Sunday, September 5, 2010

Yuma Sojourn: Gertrude Stein was right

Memory is such a slippery, deceitful thing. At best it is unreliable; at its worst it lures one into believing things were once greater than they can ever be, that we were once better than we can ever be.

Two of my younger brothers and I made a pilgrimage to our ancestral home on the plains of eastern Colorado this weekend and I was surprised at how different the place is from what I remember. Not that we didn't expect things to be changed; I've visited Yuma often over the years, and I've watched it go through the normal changes that constantly alter the communities we live in. The houses are smaller than we remembered them; even the town seems smaller, but then hiking the length of Main Street takes a lot fewer steps with 50-year-old legs than it did when we were ten. Two of the three schools we attended are still there, but one has been re-purposed as an office complex, one has been enlarged and remodeled so much it’s hardly recognizable, and the old high school has been demolished and replaced by something more useful. Of the three-dozen buildings that comprise Main Street, only five still serve their original purposes, although all have been extensively remodeled. The old city library is a residence; the hospital where two of my brothers were born is now a state office building; the police station where our father served for eleven years has been replaced by a bank; and the Methodist church we attended was for a time a Masonic lodge and is now a fundamentalist Hispanic church.

We expected all of this change, of course. Still, for me, there was something sad about going back this time. All three of the houses we lived in are still there, but they are shabby and forlorn-looking from neglect. The lush green lawns and sumptuous flower gardens of my childhood are dried brown patches in expanses of bare dirt, or weedy thickets. The Yuma I remember was a vibrant, thriving community, with national-name stores on Main Street, stores like JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, Safeway, Coast to Coast, and Duckwall’s. Sure, there were the local mom-and-pop stores, too, but they were solid businesses that remained virtually unchanged throughout the decade-plus we lived there. Even the locally-owned stores had neon lighting or signs that were painted by professional sign painters. There was an air of indestructible commerce about Main Street, as if the people who did business there intended to be there for a good long while.

Nowadays there isn’t a single national-name retail store in town, and the only franchises are 7-Eleven and the fast food joints up on the highway. The stores and restaurants on Main Street sport hand-painted signs or lettering hand-cut from heavy plywood and painted. There is a sense that each store is hanging on by its fingernails, and if we go back a year from now, there’s a good chance it won’t be there. The old brick facades have been covered with aluminum or painted pressboard, and everything is weathered and worn. The town’s residential areas aren’t much better. There are a few grand houses and the occasional well-tended if modest home, but the rest of the town looks either threadbare or badly overgrown.

The experience has left me somewhat melancholy, as if I’m disappointed that I cannot make myself younger by returning to the scene of my childhood, or at least stave off the advancement of years. Still, I am glad we made the trip. For decades I’ve clung to the memories of my childhood with a fastness that sometimes bordered on the unreal. The Yuma of my boyhood was an American fantasy, where Grandma and Granddad helped raise us boys, where my mother and father were good and respected members of the community, where children could wander unsupervised on a summer day and soak up the bright sunshine of an unpolluted Colorado sky. The reality, so evident during today’s sojourn, was doubtless somewhat less perfect.

I realized that Yuma has always had its flaws, has always had its ramshackle houses and tawdry facades, its homemade public face. I just didn’t recognize them for what they were. Businesses are born, thrive or don’t, and then die, each in its own time. Renewal grows out of the compost heap of yesteryear’s style and discarded confidence. Homes, like our bodies, reflect the personalities of their occupants. A community has a life cycle and, like we who populate it, it changes over time. If Yuma looks less lovely now than I remember it, the fault is my own, not the town’s.

The glowing image of Yuma remembered exists only in the slightly fading photographs that fill the Rubber Maid tub in my father’s den. The moments captured in those photos are gone forever, and driving back to the place where they were taken won’t make them come alive again. Memories are wonderful things to occasionally sit and ponder, but they are not the sum of us. What is important is not what we were or even what we are, but what we can and will be, and that is as true of towns as it is of people.

I’ll probably never go back to Yuma after this trip. There isn’t any reason for me to go back. No more family members will be buried there, my work will never take me there, no one there is anxious to see me. The memories are more comfortable, more attractive than the reality, and there’s no reason to diminish them. As Gertrude Stein famously said, there’s no there there. It’s best to leave it that way.

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