Back in days only slightly more recent than "of yore", my family and our friends the Galaskas would go to Old Forge in the Adirondacks each year to see the leaves change, have a picnic, and generally enjoy each others' company.
These trips are a very fond part of my childhood, especially as I move farther from them in time and distance. In bittersweet recompense for time having its general way with us, it mercifully imparts smoothness to old memories, their rough edges worn away like river stones. The sadder parts, my mother's growing disability, my father's frustrations and demons, and my tween-age insecurities I can release my grip on; silt in the flow. The beautiful autumn days and happiness of old friends reunited are solid and perfect in my mind.
I know now that my experience was not the same as my parents'. Children see only the immediate sense and surface of things: the food on the table, the blazing color of leaves in the trees, the joy of play. Everything is solid and new and unbroken. I know now that my parents' scene must have been overlaid with a thick carpet of memory and detail. The sense of old, close friends with whom they'd played cards until dawn every weekend, and galavanted around with on trips, now seen only occasionally. Unfettered young adulthood slowing to the measured stride of family life. Worry over the sense of things unraveling. Even just the memories of all the other times they'd been there, crowding into the now like ghosts who would not release their purchase on the living.
But that is the nature of childhood. The obvious, undeniable flaw in our foundation. Our understanding and appreciation are forever stumbling young children running after their older sibling, experience.
With my parents passing, and my move to Texas, I often hear the past knocking where the walls of the everyday grow thin in my mind. We recently have had a chance to go back to the Adirondacks with my wife's family, who also had a longstanding tradition of visits to Old Forge, renting a cabin on Fourth Lake.
It set me to reminiscing, pouring memories into Google Maps, hoping for some satellite-aided epiphanies. While making the odd mental connections between the ground-level memories of childhood and the 30,000 foot view of modernity, I realized there was a flaw. I remembered a park in Old Forge that we had gone to at least once. Oddly, that one trip is indelibly printed in my mind. I vividly remembered the layout of the place.I remembered a hill, and tennis courts. Picnic benches and swings. Most of all, I remembered feeding ducks from a dock on an inlet. It was a perfect childhood moment. We even had a picture of it somewhere in the photographic inheritance of my parents. But try as I might, I could not find it on the map. I found parks, but none that matched my memory. I strained against the hazy gauze in my head, trying to sort impression of the place from its actual geography. I searched, but did not find, and it bothered me more than it should have. On a subsequent visit, I could not find the park while actually there, and no one in my wife's family knew what I was talking about.
On our last trip there this summer, we drove around the lake to have dinner on its north shore. While driving through the small town of Inlet, we passed an unassuming entrance to a local park. The world immediately clicked. My wife's father stopped the car, and I all but ran from it, through the park, past the picnic tables, past the swings, over the hill, back 30 years, until I reached the dock. It was there, a solidly physical manifestation of memory. The same hill, the same swings, the same tables, and the same ducks (give or take a generation or two for the latter.) We came back a day or so later, and I asked my wife to take a picture of me lying down on the dock. I couldn't remember exactly what the picture looked like, but I know I was lying down, almost leaning over the water. My wife took the photo, we walked around a few minutes in the tiny park, and then left. Afterwards I hunted through our parents photos, and finally found the original (bottom in the photo below).
I couldn't explain to my wife why I needed to find this park so badly, and why I needed to take this picture. I'm sure she thought it was just a silly diversion, and would not have understood why tears stalked behind my eyes as I lay down on the rough wood. It wasn't about that moment. Or this park. Or even that one time 30 years ago.
That memory is a tree, solid and unified above the ground, but below, fragmented into a million roots reaching into the bones of my earth. Some of its linkages make me smile. Some dig deep into so many other less beautiful days. But it is the expanse of their totality that overwhelmed me, a vast and inaccessible network of the past.