The Buck Stops Here: "The Rosebud We Utter"

"Time arced over us, all those years, and seemed to enfold us in its arms." - Alicia Metcalf Miller.

At the end of Alicia Miller's novel, My Life on Mars, about a city on Lake Erie shore, much like Lakewood, Eliza, a successful writer and illustrator of children's books, returns home to help her mother sell the family home and pack before she returns to Santa Fe with her mother. Her mother asks her to sketch the house before she goes, since she has no photographs, and Eliza finds herself drawing the house, not as it is now in winter, but as she wants to remember it. "The trees around it became leafy, not barren as they actually were; ivy surrounded their trunks the way it did in the summer....I wasn't a camera. This was the way the house begged to be remembered."

This is not the only story. If we remember the past we want - construct it so it is the story we tell - there is also a past that flashes up in front of us at unexpected moments, whether we want it to or not, that we cannot escape and whose truth may not become clear for years, if ever. The last word Citizen Kane says in Orson Welles's great film of Kane is "Rosebud," the name of his childhood sled. Such illumination is crucial, because it comes back so forcefully, however we understand it.

I can't say I understood - or even understand - my youth in Lakewood. It was not until I went to college and roomed with a prep school graduate that I understood that Lakewood classmates who went to summer camp had a different life than I did; that we came from different backgrounds. I had never been out of state until the track team went to Wheeling, West Virginia for a meet my senior year.

The playground in my neighborhood was the street. One day I broke free, caught a pass in full stride, and raced for the fifth house from the corner, which was the end zone, only to be blind-sided. I had run full speed into a car. The memory does not fade, and part of my understanding of the street has to do with that sudden, excruciating pain.

At Harding, I was told by a teacher to ignore some test scores. They must be wrong, because no one from my neighborhood ever scored that high. "The talking heads are talking," Joan Jett sings. "Listen to what they say. How to sit in judgment." I didn't. It is only now that I am able to appreciate that my test scores would always be wrong, and I wanted it that way. I never learned to listen to what they say.

I understood nothing about love, but the taste of my first love's lips against mine in high school would remain the promise I returned to each time I was in love.

Some years back, I contacted an artist, a graduate of Middlebury College, to include work of his in an exhibit at the college I curated. He was a well-known artist and had been selected to represent America at the 1999 Venice Biennalle. When he called back, his first question was not about the exhibit or what work of his I was interested in, but whether I remembered him as a student in a class of mine. I did not anticipate the question. Our past has its way of surprising us and changes what it is. The rosebud we utter at the end of our lives has a long history, and even when there is no time left, we're still trying to understand.
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Volume 2, Issue 15, Posted 1:01 PM, 07.14.06