Often, when I lie awake at night, trying to figure out how to get back to sleep, I walk through houses. Not just any houses: houses I’ve lived in. I have a lot to choose from. Some I remember better than others. But beginning with the house I moved to when I was 5 years old – my fourth – I remember complete floorplans. I can walk through them in my head and I remember things that happened there.
Sometimes the memories don’t come immediately. It was on the third or fourth stroll through the house I lived in from age 5 to age 8 that I discovered the screened-in porch. I’d forgotten all about it. I found there a painted turtle in a box surrounded by browning pieces of apple and wilted lettuce. My brother and I found the turtle in the stream behind the town high school. We were playing there while our parents played tennis on the high school courts on a summer Saturday morning.
Sooner or later, there are a lot of memories emerging, attached to my overarching memory of their architecture, their geography. People have often asked me how I can have such detailed memories of my childhood and I’ve always thought it was because the landscape was always changing. My entire life is compartmentalized by my geographic location at any given time. It’s a combination of having maps to attach things too, and also defined periods of transition when you want to hold onto everything before letting go, periods that become about remembering. Or, if you prefer, data upload.
My suspicions of how my memories worked were confirmed a few months ago when I read Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein. In the course of writing a story for an assignment, Foer becomes fascinated with memory contests and in particular with one memory contestant. He decides to train for memory contests himself. His informant becomes his teacher and gives him techniques to use to remember random lists of things. The technique involves mapping the lists onto his memory of some kind of familiar geography.
I am thinking of all of this as I pack up my house. I am in the data upload period, remembering everything that happened in this spot or that, with this object or that. It is all making me sad, because I am looking backwards and seeing things that are no longer there. I’m trying to remember to look forwards too, to where we’re headed. But it’s hard when that geography is still shrouded in mist.
When I was young, my parents would usually pick our houses. We wouldn’t see them until the day we moved in. But they’d take pictures and sometimes show us floor plans. We would study them carefully. Once I started finding my own places to live, I’d memorize the layouts, estimating the spaces, so that when I left, new lease in hand, I could start to imagine how my things would fit in, how I would fit in there. You start to draw invisible lines between your present and your future, each line attached to an object – the desk moving from one wall to another, the curtains hanging first in the dining room and then in the hall.
This may be where I get my love of floor plans. AJ loves them too, although he remembers only this house, which we moved to just before his first birthday. AJ and I study the floor plans for multi-million dollar apartments in the New York Times Magazine every Sunday morning while we eat our breakfast. “I want this room,” he’ll say, “because it has three windows. “But that one, I think, has to be our room, because it has space for Dad’s office. How about this one?” “Is there room for my beanbag chair?” “Oh, definitely. You could put it by the window.” “Okay. I’ll take it.”
This house has more ghosts than most for me, because we’ve been here so long. At ten years, I’ve lived here more than twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. We have a conflicted relationship, the house and I. There are ways in which I’ve never really felt at home here. There are ways in which I don’t trust it. There are ways in which I feel like the house owns me. And yet it tugs at me. This morning I am lying in bed under the high peaked roof looking out the glass doors to the balcony that juts out like a prow of a ship, to the dappled sunlight on the trees beyond. Birds are singing. I can see a clump of black-eyed susans blooming at the bottom of the garden by the stream. It is quiet until the workmen renovating the house down the street, which recently sold, start hammering. I am reading about the Perseids and thinking about lying outside on the deck tonight to watch the stars. This would be easier if I could hate it, easier if I didn’t suspect that at some point, I’m going to wish I could come back.
I can’t quite imagine yet what Saturday mornings will be like in New York. Without a space to attach to, it’s hard to get my head around. And then there are the worries that bubble up even when I feel the most calm. Are we making a big mistake? Will we ever be able to afford to buy a house again? What if we can’t make this work either financially or emotionally? What then? Where is AJ going to go to school? What if we can’t find an apartment with a September 1 lease? What if I can’t survive with all those people all the time? What if it’s too loud? What if the neighbors don’t let us play our instruments? I think this may be the most terrifying thing I have ever done. And I can only imagine how terrifying it is for my husband, who has lived his entire life within spitting distance of Chicago and is only agreeing to go because of me.
And where will we go to watch the stars?