This past weekend I spent a couple of days visiting my friend Marcella in Marin County. When I was a child our family lived just a few houses up the hill from hers, and both families were quite close. The moms were friends, the dads were friends, and the kids were friends. (For reasons I no longer remember we four children called ourselves the Twinkle Brothers and the Twinkle Sisters.) We moved away when I was sixteen, which is thirty-eight years ago. Both of the dads are gone now, and one of the children, my dear friend Alison, passed away in 2008. Despite the years and the distance and the loss, the friendships persist, and Marcella has become like a second mom to me. I’ve spent more time in Marin in the last few years than in the thirty odd years preceding, and I have been rediscovering and renewing my relationship with the county of my birth.
Marin has changed a lot since I lived there. Back then it was much more middle class. Sure it was beautiful and pretty liberal, but it wasn’t extremely expensive to live there, and most of the families we knew were solidly middle class. The dads were accountants or teachers or small business owners. Most of the moms we knew stayed home and raised the kids. Nowadays, it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country, in terms of housing. A lot of the people who work there cannot afford to live there, so traffic has become a huge problem. The pace is so much faster than it used to be, and yet it is still beautiful to me. However, I just recently realized that at least half the time I am seeing it as it was, rather than as it is. It’s like those then and now photos that get posted on Facebook all the time, where an old photograph has been merged with a new one, showing the same place, a little bit then and a little bit now.
When I peek into Alison’s old room to whisper hello, I don’t see the modern spare bedroom it is now. I see a little girl’s room painted purple, with the two of us listening to 45s on her portable record player. The only two songs I can remember are “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters and “Mill Valley” by Rita Abrams. When I snuck onto the deck of our old home while the new owners were away, I didn’t see the hardwood floors or the sleek white rooms. I saw green shag carpeting and the orange and yellow kitchen with avocado appliances. Every time I drive by my grandmother’s old apartment building I have to stifle the urge to knock on the door of number 5, Cordone Drive and ask the tenant if I can look around. I imagine the old linoleum will still be in the kitchen, and the red cabinet still in the hallway and her patio furniture will be outside. When I drive down Sir Francis Drake Blvd., I see myself walking with my brother and grandmother to Redhill shopping center for an ice cream cone at Swenson’s. Further down the road is the beauty salon where Grammy worked as an aesthetician so many years ago. In my mind Mr. Wayne is still doing hair and May Chang is doing nails and there is always that smell of hot wax and perming solution drifting through the building. When my friend and I had lunch in Tiburon recently, I knew where Tiburon Tommy’s once stood, and I could see the Tiki statues and the waterfall under the stairs, and all the drinks with umbrellas. Every place I go connects me with a memory, and the nostalgia washes over me in huge, sad waves.
That’s when I have to remind myself that the old days were not always so great. There were despair and sadness, violence and politics and war, just as there is now. I guess the difference is that then I was young and had my whole life ahead of me, and everything seemed possible. Maybe that’s what nostalgia is, not simply a longing for the past, but a longing for our younger, unjaded selves. One time Alison told me that she had gone to visit a campground where our families went every summer. The owners had died and the place was closed. Everything was overgrown and silent. She said she wished she hadn’t gone and wouldn’t go again because there were too many ghosts. I know what she meant, but I like my ghosts. They are memories of cherished people and places, and I don’t want to forget them. I plan to keep going back.