Oh, to be lost in this sea of bland modernity that now covers the home town I knew. At last I could shed the ever more burdensome identity I've acquired over the years with every wrinkle, vanity, sin and regret. Why, it'd be the equivalent of a moral facelift. I'd be free of the past at last, that is, I'd be free of me. Just another driver in a traffic diagram.
I'm amazed at how little of the home town I remember is left. I keep getting lost. They seem to have paved it over and built some kind of bland, fake Shreveport on top. We could be in Sioux City or, Heaven forbid, a slice of Dallas or Atlanta or any Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area ... and they didn't even ask for my permission before they changed everything in town. That's what happens when you turn your back on a place for a few years and, when you come back, it's no longer a place. Not one with any distinguishing marks, anyway, as they say on the Wanted posters.
We take refuge from the enveloping nothingness of the modern city at the condo my big sister and her husband have taken for their visits back home. It, too, is indistinguishable from the row of structures alongside it. They, too, are all the same--till you go inside. Once through the door, this is the childhood home I remember, for it's full of furniture from our old house on Forrest Avenue. "Take whatever you want," my sister tells me again, but I wouldn't disturb a single piece. It's like a period room in a museum (Middle Class Household, circa 1950).
But there is one little picture I want, a photograph in an Art Deco frame of 1920s provenance that shows an older sister of my mother's, my Aunt Temya, the one who looked after my mother when they were being raised on what was essentially a battlefield somewhere on the Eastern front of the First World War.
After the war, Temya settled in Paris, the City of Light, where she and so many other Polish Jews would take refuge -- till that day a couple of decades later when they would be rounded up by the French, turned over to the German occupiers and shipped off in boxcars for Resettlement in the East, as it was called, never to be seen again. Her younger sister, my mother, had made her way alone, at 19, to this ever beckoning Land of the Free, where she would be taken in by a branch of our big, warm, sprawling and still hyperverbal family, God bless America.
We wrap Temya's old photograph carefully in tissue paper, cushion it with wrapping paper, and hide it deep in a pocket of my briefcase for the trip home to Little Rock. I feel I am carrying the most precious thing in the world. And maybe the next: memory.
Now I have a niece named for Temya, and she's the sweetest of the whole bunch. She's called Tammy in this ever New World. It's a very American transformation -- from the dark rotogravure tint of Temya's old picture into the Technicolor version of a smiling Tammy Greenberg that I put right beside it on my kitchen cabinet. So I can remember both every time I sit down for my morning coffee and renew my gratitude and rage, and mainly my wonder.
None of the visit home over the weekend seems to fit together -- the old and new Shreveports, the sharp memories and dull uniformity, the jagged edges and assuring continuities, the love and the fury, the good and bad and indifferent. ... It is all fragmentary in my mind. Like today's column.