Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lost Landscapes of Detroit, My Sometime Home

To remember is, in most cases, to access a small fraction of one's actual cache of memories, to cycle through the same small repertoire of mental images that are made to stand in for an infinitude, all of which you could not possibly keep on the front burner of consciousness. When I think of my grandma, I first remember one "shot" of her using a strange double-bladed instrument to chop cabbage in a wooden bowl that she held in the crook of her arm. That is my stock image of her, one that I remember so often that the act of remembering it has become part of the memory itself. The many "rememberings" make me doubt whether this memory ever actually happened. I feel like I conjured it, perhaps combining something real with something I saw on television. Thinking of that image now doesn't feel like remembering any more; it feels like iterating a mental ritual that I created long ago to serve some emotional need.

For me, a truthful, authentic act of remembering involves a memory that's on the back burner of consciousness -- when some word or smell or dream suddenly plucks something discrete out of the subconscious memory soup and I think, "Yes! I do remember that!" It feels at once new, because I never "remembered" it before, and old, because it could have been lost forever; I feel joyful, more whole to have this extra piece of my hazy past made suddenly clear, without the warping, muddying layers of many rememberings. But then it too becomes part of the memory repertoire (perhaps displacing something else!), and when I access it again, I want not just to see the image but to feel the same joy of discovery. Perhaps I do summon that feeling for a bit at first, but soon it becomes like the other memories -- well-worn, refracted, distorted.

I had such an experience earlier this week at the Internet Archive's screening of Lost Landscapes of Detroit, a compilation, edited by Rick Prelinger, of early to mid-twentieth century home movies made by Detroiters. The project eschews nostalgia; it is more a human, idiosyncratic, anthropological way of considering a people's history of Detroit. 

(A still from the film.)

The film itself has no sound, except for about a minute at the beginning. Instead, as Prelinger says, the audience creates the soundtrack, identifying, as they watch, the sites they see, commenting, asking questions, telling jokes, debating each other -- all facilitated by Prelinger, who is helpful, insightful, but never overbearing. Since so much of the evening is about preserving, archiving, I had the strange urge while I was there to also record everything the audience was saying.

I didn't expect to connect to the film. I was born right outside of Detroit, but I moved away just before I turned 11. I've been back only a few times since, though I annually visit relatives who live elsewhere in Michigan. When I think of memories of the city itself, I can summon only the most obvious places -- the Fisher Theatre, the Renaissance Center -- places that are far from being "lost landscapes."

So I was surprised to see what happened to me with footage and mention of a place called Bob-Lo Island. At first, I thought, "What a silly name." Then it was, "Wait, do I know that name?" Later it was, "Wait, have I been there?" I suddenly had an image of myself on a ferry on the Detroit River on a cloudy day en route to a place with this name. And I do remember telling people I'd been to Canada before, though, before this movie, I'd had no idea why I would say that. Bob-Lo island, I have since learned from the internet, is on the Canada side of the Detroit River; for decades it was an amusement park until it closed in 1993, making it feasible that I'd gone there as a child. 

(Bob-Lo, "the Coney Island of Detroit," in its heyday.)

I called my mother the day after the screening to ask her if I'd been there, but she said only that it was possible; she did know that she had gone there as a girl.

This might seem like a small thing to write a post about, especially since it doesn't relate to the mission of this site. But I believe that my generation has especially tenuous ties to the places and communities of our childhoods. I lived in three different regions of the country before I went to college. Then, between May of 2008 and May of 2010, I moved ten times. And this isn't just me, of couse: Since moving to San Francisco in 2009, over 10 of my friends have moved away. (I know, of course, that San Francisco is an especially expensive city, but that's not a negligble statistic!)

I have so many different and disconnected segments of my life that sometimes I feel like I've existed only since 2009. I have few things around me to remind me of the past -- few keepsakes, and few friends who knew me even as far back as college.

This encounter with Bob-Lo, a lost memory, a lost landscape, makes me feel like my twenty-seven years happened and counted after all, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that I've no one nearby to testify to their memory.

I feel I have lived many lives. 

