At one point in my early twenties I decided to write a novel. I had a title, Erosion, and a first chapter, an overly sentimental and barely fictionalized account of the narrator — me, roughly — sorting through her grandmother's silk scarves. It centered around the idea that as families grow older they learn things about each other that erode the facade of what the family once was, but in the process carve out new identities for themselves, the same way a river can erode the earth and create new shapes in the landscape.
I think this chapter disappeared in the Great Computer Crash of '97, if not before, but I think about this idea a lot. How easy it is to turn old truths into new fictions, and how crushing it is to discover that you've got it completely the wrong way around.
I grew up believing in unicorns and ghosts, in Superman and the tooth fairy*. I also grew up believing that a woman from our town named Lottie Moon was a Civil War hero, a woman who had helped slaves escape by housing them in her stately home on the underground railroad. It wasn't until recently that I discovered how very, very wrong I was. Lottie wasn't helping slaves escape; she was using her flirtatious nature to spy on Ambrose Burnside for the Confederacy.
There actually were underground railroad stations in my town, they were just elsewhere. I went looking in old county records for Alanson Roots, one of the real owners of a home that had served as a station on the underground railroad, and in the process discovered the written origins of my town.
During the Summer of 1810 the tall trees which then covered the site of the town began to be cut down, and a few cabins commenced. The first house erected in Oxford was built by Samuel MCCULLOUGH, on Lot No. 1, being the lot on which Captain Joel COLLIN's house stood in 1838. It was built of unhewed beech logs, and for several years was the only house of entertainment in the place. It disappeared many years ago. On the lot adjoining the public square was shortly afterward erected a hewed log house by William MCMAHAN, which was also removed many years since. According to the census of 1830, the population of the village amounted to 737 souls.Even back then things were disappearing.
* * *
All of the houses in my hometown seem to have new stories now. The house I grew up in has a new name, pavement where the patio once was, a cardboard beer carton blowing around in the backyard. The stucco has become siding, and all that's left of the porch swing is a single link dangling from a hook in the ceiling. The garden has been stripped of its flowers; just a few tulips and a pear tree remain.
Visiting places that have such weight in your memory can be such a dangerous thing, especially if the truth as you knew it is no longer there.
* * *
"This is verbena," Mom said as we walked in between the red brick buildings. (She meant viburnum.)
I held the flower to my nose and sniffed. Immediately I shouted that this was a tree that once grew in our yard. "That's right," said Dad, proud that I remembered. Proud that our old garden was something important enough to remember.
We watched a group of schoolchildren jumping rope near the clump of viburnum bushes, and I wondered if that smell would infect their memories as deeply as it had mine. If they would smell a viburnum bush twenty years from now and be violently whipped back to that beautiful sunny day when they skipped rope with their classmates among the trees and red brick buildings. If their laughter would come rushing back too.
I can't see yet what new shapes are forming in my old landscape. I only know that each time I go home the river has cut deeper, and I'm dizzy from reminding myself that I've got it completely the wrong way around.
* While I was home I unearthed my first letter to the tooth fairy, in which I'd tried to extort her for two whole dollars. There are certain things I'm glad I no longer believe in.