And so I arrived and met up with shuttle bus, back in the U.S. of A. Down the freeway we went, past the fluorescent giant boxes of commodities, the parking lot stadiums, the temples of grease (okay, I stole that from Bill Bryson) to a Howard Johnson’s lobby to meet my wife in her rented car. She was late, so I sat listening to the throbbing bass of the rock group next door playing for the biker convention and when no one was looking, turned the wheel of stale corn flakes for a snack and filled my bottle with old dispenser juice. Back to the land of Styrofoam breakfast, blaring TV’s in hotel lobbies and a culture where utility, noise, glitzy distraction and constant consumption trump beauty, quiet and time to savor, something Europe still does so much better than us. We’ve had a century of unsatisfied Americans going to Europe to “learn how to live,” from the Hemingway/ Gertrude Stein/ Henry Miller clan in Paris back in the 20’s and 30’s to Elizabeth Gilbert’s fleeing to Italy to Eat before she Prays in India and Loves in Bali. I think in many ways, Europe still has much to teach us Americans how to live better.
For one thing, there’s a commitment to history, a respect for preservation even as one moves forward. Of course, Europe’s past as stored in architecture, art work and city planning is from the start much older than America’s, with the exception of the various Native American ruins in the Southwest. But still the redevelopment craze of the 60’s unabashedly leveled much that was worthy of preservation—for example, in the Fillmore District of my own San Francisco. Then came the 90’s strip-mauling of the land, the shopping centers on the outskirts that has effectively left the small towns of America soul-less ghost towns with no center—the movie theaters closed, Mom and Pop cast out, the city squares deserted. To find a place that has survived the Walmart tsunami is rare—Frankfort, Michigan up north where we summer every year, Yellow Springs, Ohio where I went to school, Mill Valley, California, to name just a few.
And so it feels like a special treat to come meet my wife Karen, her brothers and mother on Magnolia St. in New Smyrna Beach and stay in a century-plus old house where her Mom and her sisters grew up. The house is a spacious, rambling, one-story affair with rooms that open onto each other so you can see from the front to the back. Ceiling fans, old beautifully-crafted furniture, family photos on the walls, the smell of Karen’s grandmother (who passed away some 15 years ago at 94 years old) still lingering and her old Oldsmobile still in the driveway (I first came here when my daughter Kerala was three and remember hiding an Easter egg in the gas tank door). Vacant lots on either side of the house and a carriage house in the back where the black nanny Emma Lou used to live, now converted to the art studio where her Aunt Norma worked when she moved in after the grandmother died. Since Norma’s passing, it’s open for local artists to use. Family history on every inch of its surface, all the way back to a time when my mother-in-law Pam used to ride on the backs of turtles on the beach.
Both here and in our SF home, there is a photo of Karen’s great-great-grandmother, great-grandmother, grandmother and mother as a baby sitting in front of a lovely armoire. Then another photo posed exactly the same with Karen’s great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and Karen as a baby and finally, a third, with grandmother, mother, Karen and three-year old Kerala. Well, yesterday I called Kerala, now 30 years old, to say hello and it seemed the perfect place to get the news. If the doctor confirms the home test, we’ll be ready for the next picture soon: Karen’s mom, Karen, Kerala and new baby!! I’m going to be a grandfather!!! Pop-Pop Doug!
And so the carousel of time keeps spinning, the future reaches back to shake hands with the past. I only hope that this New Smyrna house will resist redevelopment so my grandchild can come wander its rooms and look for Easter eggs in the gas tank of the old Oldsmobile.