Where I Was
In my living room, there's a framed copy of a watercolor done by my great-grandmother's postman. The story goes that before she left Yorkshire for the United States, she expressed real regret at never seeing her home again. Her postman brought her the picture that now sits in my living room, a portrait of the home she was leaving behind in blurring greens and yellows with a few white ducks. I look at it daily, sometimes barely noticing, sometimes trying to imagine my great-grandmother's face as she'd open the front door or the way she must have walked across the bridge at left for the last time. It's only a copy (my aunt owns the original) but I love having it close by.
I also have a watercolor of my childhood home on my walls. My family now has a long tradition of commissioningwatercolors of the houses where we've lived. That house, a large brick Victorian with a turret and long, deep porch, appears in my dreams over and over. I walk through it, I touch it, I get lost in it. Sometimes the dream is only that I live in it again. I wake, I cook, I sit on the porch and watch the traffic. It is, in my dreams, the place I run to and the building that holds me tight. In my waking hours, I often find myself scheming to buy it someday, though that's a ridiculous plan.
I'm prone to ridiculous plans, prone to fantasizing about the things I desire and the worlds in which I imagine I could live. I've never been particularly practical about the things I embrace and take in and cuddle in my soul. So imagine my surprise when I discovered last week as I took a train to London that I was trying very hard not to fall in love with England. I didn't want to fall in love with it; I'd only been in the country once before, and I've only seen bits of it and it's very far away and feels a little cliché, besides. It felt a little dangerous, the way falling in love always does. I did not want to. I resolved that I wouldn't, and then stepped off of the train in Southwark.
Once in Southwark, I wandered (I do love a good wander) and found myself in a market with lots of open stalls. One of them was full of baked goods, and I bought a danish with sweet, cool pears sliced across the top. Walking and quietly humming to myself, I decided that what I really needed was coffee. Turning the corner, the city rose up to fulfill my desire in the form of a hole-in-the-wall just big enough for someone to hand out my drink. Practically purring, I walked along with coffee and danish in hand, looking for a bench on which to sit and watch the morning unfold. Suddenly, Southwark Cathedral emerged, dark and moody against the morning sky, and I stopped dead. A humming city that smells of grass and smoke and water, a danish and a coffee acquired without trying, a cathedral that's more than 500 years old and a bench to sit and watch it while the cathedral watched me back. "Fuck it," I thought, "I'm in love."
On the train back to my friend's house, I knew it was true. I was sucking up the landscape, ushering every inch in, feeling a bit wild with swings of adoration and grief that it wasn't my home. There are many places in this world that I love. The places with which I have been in love now number four. The first is is that house in my dreams, the one that I left but will not leave me. The second is gone, a once sturdy yurt in rural Oregon. I miss it every day. The third is the city of Boston, where I often imagine retiring to hobble around the T and sit at the Public Library to work on that book I'm saving for those days. And now England. It's silly to think I love a whole country, but damn it, I'm pretty sure that I do. On the plane home, they were running several films set in the country, and I kept turning my face from the scenery as if I'd glimpsed a old lover in favorite café. It's not mine. It's not mine, I know, but I want it all the same.
Since I returned, I've been thinking about what makes a person fall in love with a place. I keep looking at the watercolors on opposite walls and wondering if places don't grow up like vines through history, choking our hearts and making it impossible not to love what has nurtured our past. I don't much like this thought. It smacks a little too much of a desperate grabbing for some kind of history to fill a gap created by family traditions lost. But then I look at the picture of my childhood home, the one that haunts my dreams, and I can't imagine that any child or grandchild of mine could ever lay eyes on it and not feel its floorboards hum and its walls caress. I can't imagine they wouldn't know it for home the way I do. It feels twisted around my very cells like part of my genetic code. It seems completely possible that some grandchild of mine could find it like a tiny pebble in her shoe.
The picture up top is from the website of the Lockton and Levisham Heritage Group. Levisham is the village my great-grandmother left to come to the States.