Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wheaton Gothic

The strange place.
“Memory is insubstantial,” says Annie Dillard.  “Things keep replacing it.”  OK: what disappears, we replace.  Like many thoughtful observations about writing, Dillard's is also a thoughtful observation about living.  I've had her statement in mind as I've been thinking about a couple that, when I was 11 or so, moved into a house on Arcola Avenue around the corner from my family's.  They were "Bohemian."  I knew this because they wore mostly black, had longish hair, and were childless.  This was the mid-1970s, and they felt different to me, quietly strange.  Their house was a mock-Tudor — and this already marked them as odd, as the ones who live in that weird-looking European house, the faux-Gothic (we didn't know that word), dark place so different from Ours.

This couple was, I'm sure, harmless.  What grievous sin they did commit was in letting their front yard go to seed.  Grass grew wild, waist-high.  Shrubs, untrimmed, reached for ungainly heights.  The front walk was crowded over with weeds.  The house itself grew foreboding, darker somehow (maybe I'm only recalling the house during fall and winter months), and even stranger, and walking past on my way to the public library I sensed a (pre-language) sadness about the place, as if something was going wrong inside.  The wildness of the front lawn seemed riotously unsafe and glaring, an unseemly Yes to chaos and disorder — all of this intuited strangely by me, and obviously only half-comprehended.  I kind of loved and feared the place.  I remember my parents and their friends whispering behind their hands about the couple and their atrocious yard work.  I never saw the two anywhere, ever; but for the few times I glimpsed them out front or coming in and out, they seemed to me to exist permanently on the inside.  

Photo of Levvittown via The Art Of Manliness. 

Wheaton, Maryland was named after Frank Wheaton, an officer in the U.S. Army who rose to the rank of major-general during the Civil War era.  The region, 10 or so miles north of Washington D.C. line, bloomed in the mid-Twentieth century.  The neighborhood where I was raised consisted primarily of small red-brick single family "starter" homes and newer, somewhat larger split-level houses, like ours on Amherst Avenue.  Our friendly suburbia was not manically self-governed — no home owners were fined if their grass grew over a certain height or if their county-strip was too wide or too narrow — but there was an aesthetic uniformity, not unpleasing.  I don't know where this couple's mock-Tudor house came from.  It seemed to spring from some planner's anomalous imagination, a home dropped in the middle of relative homogeny that called attention to itself in gloomy, unhappy ways.  The couple eventually moved out and on, and new owners bought the house.  The front yard was tidied up and, as it were, brought to code.


I keep thinking of Dillard.  What things have I replaced?  Were I to compare a photograph of this house circa the mid-1970s to the house I see in memory, I wonder would the contours line up.  I'm afraid that I've over-dramatized the yard's mess, the couple's outsiderness, the neighborhood gossip.  The home and the nearly-faceless, mythic couple who lived there have been sifted through my imagination for so long that those images and narratives are certain, permanent truths to me now.  And if a photo document of the house — and of course it's coming, sometime, online — conspires against those truths then I'll throw up my hands yet again.  Got me again, verifiable facts.  I still don't believe you.

I've been rereading Jeffrey Eugendies' The Virgin Suicides, a novel that affected me profoundly.  The twenty-year gap between the tragic events in the Lisbon household and the confounding relaying of those events by the collective narrator spills over with grief, mystery, and memory's lame housing of both.  Eugenides said in an interview that if he could be any emotion it would be longing, and longing touches every page of this novel, dampening it.  What troubles the narrators along with the Lisbon girls' bizarre rejection of the world is the narrators' own inability to rub off the tattoo of unknowing.  What to do with unanswerable questions?  Keep asking, searching, in the narrarators' cases with an obsessed, fetishistic investigative process that spans decades and proves fruitless.  

"We haven't kept our tomb sufficiently airtight, and our sacred objects are perishing," the narrators lament near the end of the novel.  They'd attempted, half-successfully, to demystify the Lisbon girls, as Eugenides successfully defamiliarized the suburbs.  I wonder about that strange home around corner from mine, its perishing details that year by year I replace with contents (and content) that I may have well, in part, created, loved, needed in a weird way, manufactured for my own story of growing up in a suburb and its strange pulsing I tuned into.

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