Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Reading. Calvino.

I learned to drive on the winding road that twisted through the Arboretum, across the Madison Park neighborhood (past the restaurants and shops I have frequented since childhood) and down a hairpin switchback towards the lake, past grand houses with their manicured grounds and banks of rhodedendrons, along the lakeshore, dodging bicyclists on sunny days, past public parks and boathouses, until my heart gave a great leap because I knew I was almost home, almost to the turn-off that led up a steep hill, a left at a stop sign, up another, steeper hill and then another left (and another stop sign), and then into our driveway, curving beneath the dogwood tree that sent forth a white cloud of blossoms each spring, floating over our deck, dropping white petals across the ground. The last time I saw that house the dogwood tree was in bloom, the rooms empty of furniture and books and old rugs and art and all the debris of twenty years gathered in closets and under beds and in basement storage rooms. I stood in that empty living room where the dog used to pee on the rug and the piano filled the airy bay window and I wept. But that was only one short month ago, and that home was not my whole world but my anchor from which I could explore the world. I should go back even farther.

When I was very small, we lived in Ladue, Missouri, and I remember the house very clearly, and its address, One Kingston Manor, the first house to the right as you entered our street that ended in a cul-de-sac (as A. once put it, Kairu! That's not a cul-de-sac! We call those dead-ends! when I called her, desperately lost, from the car on my way to pick her up). Each house was situated at the front of a narrow but extremely long strip of land, leaving a smallish lawn on the street side and what seemed to be an absolutely enormous backyard behind. Between the ages of approximately two and five my world was contained by that strip of land at One Kingston Manor, interrupted by hours spent at preschool and visits to my father's office at the university, which I remember as being a tiny cubicle with only a small window set high in the wall for ventilation rather than view, and if it seemed rather cramped to my three-year-old eyes it must have seemed even smaller to an associate professor of biology who was only a little less than six feet tall.

I thought of that childhood home when I read the first essay contained in The Road to San Giovanni, in which Italo Calvino writes of how his father felt that the gate which led into the road that took you up into the country, into the hills behind their house, was where the world began. Whereas "the other part of the world below the house was a mere appendix, necessary sometimes when there were things to be done, but alien and insignificant, to be crossed in great strides;" on the other hand, Calvino felt that the world began "on the other side of the house and went downwards...it was down in the town that the signs of the future were to be read." In this, the title essay of his collection of "memory exercises," Calvino recounts the clashing viewpoints of the world between his father and himself, and writes, in a breathless rush of words, his childhood days on the family farm, in the fields and the orchards. Memory pours over me in a wave, memories of jumping up and down on the fallen crab-apples in the driveway, of running my fingers through the feathery dill fronds that foamed up in green fountains, encircled by a wire fence that nonetheless failed to keep out the rabbits. I will not go back there, except for in my memory.

Calvino, Italo. The Road to San Giovanni. Vintage, 1994. p 4.

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