In my first novel, Empire of Glass, I quote one of China’s greatest short story writers, Lu Xun, who wrote:
The old home I remembered was not in the least like this. My old home was much better. But if you asked me to recall its peculiar charm or describe its beautifies, I had no clear impression, no words to describe it. And now it seemed this was all there was to it. Then I rationalized the matter to myself, saying: Home was always like this, and although it had not improved, still it is not so depressing as I imagine; it is only my mood that has changed, because I am coming back to the country this time with no illusions. This time I had come with the sole object of saying goodbye.
Yesterday, my mother and I ‘accidentally’ (one could say my mother has a plan for everything, like all mothers) walked through one of New Hampshire’s oldest burying grounds, Portsmouth’s South Street Cemetery. The names on the mostly-toppled headstones read like the Mayflower’s list of passengers: Mary Blagdon, William Button, Joseph Penhallow.
The path through the centuries-old grave sites was worn enough for walking as we headed down the hill toward the Piscataqua’s riverbanks. There was an eerie silence around us, as one encounters in all cemeteries. We did not pass another living soul during our walk, but mused over the names of the dead, noting the stones simply marked ‘baby’ and the numerous family plots with etchings like ‘Beloved Father and Mother’ and their children spread below them and grandchildren scattered around the edges.
My parents currently live in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and the small city (of 20,000 residents) is a fifteen minute drive from my coastal hometown of Rye, New Hampshire (of 5,000 residents). Both towns have a long, colonial-era history—I grew up thinking that most homes had plaques on their doors that said ‘Built c. 1695.’ In fact, the histories are more wounded than I’d realized as a child: the Brackett Massacre of 1691 killed both settlers and natives—the graves are in a marshy, mostly-unmarked cemetery off one of Rye’s main roads; in Portsmouth, hangings regularly took place at the gallows at South Street Cemetery, including that of Ruth Blay, a schoolteacher who buried her stillborn child beneath her classroom floorboards and was accused of murdering the baby.
The strange thing about living in Los Angeles, as I do now, is that history, its architecture and stories, is relative. As anywhere, history is that which is the ‘oldest’ thing around—an historic home in Los Angeles may only be a century old, whereas the same in China would obviously have much deeper roots.
That said, growing up in a place like New England, despite its shallower history than that of Europe and Asia, somehow feels more rooted to me because of its connection to America’s founding. As a child, I heard stories about the pirates on the Isles of Shoals (there are rumors that Blackbeard’s widow still haunts the islands), of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill, and of the Underground Railroad that ran through Portsmouth.
Yesterday, driving with my father around my hometown, I noted that what’s lovely about the area is that although I haven’t lived here in over a decade, not much has changed. In comparison with my second hometown of Beijing, where even after a few months away I return to a disorienting landscape, the coast of New Hampshire still retains most of its old landmarks, such as Strawberry Banke (which I featured in an earlier post), the Wentworth by the Sea, Rye Harbor, and local cemeteries like South Street and Brackett.
Beyond that, I’m realizing that I must be getting older, because I’m starting to hear myself (and generationally similar friends) saying things like ‘Remember when.’ But walking around the silent South Street cemetery I didn’t hear any voices. There was the rustling of maple leaves in the thicket by the river, the slow hum of industrious mosquitoes readying for summer, my mother’s and my footsteps on the sandy path. Thousands of dead rested around us and while this should have been a deeply disturbing fact, while their names were not of the new world immigrant type as my own and while the names of those natives who died in numerous massacres were no where to be seen, I took comfort in the knowledge that these dead, named and unnamed, rested here in the grounds they’d known for all their lives and that, strangely, it was a home I shared with them.
From the Brackett Family geneology:
I have observed that old people live much in the past. As I grow older I find myself turning oftener to the days in the old home. I hear the patter and the prattle of childish feet and voice; light step of youth and maid; sober footfall and serious word of man and matron; the slowing step and failing voice of age. All, all are gone! I alone am left of . . .
The dear home faces whereupon
The fitful firelight paled and shown.
Hence forward, listen as I will
The voices of that hearth are still.
How strange it seems with so much gone
Of life and love to still live on.
Mrs. Silence J. Soule.
*For those visiting the area and interested in travel suggestions, see this prior post.