Cities of the Mind

When I visited my mom in the nursing home, occasionally she’d be sitting in the sun with her eyes closed and a smile on her face.  I knew what she was doing.  I’d ask, “Where are you, Mom?”  She’d answer without opening her eyes, “Paris, 1956.”

Considering I was with her in Paris in 1956–albeit, only nine years old–I could mentally join her at the Eiffel Tower, or stand on the sidewalk in front of the Hôtel Scribe.  Subsequent trips gave me more memories to layer on that first one, but the first one was also my mother’s, and thus gave me special pleasure.  From there, my mind would spool off into Munich, London, Kleinschmalkalden (my dad’s hometown), and on and on.

Every once in a while, a startling memory surfaces.  Like the sunny day in Salzburg when I was striding through the palace gardens singing “The hills are alive…!” under my breath.  I’m over 4,000 miles from home, and I hear, “Mrs. Noe?” coming from over my shoulder.  One of my former students.  Anyone in a service profession understands that a person is not “safe” anywhere.  Connections come out of the woodwork!  That’s not really a bad thing, to be recognized many years later.  And not only that, to be acknowledged in public yet!  It also happened when we were at John Lennon’s memorial to Strawberry Fields in Central Park.  Come to think of it, I was singing that time too.  “Strawberry Fields forever,” of course.  Maybe I need to stop vocalizing in public.

Like my mother, I am a deeply visual person.  Once I can conjure up an image of a person or a place, I’ve got the hook to the experience that goes with it.  I can easily deny never having been at so-and-so’s wedding…until my husband reminds me of the plumeria blossom behind the bride’s ear.  Yes!  I do remember that wedding!  We talked to…and they told us…and…  The visual hook did it.

I love being able to scroll through the wonderful people and places I’ve met.  I call it my “Interior Photo Album for the Nursing Home.”  Don’t even need a scrapbook.  I know my mother would approve.

I have Paris in my head, right down to the heat vent in the road right outside the Moulin Rouge, where we pretended we were Marilyn Monroe in that diaphanous dress she could hardly control.  I don’t think any of us had dresses on, but it sure was fun to watch scarves swoop up and dance around in the blast of warm air.

Far, far away from the real thing, I can climb the hill across from my grandparents’ house in Germany.  At the top, from a memorial that looks like a beer stein, I can see the house far below.  I holler and holler, but no one appears.  Too far away, I guess, though it’s worked in the past.  When we get back to the house, my aunt says, “I heard you up there!  Did you see me?  I waved a dishtowel at you, and you hollered.”  Um.  That was the group that was coming down the hill as we were going up.  And commenting on “some woman out shaking her dustcloth.”  Sigh.  I take that walk over and over when I need a smile.

I can walk down Sandy Row in Belfast, Northern Ireland, hearing my penpal and his aunt reminding my friends and me to tell people we were headed for the park, not to the Catholic church across town.  The family we visited were Protestant, and this was August, 1968.  The Troubles broke out with a vengeance in September.  But City Hall, the Crown pub with its snugs, and Sandy Row were all peaceful places when we were there.  We had only inklings of the rumblings beneath our feet, callow youth that we were.  The row houses on Sandy Row are all torn down now, but I can still walk it anytime I wish, conjuring up the hospitality and warmth from the people who lived there.

From what I hear, the main pyramid at Chichen Itza is no longer open for climbing.  But I can climb it.  The stair risers are almost impossibly tall, requiring the high-step of the best band major.  Luckily, I have fairly small feet, so could plant my foot face-on, not have to turn it sideways to climb.  I’m not a great one for heights, but if I’m there…well, I’ll take the challenge, figuring I’ll never get the chance again.  I can see the jungle spreading out at my feet, like a huge broccoli farm.  Getting down took more guts than going up.  More butt than foot.  That brings up the bus that broke down in the jungle, in the dark.  When we saw our driver take off his belt, in the hope of replacing the bus’s fanbelt, I was delegated to bargain with the driver of the bus that stopped to help, because I knew about 10 words of Spanish.  “Get us back to Cancun!” my companions hissed.  So, I did.  It was clear why people put coins in front of the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe back in the bus station in town.  Ask for a safe trip, and you just might get it.

I often traipse down Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland, Oregon, heading from the college campus down to the theater complex in the heart of the small town.  Thirty teachers from all over the country were studying Shakespeare at the Festival.  After spending a month, I have the route embedded in my memory, from the front door of the dorm, where we shared the cafeteria with wrestlers and cheerleaders one week, and Elder Hostel folk another…although one of us called the latter the Elder Hostile, because they were always pushing into line for food.  Entitled, I suppose.  But the walk usually takes me to the outdoor theater where we watched Midsummer Night’s Dream under a full moon and a warm breeze, where the backdrop was black velvet speckled with tiny lights for stars, and where the fairy king swept his cloak around the fairy queen and, because of lights on his cloak, they disappeared into the night.  Poof!  Real magic.

The mental vacations are many and varied.  Everyone needs an escape once in a while, especially if it can be somewhere filled with pleasant memories.  Whether it conjures up laughs, nostalgia, or just a restful feeling, that inner eye is a gift.  Have fun creating your own Interior Photo Album!