Oh, sure, you can visit Charlottesville, Virginia, and see the usual, run-of-the-mill tourist sites — like Monticello, the Michie Tavern, the University of Virginia. Fine. Do the whole Thomas Jefferson schtick.
But not me. I used to live in Charlottesville during the impressionable years when I was in my late 20s and early 30s. And, when you’ve lived somewhere, you own it in some funny way that isn’t readily apparent to anyone but yourself. You look around and you lay claim to it, here and there, seeing scenes that are decades old, people who no longer live there — or anywhere else, your own younger self. Like other places you’ve lived in and left, it’s haunted by ghosts only you can see.
I would have driven past the Town and Country Tavern, where we’d once seen two women get into a fight, with one smashing a Coke bottle in the other’s face. We’d watched, transfixed, as she bled on the floor and the ambulance’s wail drew nearer and the band stopped playing. You don’t see scenes like that often — not even in Texas. But the little wooden tavern had burned down years ago, my friends told me. Arson had been strongly suspected.
Instead, I drive close to the downtown mall, where a health food store used to be. Here’s a point of interest! I once saw Anna Anderson there. She was the most prominent claimant to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, reputedly the only surviving member of Czar Nicholas II’s family. She lived in Charlottesville for years, getting hauled into court by neighbors now and then since her house was such a rat’s hole, spilling over with trash and vermin.
“I speet on you!” she would scream at newspaper reporters, which always seemed quite royal to me. Glimpsing her in front of the health store as she sat in an aging, trash-laden station wagon, I wondered about the caprices of life. Here I was, staring at the last of the Romanovs! Amazing! Didn’t she look regal?
Decades later, the station wagon, health food store and Anna Anderson are all gone. Worse, her longtime claim to have been Anastasia — which had found many prominent believers — has been proven false by DNA tests. So much for this regal, I-speet-on-you business. What must it be like to live your whole life as a fraud? I now wonder. Or did she come to believe the story herself — since, without it, she would have only been an elderly woman with a bad accent and a continuing hygiene problem? And, what about the rest of us? Didn’t we all get a kick out of her charade those years when many of us half-believed it, wanted it to be true, so our lives could be touched by a little tragic glamour? Maybe.
I drive some more, past the former headquarters of the Michie Company, a
legal publishing company where I almost lost my mind. That was where I once was so desperate to do something creative and provocative to haul myself out of my endless funk in 1979 that I posted a note on the Coke machine saying the proceeds from the machine were going to support the Shah of Iran. “Death to the Shah and his 90-year-old mother!” I wrote, signing the name of a friend down the hall. That afternoon, I heard that all the secretaries were boycotting the machine. There was a message behind my prank, I realized: I needed to get out of the Michie Company. And fast.
Maybe it was just as well I didn’t have anything more to see. There’s no way I can return to a place where I once lived without slipping into a slight ache of melancholy — no matter how offbeat or bizarre the stories are.
Thomas Jefferson could have returned to find his grand and beautiful house and the university he founded. The rest of us, lesser mortals, were different. Coming back, we’re left to ponder how we come and go so quickly and leave so little trace of ourselves behind. If the Town and Country Tavern can get torched, the Shah overthrown, Anna Anderson exposed, I’m afraid there’s just no hope for the rest of us.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
I had two thoughts when I read this. One is that when I drive past places I used to live, it feels so strange – to go past them and not go inside and to not know what is happening there anymore. Second is that I had a weird, weird experience at Monticello – sounds ridiculous but it felt like a ghost.
I now feel gutted I’ve never politicized a Coke machine. Why did I never think of it? I hope it was one of those old Coke machines where the Cokes came out in glass bottles from the side.
Man, now I want a Coke, no matter who the proceeds go to support. But it has to be in a super cold glass bottle.
It’s so hard to go back, isn’t it? Every time I do, I get the strangest feelings – like I know I used to live there, but it just feels so foreign as if I never really did.
