A Natural History: Rachel Moritz31/03/2010
A Natural History of My Nostalgia
By Rachel Moritz
Outside, a noon rain shower. Cicadas buzzing in the Purple Milletta trees beyond our windows. Breeze circulating the ceiling fans. Bare feet, skin a feral shade of pink, almost red as watermelon and moist with humidity.
In that year we lived in a neighborhood called Balmoral Park, which I recall first as sprawling green lawn and then as a cluster of four-story stucco apartments. Each had a rounded, screened-in porch. I believe we lived on the third story—an apartment with tiled floors and three bedrooms, shades drawn or open to the tropical sunlight.
Dreamtime still brings the physical space back, each airy room bleeding into the next: living room with our bamboo furniture, hallway where the black piano sat upright, art deco bathroom with pristine enamel tub, my bedroom—its cloud-pattern curtains—my sister’s room, finally my parents’ across the hall.
The density of childhood, though its imprint is more like a white wall and never a doorway you can enter again. Virginia Woolf remembers the brocaded pattern of her mother’s dress and waves outside a nursery in her family’s house by the sea. Later, the image of a flower in the garden there and her first epiphanic moment as she bent over the plant—that the flower was connected to earth and earth to the flower.
There were places I couldn’t travel, despite my mind’s belief in a path. Perhaps as some kind of pilgrim carrying walking stick and bundle, I might lift the flap of a tunnel into each previous decade before my birth. My parents’ American childhoods were of utmost concern. My mother had roamed a hillside in central Arkansas, climbing trees for hours with a blue kerchief tied over her red hair. She had a hillbilly friend who lived in a shack deep in the woods she wasn’t supposed to visit. She had a vinyl star pattern on her bedroom floor.
My father once told me about lying on his back in the grass of his Scarsdale backyard, watching the lights of Sputnik blink far overhead. In a photograph, he wore a striped t-shirt, his chin round like mind. I wanted to see the color in that place and time, push past the black-and-white that seemed to freeze eternally.
The year we lived in Singapore was the year I turned seven. I discovered the Little House On the Prairie series and the haunting ending of the first book: “Now is now. Now can never be a long time ago.”
Around that time, and perhaps because of those books, I began to be fascinated by history. Even today images of the past send chills up my spine. Old snippets of news reel, bodies walking stilted and swift as machines on a Berlin street twenty years before Hitler, streetcars swerving around the corner, and some of the people waving, other oblivious, walking in their too-fast-motion down the pavement, daily business, moments unhinged, perhaps still hanging there in endless abbreviation.
C.S. Lewis: “And the past is the past and that is what time means.’
At noon each day, after rain shower, a man selling soymilk rounded the bend of our hill. His cart glinted silver in the bright sunlight; he opened a metal panel for milk inside. The little sacks of plastic held sugary white liquid and a straw. Or perhaps it wasn’t noon, but later. We would have been at school until two o’clock, or three. I would have taken the long bus ride through Singapore streets from my British elementary school one hour away. Perhaps the soymilk man came only on weekends.
Perhaps also on weekends, we roamed farther from the green grass lawn and apartment steps. Down the hillside from Balmoral Park, fat banana leaves dripped water after the noontime storm, and a path led to the Chinese house somehow deserted. In our child minds, the economies of absence made little difference. We didn’t ask where people had gone. We just pushed open doors and roamed their empty rooms. I remember tall windows in the hallway entrance. A bedroom with writing desk, an overturned mattress. Sometimes the fear of footsteps, real or imagined, produced our squealing and pleasurable panic as we raced back to the front entrance, our flip-flops pounding down the marble hall, the vast wooden door pushed open, sunlight and late afternoon heat rushing again toward us.
Once you leave a place, how it ceases to exist in the unfolding now, which means its presence continues oddly without dying or evolving, just suspended in the ether. The way a person whose death you are unable to witness seems not gone but somehow absent from the primary stage, waiting in the wings, a visitor you might see again.
Several times I’ve gone back in dreams to a place filled with water. The water is an electric green, as if the grass itself has turned to liquid. The sunlight makes me blink. I paddle a canoe through the third level of apartments, entering in through windows of the porch. Our home is still intact as it was, though a layer of water submerges the furniture. My boat floats effortlessly from doorway to back bedroom and out an open window.
After I’d had this dream for the first time, I learned the whole area of Balmoral Park had been razed, all the grass cemented down and new high-rises and housing developments built in their place.
Rachel Moritz now lives in nordic Minneapolis.
“A Natural History of My Nostalgia” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>
Rachel Moritz is the author of two poetry chapbooks: The Winchester Monologues and Night-Sea, both from New Michigan Press. Learn more about her work at: www.rachelmoritz.com