You feel New York State before you see it outside the plane. It’s the warm heavy shawl of humidity that renders blow-drying pointless. Although we’re headed to the mountains, these are east-coast mountains that Utahans would scoff at. But we’re not there yet, and I’ve lost my sense of direction. It all seems like tree-lined pavement and cloud-colored sky.
Going home—to your hometown—is visceral; you feel it in your gut. The familiar radio call letters, the same shaggy street signs, the smell of a gas station bathroom with a mirror that’s seen all your lip colors.
Why do we go? It’s not easy. As William says, “It takes two planes and a car.” It takes all day. But I guess that’s a fair price for time travel.
When you feel sea-sick, the first thing you hear is “Look at the horizon.” Nostalgia is queasy—disorienting. This horizon of green and grey such a far cry from the brown and blue of Salt Lake, but familiar somehow, like the last dream before you rise.
It’s a jungle on this mountain, so green and lush and always a bit damp; it’s constant camping. The steep cracking asphalt of Mitchell Road starts across from a newly minted Dollar General, cause of the greatest debate in the town of Hunter in years. How tacky, they said, but two years later it’s a good thing that the parking lot is big. Thickets of slim trees, some fallen, some upright—line the perimeter on both sides, as do the curling witches fingers of suffering pines.
Going (coming?) home feels like a constant exercise of comparison, like the kid’s “Guess what’s different?” on the pages of Highlights magazine. The topic of progress is everywhere in a small town. What’s changed; what needs to change; what will never, ever, change. So many For Sale signs, embattled by the harsh winter and half-torn, which no one much thinks to replace because if anyone was really interested, everyone would know where to find you – the local Tops, the institution of Dolph’s, with a pound of meat in every sandwich, the dump, or McGreggor’s bar.
There are ghosts everywhere here. The ghost of my in-laws ruined marriage, with the phone that rings that she won’t answer, because it’s him, begging his kids and grandkids to come out and play. The ghosts of Aunt Jennifer’s childhood playmate Ed who died quietly from opioid addiction that no one knew had ever really “gotten bad.” Cancer has stolen so many too. I brought that ghost with me.
As we were leaving I grabbed the clear thick plastic rectangle of a tape of Van Epps Family Memories. I seemed to remember that Kathy was one of the last people with a combo VHS / DVD player. Bless her. The kids, freshly bathed but with the remnants of ice cream cones on their faces and salamanders on their hands, tucked under blankets on the floor or onto the couch. And then there she was: my mama.
Drink in hand, light colored turtleneck containing a pointy, full Marilyn Monroe chest and full skirt—greeting the camera the way they did in the Wonder Years. But there was sound. And you know what? Voices don’t really change. What a gift that is.
My father, Dale Van Epps, also in a turtleneck—this was around Christmastime—holding the little Bob Barkeresque microphone with a split-flag stand enters the scene. He speaks and my breath catches. There he was, alive again before my very eyes. He starts with that silly song he always used to sing “Deck the halls with Boston Charlie.” I’ll have to ask my mom that origin story. I’m sure there is one.
Time passes on these videos by hairstyle. The 70s mop, the early 80s Farrah, and the late 80s assistant-to-Daddy Warbucks close-clipped coif—the very image of 1980s maternal innocence. Betty Homemaker. So much of my parents, often quite loose during the holidays, and then the Era of Ansley. A sharp reminder of how much our parents loved us—how they wanted us, how they rejoiced in our every squeal, how much time they spent just playing with us.
There’s a tendency now, I think, to either romanticize or criticize how we were raised. There were a lot of cigarettes and not enough sunblock, distant fathers and aspiring perfectionist mothers who made all of our Halloween costumes and put children in ruffled, itchy outfits. There were ineffectual car seats, yes, but there wasn’t any screen time. There were seemingly indelible gender politics, yes, but there wasn’t the constant onslaught of information, and comparison. There’s a stretch of tape where Ansley and I are in matching navy bathing suits with yellow flowers, both with an impotent left strap, before we discard them altogether.
We’re on a fragile steel playset with a silver slide that undoubtedly burned our legs. We take the slide down into a baby pool, over and over and over again, while mom narrates and laughs from just off screen. Perhaps it’s an idealistic remembering, but life seemed lighter then, with fewer expectations on all sides.