Geography without Memory

I don’t remember the first time I visited New York. But I do remember many subsequent visits. My Aunt Molly has lived there my whole life and so the city has become a place of excitement, adventure, and perhaps most importantly, nostalgia for me. Walking down every street is like perusing a box of old photographs. Here is the park where my brother chased me. There is the little boutique in which my aunt’s friend bought me a turquoise beret. This is the building where I ate the best grilled cheese of my life. That is the restaurant where I had an absolutely terrible New Years’ eve in which my Swedish cousins and I had literally nothing to say to each other.

I went to New York this weekend with my first-year-seminar. Some friends and I spent the night at my aunt’s apartment, which is perhaps one of the most nostalgic places in my world. I walk in and am hit with a wave of my aunt’s perfume, China Rain, that has seeped into everyone and everything she touches. It lingers but is not overpowering. The walls are painted in bright primary colors. There is a photo of my maternal grandfather, whom I never met, but who looks almost identical to my older brother. When I was little I would sleep on her chaise lounge, my brother on the sofa. We would talk for hours and hours until he inevitably fell asleep. I, ever energetic, would stay awake, listening attentively to the sound of drunk and happy people on their way home from a night of revelry. Almost every place in her home, in that immense city, seems yellowed around the edges and enveloped in a haze of memory. I imagine I was rather annoying this past weekend, pointing out all the stops on my fairly literal memory-lane.

What’s so strange about this is that my hometown, where I spent eighteen years of life, does not share this quality. Sure, there’s the place where I had my first kiss, the beach where all my friends and I went skinny-dipping. There are the nooks and crannies of the old community center where I took Irish Dance. But these places, a part of my past, also inevitably became a part of my present. You can only go to the same beach so many times before one memory replaces another. While familiarity with a place can create a sort of weathered comfort, years of sustained interaction with it wears away at the charming sheen of nostalgia.

There are always people telling us to “live in the present.” They may not understand my obsession with places and memory. They have a tendency to look on nostalgia with disdain. But that elusive present is intimately connected with the past. Like any relationship, connection to place is dependent on a shared history. But our Amherst history is incredibly limited. I’ve only been here two months. I have yet to form a relationship with the physical Amherst. It neither intoxicates me nor makes me feel at ease. I have yet to settle into well-worn grooves of behavior and there are few spaces in which I feel entirely at home. I have not had the time to grow accustomed to favorite study spaces and windows and stairwells. Buildings are still buildings, not receptacles of memory. I do not have sufficient distance either, to construct a patchwork quilt of nostalgia like the one I share with New York. There is no China Rain to spark youthful memories. There are not momentary glimpses into my past in the bricks of the buildings and in the patterns of the sidewalk.

I know that a sense of history will develop the more time I spend here, but for now I am in a sort of limbo. I do see hope, however, in the view over Memorial Hill. The first time I visited Amherst I saw that view and thought “This is incredible.” I was overwhelmed by that grand expanse. I still am. If I don’t feel intimately connected with a place, its nooks and crannies, I have difficulty understanding my place within it. But I hope that this geography will, slowly but surely, form a mold around the contours of my life.

(Image Courtesy of Anri Chomentowska)