Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book #56: My Return Trip

“And sometimes in this fantasy I buy the house we used to live in, the rambling house down the highway, in the valley.  I have imagined it as neglected, needing paint, new gutters, perhaps even falling apart, everything around it overgrown and gone to seed.”
                                                                                             -Alice Adams, Return Trips

Monday night was a cool, rainy night, and that seemed fitting.  I attended my great aunt Sachi’s funeral, where the pianist played her favourite song, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”  I came home, exhausted from seeing everyone, made myself a cup of tea and stared at my bookshelf for a long time.  I was thinking about her house as I remembered it from my youth: a fascinating, slightly decrepit, rambling house on Gladstone Avenue, with built-in bookshelves jam-packed with books, and more books in teetering piles on the dusty floor.  Although most people probably remember Sachi for her paintings (she used to be a high school art teacher and had several striking watercolours she’d painted, hanging on her walls), I would always remember her first and foremost for her tastes in literature.  She had been a huge influence on me during my teen years, introducing me to authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami and Alice Adams.  In fact, as my eyes swept back and forth along my bookshelf, they settled on a book that had once belonged to Aunt Sachi.  I would like to say that she gave it to me, but I’m pretty sure she lent it to me some two decades ago, and I’d conveniently forgotten to return it.  And now I never would; tears filled my eyes.  The book was Return Trips, a subtle, evocative collection of stories by Alice Adams.

I curled up on the sofa and began reading the title story and was surprised to discover that I remembered everything about it vividly.  It is a story about the cryptic nature of memory and first passion.  The narrator, a middle-aged history professor, looks back on her youthful love affair with a man named Paul, who was fatally ill with a heart condition, so that “Even love . . . was for Paul a form of torture, although we kept at it – for him suicidally, I guess – during those endless, sultry yellow afternoons, on our awful bed, between our harsh, coarse sheets.”  While their affair appears luminous – the love of her life – compared to her troubled two marriages, she comes to realize that her continual desire to remember their affair is more about a desire to revisit a certain moment, or place, within herself.  In the same way that she obsessively circles back in her memory to Paul, she indulges in imaginative returns to Hilton, the southern town where she lived for a short while during her adolescence and found a surprising, enchanting happiness that stands out in sharp contrast to her otherwise troubled youth.  So much so that she often fantasizes about returning to their old house in Hilton and perhaps even staying there, leaving her husband for good.  But when the narrator finally enacts her dream of going back, she finds that the house has lost its magical quality: far from being in a state of romantic decay, it has been modernized and retrofitted to house a bunch of transient students.

These fantasies of return, however alluring, the book seems to suggest, are best kept as fantasies.  Upon being probed too closely, the past yields nothing more than that it is no longer as you imagined.

I found it strangely moving to read this story, while thinking about Aunt Sachi.  You see, for the past few years, ever since I began writing again, I’ve been harbouring an almost obsessive wish to ask her about our family past.  There were certain family secrets to which she’d alluded when I was a child, and I knew she was the one person who’d remained close to my grandfather right up to the time he died tragically, before I was born (I address some of this material in my memoir The Reading List, being published in the spring).  And besides, Aunt Sachi must have known things about my great grandfather, her father, the illustrious Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara.  After all, she’d lived with him at the internment camp in British Columbia, where he was the camp doctor during the Second World War; she had been right there at the scene that has for so long enticed my imagination.  So I often pictured myself going over to her house for tea one afternoon, and perhaps slyly turning on a small digital recorder, while she would tell me everything that I yearned to know. 

But I never went to see her, because I knew that in reality things would not play out this way.

My father had already tried to talk to her – confronting her about some of the demons in our family closet – and she had completely shut down.  Her face blanched; she excused herself.  It had taken them a few years to repair their relationship.

Rereading Return Trips made me feel that I now understood why; the past is best confronted imaginatively and from a distance.

Photo from: here


Mimi said...

My aunt once told me she left her overbearing husband in the early years of their marriage. Now after decades of marriage and her husband's death, she does not acknowledge this confidence. I totally agree with your final reflection.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

It's fascinating how death leads people to reconceptualize the past - perhaps memory's way of protecting you. I'm glad my story resonated with you, and vice versa.


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.