Saturday, November 25, 2006


Yesterday we returned from our Thanksgiving sojourn to Cincinnati.

Cincinnati is not one of those places that has a cache. Even someone from Oregon is more interesting than someone from Cincinnati.

I spent the years from the time I left for college until I had my son trying to avoid Cincinnati like the plague. To me, that's not a manner of speaking. Whenever I landed I was overcome with physical and emotional torpor. What more can one want from a homecoming, a relaxing vacation? Here, have this coma. No thank you.

Part of it comes from the physical layout of the city. It's built on seven very steep hills (like Rome, everyone said) that rise up from the Ohio River basin. The peculiar geography is both a protection and a trap; it means that tornados can only skirt around the city and hit outlying areas; it also means that air is basically trapped down in the valley, causing pollution and the adored Cincinnati sinus infection which perpetually haunts its inhabitants.

I remember early mornings if it was foggy standing out at the bus stop and smelling the Proctor and Gamble plant making Tide. P&G not only dominates business in the city, it dominates the very air.


I'm not quite sure why the birth of my son has changed my feelings about the city, though I think it is because it has fundementally changed not the city, but who I am.

Somehow before he arrived, every time I went back 'home', I couldn't help being re-haunted by old ghosts. Perhaps it's that same stagnant air that pushes all change to the outskirts. One might call it resilience, one might call it being stuck.

The other thing that comes to me now is that the birth of my son realigned my family. It signalled the final dissolution, interruption of the old order. Somehow the people who spout family values are unable to understand that not all families can be healed by the wave of a magic value wand. My family has been most healed by its dissasemblence, by the fundamental change and growth that has gone on by the parting of ways and the disruption of the old.

Now when we talk about old times, it is almost as if we talk of other people. Lost people, lost places.


There was an article in the NYT today about Cincinnati's inner-city renaissance. The oldest extant part of the city, settled by German immigrants in the mid-1800s and called, fittingly, Over-the-Rhine, is being repopulated as a hip arts neighborhood with condos and cafes.

I actually went to school in an extension of that neighborhood before the school fell into such disrepair it was demolished in the '90s. My school was right across from the high-rise projects, and its students were half from the neighborhood, half bussed-in. It took me 45 minutes on the bus each morning to get to school.

It's probably hard for most people to imagine why I would long for something similar for my son. He will more likely than not go to a brand-spanking-new school which is being built just a mile away from our home out here on the far edge of Madison. Perhaps its the same reason why I adore that he will grow up down the street from a horse farm. Like a palette, a little bit of all things, some sweet, some bitter, some sour, some salty, seems to me the balance most kids achingly need.

As a parent, we wish to spare our kids pain and exposure to unpleasantness. Yet in the process of protecting them, I think we sometimes over-protect them from things that won't necessarily do harm. Perhaps protecting them is really a guise for us protecting ourselves. It is we who have construed our lives so carefully to avoid unnecessary pain.


Yet I know it is foolish... my son's life is only partially mine to construct, and only for a while. The more I get to know him, the more I am aware that he is a being with ideas, instincts, predispositions and, yes, faults all his own. In the same way I have stopped looking for family resemblances behind his face, I have started to accept that he acts as he is, not as I was or his father was or are. And no matter how permanent he seems, he will change. He will not always fight sleep like this or wake up in the middle of the night to be held. Somehow I lose sight of this when it's the middle of the night or the next morning when I can barely see straight and I say to myself, I cannot wait until this is over.

More likely, it will be over and I will miss it. He will be different, and I will be different. We won't be able to resurrect those needs or those people. We will configure our lives and our emotions around a different center. Things that are irksome or difficult or painful lose their charge, reorient, begin their orbit around some other star.

While it is almost self-evident to me that this process stretches far ahead of me, of my son and my family, it is still so strange, so foreign the idea that the past can do the same. Without our conscious knowledge it gets up like those mice in the Nutcracker and walzes around in the middle of the night. No matter how much we know the past by rote, we forget it. Or, having placed it like a pair of old slippers at the side of the bed for so many years, its position has moved slowly, achingly and without our knowledge, a millimeter at a time.


Yesterday on the way to the airport, I hopped out of the car at the Graeter's ice cream factory to pick up 12 pints of ice cream I ordered packed on dry ice. I did that once before when I was pregnant with my son and subsisted on high-calorie milkshakes. Those pints of black raspberry chip and mint chocolate chip were the best I had ever eaten before or since.

At the airport I carefully inscribed our address on the styrofoam cooler with a blue sharpie, making sure to write on the top and sides, in case the two should be separated.

Upon arrival in Madison, the cooler was (you guessed it) nowhere to be found. It was packed with an optimistic 4-5 hours worth of dry ice. Currently, the automated Delta baggage tracking system shows that it has been sitting in Minneapolis-St.Paul for the last twelve hours.

The lost baggage form innocently asks whether the contents of a lost bag are (check one of the following): male, female, child or other. No place to write in a more appropriate description: melted. Shape-shifted. Irretrievably and deliciously gone.


swamps said...

Hey! You might be protecting yourself needlessly from Oregonians. Drop your inhibitions, and you may receive a surprisingly warm reception from us. :-)

Mama H said...

No offense intended to Oregonians. However, you have to admit that Oregon doesn't have the sexiest of images... (neither does Madison, for that matter, but oh well). Perhaps we need to put the 'libido' back into 'liberal'? Best wishes to you and your little guy :)