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Letters From Idaho

We Are Mapmakers

Going home for the holidays inspires remembering, but bringing your own children home adds a twist—will their recollections be anything like yours?

We fly to Novelty, Ohio, for the holidays. Six days, seven inches of snow, 20 degrees. Everything is familiar and new all at once: the slickness of well water in the shower; the leafless hardwoods ringing my parents’ house; the smells of slush, gasoline, and wood in the garage. Out the windows everything is either gray or white. The radio burbles out another storm warning; my mother’s three Muscovy ducks march single-file (Siegfried, then Roy, then Elvis) across the backyard, plowing a track through the snow. Our not-quite-two-year old sons take toothpicks out of a kitchen drawer and transport them one by one across the family room and drop them into the heating register.

I have not been to Novelty in almost two years. I have not lived here in a decade. But to return to where I grew up, these six acres beside a pond, is to wander through a thicket of memories. My feet know which paths to take through the snow; my hands find the two hollows in the sycamore where I used to practice my pull-ups.

Over there is the swamp, out of which I once came staggering, black with mud, while my brother filmed me with a Betamax camcorder. Over there I drove my dad’s GMC off the road and wedged it between two trees. There my brothers and I played a thousand tackle football games. There in a church, that’s no longer standing, I was eight years old and in love with a blonde girl who I never met, whose family always sat in the front. I used to wrap my hands around the top of the pew and look from the girl to the backs of my hands to the backs of my brothers’ hands, wondering about family, about heredity.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about: We are mapmakers, all of us, tracing lines of memory across the spaces we enter. We embed memories everywhere; we inscribe a private and complicated diagram across the landscape; we plant root structures of smells and textures in the apartments of girlfriends and the station wagons of friends and in the living rooms of our parents.

“They grow up so fast,” seemingly everyone tells us, gesturing at the kids. But they’re wrong. You bury your childhood everywhere you go. If my sons are lucky enough to keep their memories, their childhood will wait, all their lives, for them to come and dig it back up.

Viewed from above, our memories might look like a satellite photo of Earth at night: a black half-sphere punctuated here and there by clusters of lights.

These are the population centers, the known territories, the illuminated districts. We live in them; we feel (mostly) safe; we drive to the grocery store and the pool hall without getting lost. Elsewhere the lights make slender ramifications into the dark, a few threads of flame burning here and there, five months in Kenya, a winter in New Zealand, a year in Rome. And then there are the dark areas: the uncharted realms, the borderlands, unsurveyed and unknown. Our Antarcticas, our Neptunes.

On my own map of the world, my parents’ kitchen window in Novelty is perhaps the brightest light; it is the capitol building in the capital city, with a broad staircase and long views down an avenue studded with lanterns. I look into my parents’ backyard and every tree, every post of my mother’s garden fence, is a candle to a memory, and each of those memories, as it rises out of the ground, illuminates a dozen more.

I used to stand on those same patio chairs to reach tools in the garage. I used to throw a football onto the section of the roof above this window and wait for it to come rolling off the gutter. I used to follow deer tracks through that section of woods just beyond the burn pile. I shot a squirrel out of that locust tree and carried its body on the blade of a shovel to the compost pile. I planted that magnolia. I made tie-dyed T-shirts one summer day in the same spot where my sons’ little boot prints now crisscross the snow, and I climbed that crumbling skeleton of an oak, and helped Dad hang the birdfeeder that dangles now above a spray of sunflower seeds, black against the white.

I’ve returned home this time in the midst of writing a novel about World War II. Every hour that war becomes less memory and more history. In another 10 years, hardly anyone who was there will still be alive. Every five minutes, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves.

But during those same five minutes children will be moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. All day long children push back the darkness, scattering memories behind them.

Lines sharpen, contours deepen. We return to the places we’re from; we trample faded corners and pencil in new boundaries. “They grow up so fast,” seemingly everyone tells us, gesturing at the kids. But they’re wrong. You bury your childhood everywhere you go. If my sons are lucky enough to keep their memories, their childhood will wait, all their lives, for them to come and dig it back up.

In six days at my parents’ house my sons have learned how to say “rocks,” “heavy,” and “snowman.” They’ve learned the names of their cousins, and the smell of a chicken coop, and each one took, for the first time in his life, a warm brown egg out of a laying box and carried it to the house through the backyard snow.

On a map in their room, when we get home, we’ll put a sticker over northeast Ohio that reads, “I’ve been here.”

By late afternoon the snow has stopped. My father stuffs a big, pink turkey with scraps of bread and sausage. Out the window the clouds shift and sunlight avalanches across the yard. The shadows of trees lunge across the pond. The snow seems about to incandesce. You forget that sunlight can be so pure, pouring through the windows, splashing across the kitchen. It brings tears to your eyes.

My son, Henry, carries a toothpick past me into the living room and sets it on the lid of my mother’s piano. “Hap-py,” he says, and looks up at me.


TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at More by Anthony Doerr