Gaps

February 09,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I've been doing some mental "spring cleaning" lately, so try and bear with me through yet another meandering, contemplative post... The other night at bedtime L. drew an intricate diagram of his own brain, with detailed descriptions of his different "nodes"--for example, a history node, a science node, a learning node, a storage node. We talked for a bit about this idea of a storage node; a reasonable idea, really, when you think about how much we do ferret away over a lifetime, burying and digging up again memory after memory, dusting them off, lingering carefully at different times over certain ones and then shelving them away again until another day. Some memories get lost in the shuffle, I'm sure, others buried for a time until they resurface, like a lost earring under the dresser. I've pulled this one out recently: there I am, almost eighteen, my face pushed up against the scratched plastic of an airplane window. As the airplane bumps into the air, climbing and climbing in small lurches, I look down and see with complete clarity the landscape below. I see the green and brown and purplish-white of the city (Turin), and there, snaking across it all like a deep blue squiggle is the River Po, looking almost artificial in its perfect curving cut across the land. The view had a fairy-tale quality to it, like it belonged in some picture-book from a long-time ago. I remember feeling a tremendous catch in my throat then and all the excitement that had built up over our return home to the States, after two years of living in Italy, vanished, and was replaced only with this sense of longing and sadness at what we were leaving behind. ***************** For many, many months after my family moved back to the United States from Italy in the summer of 1987, I felt a strange disconnect with my surroundings, like I was straddling two different worlds at once. I started college the fall after we moved back home, after having lived in Turin, Italy, for two years. I would walk to class from my parents' house, through the college town streets, up the steep hill into the main campus, past the white-steepled chapel where, many years later I would marry Scott. The wind would blow and all of a sudden I'd be back in our hillside town in Pino-Torinese, opening the shutters to the golden cornfields and the lowing of the cattle from the farm across the way. I felt transparent, often, like I wasn't really in one place or the other. It was months before I felt solidly rooted to American soil again, and it was years before our time spent in Italy receded well into the past, becoming flat and one-dimensioned, like a half-remembered book. Travel is broadening, but it's maddening, too. Everything after Italy seemed terribly ordinary, and dull, and superficial. I had longed to come back to the States, and to start college; yet once back, I longed in turn for what we'd left behind and I felt restless and uninspired by everything around me. I struggled to make those two years fit, somehow, into the picture of my life as a whole. Instead, there is life before Italy, and life after Italy and Italy itself remains like a parenthetical inserted in a long and fairly linear page of text. I plotted and plotted to go back and yet here I am at forty, over twenty years later from the day I looked down on the River Po from the airplane window, and I still haven't had a chance to go back. I dream sometimes of once-familiar roads, and wonder if I'd recognize them; of once-ordinary places--a yellow villa where I went to school, a vine-covered schoolyard, a field of corn, the path winding past the crooked tree where we'd let our beloved family dog run loose and she'd take off, feathered tail held high, startling the doves out from their hiding places among the tall grasses. I can see them rising into the air, tossed upwards like a handful of stones. I don't know what to do with all the memories I've recently pulled out, dusted off, and placed in obvious spots where I can catch sight of them, as I'm going about life, pausing in my kitchen, driving to work with the radio on, or lying in a darkened bedroom with my children, their bodies winding down for sleep. I don't know why I always feel so compelled to do something concrete with those years. I write about them from time to time, hoping to weave some connections, and remove the parentheses setting that period in my life apart from all the rest of it. Last night, lying next to T. after stories, and while I waited for L. to finish his shower, I imagined looking down on the Po River again from an airplane window, my children crowded around me, the magical blue squiggle growing larger and larger until the wheels touched down, with a lurch and screech, and I was back again.