A friend who recently read my novel, Under The Mercy Trees, laughed at the part where I have my character Bertie describe the place she got married: “in front of this porch, by the steps where a butterfly bush used to be.” My friend, who is from the north (bless his heart) said that only in the south would people describe things in terms of what is no longer there, as in, “turn left at the house that used to be orange.”
I wonder if it really is just a southern thing, this need to reference things lost. Or if it’s a trait shared by cultures who have experienced a military occupation. Or if all humans do it, just because our supposedly advanced brains let us remember and yearn for things.
If all parties involved remember the same thing, references to what used to be make perfect sense. When I give directions to my law office the first question I ask is, “do you know where Max’s Deli used to be?” Max’s Deli closed years ago but no other restaurant that has rented that space since has lasted more than a few months, so Max’s it is to most people. When my siblings and I visit the Pamlico river where our grandparents lived when we were young, we collectively remember the huge magnolia my mother planted in the yard when she was a girl, and we avert our eyes when we pass the McMansion that now towers where house and tree used to be. Last month I visited my parents in Raleigh and took a walk around the neighborhood where I grew up. As I passed our old house two little boys and their mother were returning home, the youngest one running ahead to be the first to the front door. I said hello to the woman as I passed and almost told her, “this is the house where I used to be.”
I think the only danger in referring to things that no longer exist is that they may never have been real at all. In one of Bertie’s chapters in my novel I write: “As she stepped up to the door she heard them start Are You Lonesome Tonight, a Carter Family song that always called up in her a false memory, sad but sweet, of somebody she had lost, but when she stopped to think who it might have been she realized there never was anybody and she was looking back at nothing.”
Those advanced brains of ours can trick us, making us nostalgic for what never was, keeping our eyes turned backward instead of on the road ahead.
Heather Newton is the author of the novel Under The Mercy Trees (HarperCollins 2011). Visit her website at www.heathernewton.net.