencils and pigmented handprints. I’ve often wondered if this was the best the artists could do to prove their identities. If they were proud of their attempts to communicate, whether it was for educational, ritualistic, or purely aesthetic purposes, maybe they wanted to sign their names to the wall, too.
Sites like this are well-protected to prevent vandalism. I understand this, because if I were visiting such a site, I would be tempted to add my own mark.
Not because I would want to vandalize the original. Not because I feel my identity is worth preserving for 30,000 years. But because the only point of art on a wall is for someone else to see it, and in some odd way, putting my own name or art there would be a way for me to say, “I understand. I want to be heard. I want you to know that you have been heard.”
It would be a way of saying, “Me, too.”
It’s a way of saying, “I was here, too.”
The roads in St. Agnes Cemetery are narrower than I remember. We used to sled here in the winter, since the hill was smooth and long. It doesn’t seem nearly as smooth or long, and I can’t tell if the change is memory or if it’s just the ongoing press of erosion and time. I realize, shortly, that there is no obvious place to turn around. I have to keep following the one-way, no-option path to the end. I have a GPS in the glove box and I now have a smartphone, and at first I think that I might have to utilize them when I see an upcoming exit onto a street whose name I don’t know, but it occurs to me that as long as I keep track of where I had come from, I ought to be able to keep myself oriented for where I want to go.
I find my way back to the road to follow to my parents’ house with no difficulty. I pass by a cell phone store that used to be the barbershop my brother and I would walk to for a haircut, about a quarter mile from home. I plan to pass right by the street, but impulse wins again, and I turn back onto the street. I look at the vacant lot one more time, dully astonished by the lack of sorrow that I feel. Maybe I had come to terms with it more than I had thought.
On my way back down the short hill, I see a man sitting on the porch steps of the house next to the empty lot. He has earphones in and he is ignoring me, whether actively or passively I can’t tell. I stop my car in front of him and roll down my window, catching his attention.
Although I know the answer, I ask him how long the house has been gone. He tells me it’s been gone for about a year and a half, he thinks. Again, knowing the answer, I ask him what happened to it. He tells me the foundation was crumbling and nobody lived there, so they just had to tear it down.
I tell him, “I used to live there as a kid.”
He gives me a small, almost apologetic smile, and says, “Oh, okay. Yeah, they had to tear it down. Sorry, man.”
I thank him and roll up the window, and I drive back to my parents’ house.
It may be a small, hard to see mark, but I believe I signed his wall. I will not be an important part of his life, and I shouldn’t be. He will forget me, in the same way that I have forgotten others who were certainly more important to me than I could possibly have been to him.
But for a brief moment, a stranger made a connection with him.
I was here, too. And I know that you were here.
My daughter helps us as we all pick up sticks in the yard blown down by storms. There seem to be thousands of sticks, from tiny to huge, and it takes a while to finish the job. Afterward, it is time for her to take a nap.
She doesn’t want to go; she wants to spend more time with her grandparents. When we convince her that she has to take a nap, she asks if she can nap in our room, and asks if I will stay with her.
I plan to stay with her until she’s asleep and then slip out, but as she snuggles in to my side and hugs me and tells me she loves me, I can’t leave.
Within minutes, she is asleep, and I am not far behind.
We are in an unfamiliar room in a familiar house; none of this matters to her. Right here, all she knows, and all she needs to know, is that she is here, and I am here, and we are here together.
It is not just enough; it is plentiful.