Now, after many nomadic years, I'm working hard to make this most recent life a long-lasting one. I'm building a permanent home in San Francisco with the man I love. I remember that in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, she said that, no matter how many times  her family moved to a different faraway cabin, she always felt like it was home again once her mother's plate that said "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread" was unpacked and displayed. After years of living like a refugee -- in one apartment, for many months, I had neither mattress nor furniture, instead spreading my possessions on the floor as if they were toys -- I too am now accruing tangible pieces of a home.

My favorite piece of my past in this home is this photo, which features the same grandma of cabbage-chopping fame, Grandma Day, as she basks in the adoration of three different species, one of which is proudly represented by baby Lily:

Another I recently received in the mail as a surprise gift. It's a cookbook from my Aunt Julie (who, she would want me to mention, is also my godmother): 

The book features an astonishing store of old-skool Midwestern recipes, which is of course one wonderful gateway to things past, but for me, even more important is this Christmas inscription, which my Aunt Julie wrote to Grandma Day:

Which calls to mind both the inscriptions my grandma wrote in books she gave to me:

And the many Christmases at my grandma's house in which a young Lily first staged theatrical events for the rest of her family:

(That little window in the staircase, above the Christmas tree, was my very first stage. Look at that perfect proscenium arch!)

In case you couldn't tell, I've been thinking a lot about my grandma a lot lately. She took care of me five days a week for the first ten years of my life and then died just before my sixteenth birthday. She had a special nickname for me: "Louie the Liller," or "Lou" for short. (I think there was a song that went along with that, but now I can't remember it!) When the phone rang, she would mutter, "Oh, shit!" and then answer it with a singsong "Hel-lo!" When we played Scrabble, she took no mercy on my youth, gleefully slaughtering me by a hundred-point margin. And night after night, when even at a young age I could never sleep, I would watch from my bed for the light to go out in the crack underneath her door, which meant I could tiptoe across the hall and crawl into bed with her.

I've been thinking about the ways I idealize her. Because of a burn accident in her youth, my grandma had big scars on her neck, which got her ridiculed mercilessly as a little girl. (I still remember the name of her girlhood nemesis: Jacqueline Spalding.) Because of that, she never, ever, ever criticized or even teased anyone and inculcated in her children and grandchildren the value in doing the same. 

I recently spent a week, as an experiment, trying to practice that value, but I realized that I'm just not like her in that way. I'm a professional critic, first of all, which means I don't just criticize; I make my living (or at least my milk money) from criticizing. More fundamentally, I have a restless compulsion to make jokes, many at others' expense, and I've inherited from my mother and her side of the family (who get shortchanged in this essay; sorry guys, you'll get your due another day) a desire to get at the unvarnished truth of people and ideas. The Lovings, of which I am a proud member, are fearless (some might call it tactless) in discussing those truths in the bluntest of terms.

My new task is to be at peace with my differences from Grandma Day, this woman who gave me so much of who I am and has now left me to build with it what I will.

Thank you, Internet Archive, Lost Landscapes of Detroit, Bob-Lo Island, and Aunt Julie, for serving me Proustian madeleines that sent me down this memory lane. Now that I've spent all this time with the past, it's time to recommence the job of living in the present -- but with a renewed, stronger sense of self.


  1. Lily:
    Phenomenal post. You're reminding me of the work of Jean Cocteau -- the idea of the personal mythology that you seem to be describing in the opening of this piece. Memories that aren't necessarily real memories (what are they anyway?) but are now integral to your story. Spine-tingling.

    I totally went to Bob-lo Island once! Same memory of the ferry and buying a hot dog on the way. I visited my aunt in Detroit as a kid, all the way from rural Appalachian Virginia. I think it was the first big city I visited.

    Also of note -- a few years back a bar in the Mission (Truck) had a Detroit themed night and even had a cocktail called the Bob-Lo ... if I remember correctly it was Red Faygo and vodka.

    Cheers and thank you for sharing your memories -- and process!


  2. Hey Dwayne,

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I'll check out Cocteau; I'm not familiar with his work. Speaking of personal mythology, I think an essay, "From Appalachian Virginia to Bob-Lo Island," would be fascinating if you're ever game! Also, I used to live right next to Truck. I'll stay on the lookout for future Detroit nights. There'd better be another mixed drink made with Vernor's Ginger Ale!


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