That can happen even to those of us who never leave the ol’ hometown. But as we age, and become more reclusive, and people that aided in our feelings of connectiveness die out, we are left wondering, “where did it go?” Sometimes I can tread the same sidewalks of a shopping center built in my neighborhood when I was five and be overcome with feelings of loss and not belonging anywhere. I can look at the shopping center and recall when a change occurred here and there and was casually absorbed into the overall essence of that place, then WHAM! my mind does a timeline jump and it is as if all the changes happened simultaneously and I’m walking on foreign concrete. Was I slowly overtaken by a pod-person decades ago and have just now been released? That’s when I need to visit the city cemetery, walk the ivy-bordered paths and touch bones (figuratively speaking, I’m not a grave robber) with people who inhabited the decades of my past. Ah well, growing old yields crevices that read remarkably like Hell at times.
On the lighter, experimental side and feeling like a stranger in my own land, maybe I’ll start passing myself off as a secret illegitimate son of Lucille Ball. I do have good cheekbones and THE blue eyes, you know.
had me sorting through my own memories for a few moments to recall the name of a (long gone) fine folk music venue in Cville where I’ve seen good friends play… The Prism. nothing as dramatic as your memories, but quite a bit of good music and memorable conversation.
BTW… Ruth, in your novel, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough,” is it any wonder I most closely identified with Ivy?
I was just talking with someone today about how before my dad died, he and I wandered through our old barn together with a tape recorder, me asking questions and him describing things about how it was built, where the cows used to be, how this cobwebbed piece of machinery was used… maybe it’s up to us to keep these stories alive for our kids and their kids, once the buildings and places are gone.
Oh, this is so poignant, and is uncannily timely – this has been so much on my mind, since I feel an ache of grief over memories of places I’ve lived, places that have meant so much to me, and lately, serve as reminders that the person I was, when living there, is someone in the past now. I don’t know quite what to do with these memories, or how to hold them in my heart. I love your blog and really am so glad you wrote about this.
“Slipping into a slight ache of melancholy” – so well put, my dear! On Anna Anderson, my grandfather was asked to identify her once, because he had known the real Anastasia, but he refused. This was in Europe some place, Germany? Way before she moved to Virginia. People so wanted to believe the youngest daughter of Nicholas II could have escaped, but the butchers would never have allowed that.
Ah, but when you went back, there were at least PLACES still there. I went back to Scottsdale where I lived 40 years ago, and a friend and I had lunch in one of the two places still in the old town area that were there when we were “alive”. I said, “This is a fairly nice town, but where’s Scottsdale?” Torn down, remodeled, traffic rerouted away, even the house I bought in 1968 was torn down so the lot could support a McMansion. How’s that for hacking away at your memories?
Ha! This reminds me we did a tour of Eisenhower’s home a couple days ago–apparently his wife’s favorite color was pink. Pink everywhere–and I mean right down to the fuzzy toilet seat cover. Funny to think of Kruschev or Churchill visiting and walking around amongst all that pink.
I don’t often laugh out loud when I read, but I did when I read about your notes on the Coke machine.
I came up North for college in 1974, and mostly I’ve been here ever since, here being Northwestern, where I teach. When I go to the library, I have so many layers of memories.
The best piece I’ve ever read about this collision of memories and identities is E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.”
It’s often characters like Anna Anderson that stay with us and remind us of a time and place, long after we’ve moved on.
Going back is always risky. Regrets are sure to come, not so much for lost things of the past, but for the past itself. Not only has the place become a different place, you yourself have become a different person. I can remember a little about the little girl I once was. Now I am an old woman. The little girl I was no longer exists.
“Coming back, we’re left to ponder how we come and go so quickly and leave so little trace of ourselves behind.” I feel like this whenever I go back to Massachusetts…
Because I also find going back to the past wrought with melancholy, I tend to avoid it, preferring instead to visit new places all the time.
You wrote: “There’s no way I can return to a place where I once lived without slipping into a slight ache of melancholy — no matter how offbeat or bizarre the stories are.”
I totally know what you mean. I do like to go back and see where I “was” and where I’ve “moved on” to…more internally, of course. Even though the change is always good…there is a loss of some kind.