Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nobody's Diary

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I was back home this weekend, in Wisconsin, spending time with family, and taking pictures of some of the houses we used to live in in the early 70's. It was nice to see that not much has changed there. Small towns act a lot like trees when they grow: the branches grow up and out, and the roots grow deeper, but the trunk remains relatively the same. I was sad to see Wanzerski's had closed after all these years (I think it's closed, it looks closed). The old sign was still there though, and I'll post the picture for you sometime.
Every time I had an extra quarter, in 1974, I walked down to Wanzerski's; the hot sun of summer on my back, making the three blocks feel like an eternity, as it can only do to a child, to buy Wacky Packages. I rarely saw a soul on those walks to the store, so I would pretend I had walked into a picture in one of the many books my dad had about ghost towns of the old west. A gentle arid breeze waved through the weeds next to the silent school and factory buildings, so silent it was as if no one had ever been there. I saw no movement behind the windows of the houses, but sometimes I saw signs of life in the bar, it's door propped open to relieve the heat: old ladies in faded house dresses, laughing and smoking, with dark colored drinks in their hands.
I spent hours with the photographs in those old west books, fascinated by the effects the decades of sun and wind and sand had on those towns, and I would get a little afraid this was happening to my own town, and we'd all have to move away.
My walk down that same street last weekend, thirty years later (eek! X 3000!), wasn't much different.

The cool darkness protecting the brightly colored products was a welcome oasis, when I finally entered the store. It took me a long time to decide which Wacky Packs would bear the most fruit: I said a little prayer whenever I opened a new package, hoping for a 'product' I hadn't seen before.
But my favorite Wacky Pack was the picture you see above. I put it in the Wacky Pack category back when I was nine, because I only got to see Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World during my infrequent trips to our family doctor, Dr. Haslow. He had a copy in his waiting room, so it was his, and I never got to sit with it and hold it; I could only boost myself up onto a chair and gaze from a far. A jealous, longing gaze.

Annie, Margie's sister, moved in with us a couple months after I did, in 1987. She had wonderfully bright eyes, and an over all brightness to her being that could be a little blinding. She had long, long curly brown hair, and leaned toward tom-boyishness. Her and Margie couldn't have been more different. Margie was 80's, Annie was 60's. Margie was black and white, Annie was tanned and golden. Margie acted only after careful thought, Annie was all impulse.
She was so impulsive, it sometimes scared me. I mean really scared me. She would jump from one dangerous situation to the next, as if she had forgotten every life lesson she had ever learned, like she hadn't existed prior to the new situation. She seemed to live her life as if a giant piece of herself had gone missing, and she was desperately trying to find it, but would forget what she was trying to find half way through.
When ever I thought about the self destructive path I was on, I thanked God there was a path I could see, because I don't think Annie saw any path at all. She felt a hunger and a need and urgency, but saw nothing.
I sometimes got glimpses of the way she saw the world, for she was able make me feel, intentionally or not, the intensity of her emotions, whenever she was trying to cheer me up, or whenever we got onto a topic she was passionate about.
We were pretty much inseparable for a while.
Annie and I often took the el downtown to see a movie, and walked the five miles back home. We watched a lot of late night television together, while she cooed her deep love for David Letterman.
Annie had a few short-lived jobs, but her longest was working as a conductor for Amtrak. I didn't like her having this job, because the only time I got to see her was at four in the morning at the kitchen table, eating breakfast in her dark blue uniform, on her way out the door for another trip. They had her zigzagging all over the country, at all hours of the day and night, for weeks at a time.
Most everyone else would have gone crazy living on a train that was speeding from one town to the next for days at a time, but it made her more grounded. She was less frenetic when I saw her at home. She moved and spoke more slowly and deliberately. She could finally rest and take a breath. I could only reason it satisfied her insatiable need for movement, and a path.
I guess when we get plunked down into this life and this world, a world that can seem so much like an endless forest, the first thing we do is look for a path.
A way out, a way home, a way to the next meal, that is the question I ask myself.
But the one thing Annie didn't fully realise was that this wasn't her path, she was only borrowing one. She would eventually need to find her own.

A few years ago, the Whitney had a Wyeth retrospective, and I went to New York to see it. My joy of finally being in the same room with Christina's World was overwhelming. I was surprised at how large the painting really is. It envelopes you, and invites you in for a walk in her field. But what surprised me most was seeing his other paintings in context to Christina's World. The paintings Wyeth produced right before, and right after, were just as incredible.


Sarah said...

Yea! You're back!

Aaron said...

My town is SO different from when I was growing up. They cut down all the trees along the main drag to widen it. But the buildings downtown near the railroad tracks are the same, which is really comforting. I think I'll go back there to die when it's time. :-)

A "borrowed path:" I never thought of that. I always just thought we were on a twisting, winding path, and every path we were on was part of our own. I never realized they could be "borrowed." Maybe that's why I was so unhappy at some of my jobs--they weren't on my path!

Anonymous said...

I loved your "Christina's World" story - I had a very similar reaction to that painting when I discovered it as a child. So amazing. And I haven't visited my college town for a couple of years because it was so different last time I went back there it was too depressing. It's a 2 hour drive to my parents' house to Tucson, and year after year I used to see how the two towns grew out towards each other over miles and miles, clearing out the desert landscape. I grew to appreciate the desert after a while. But when I was a kid, I used to dream of being in a small town in the Midwest or East just like yours. Merrie