Hollywood Beach, the summer of 1977. Window units filter air thick and cloying as honey into a thin and bracing breeze. A half mile down the street, the Elk River, its water the consistency and color of lukewarm coffee with cream, is dotted with children and well-oiled ladies on rafts. I am old enough now to walk down to the beach by myself. My family knows everyone, and everyone knows me. There are always watchful eyes.
Wafts of cigarette smoke and mildewed, asthmatic nights intersperse with the soothing grassiness of chamomile tea on ice and the warm burst of cherry tomatoes from the garden. My mother’s ‘70s health food staples of wheat germ and carob and my grandmother’s McDonald’s hamburgers chased with Coca-Cola both make me, flesh and bone. Dining table readings of Gertrude Stein at one house intermingle with The Price is Right and Abbot and Costello at another.
Very few of these associations have anything directly to do with the picture that inspired them. My grandfather was a ubiquitous presence. He allowed me to live with him when I was a teen, when it seemed no one else could tolerate me. My feelings about him are complicated and my grandmother has always been primary, even after her 1979 death. I could probably write more comfortably (and with more authority) about the paneling in this photo than about my grandfather. Guilt by association? Make of it what you will. I may never know the whole of it.
Sometimes I wonder how this early stew of my life, with its contradictions and mixed moods, fits into who I am now. Often it feels like there is no communication, no correspondence. What happened to those parts of me, the parts in which I am the only remaining witness?
This morning I woke up from a dream. I had never cleaned out my grad school apartment, the one from the in-between time of my early 20s, when I started to build the internal structures necessary to live in the world despite my history, my knowledge of who I really was. I went back to the building, where every unit was being renovated except for mine. Inside there were soaring ceilings, a gas fireplace fully lit. Stuff—clothes, trash, papers—was piled everywhere, my furniture was intact, and the walls were lined with artwork I had long forgotten about. It was a homecoming.
The time has come to integrate these disavowed parts of myself, to embody the contradictions and accept—and take—responsibility.