Why do we have nostalgia for times that never were?

My grandfather died on a Saturday. They embalmed him in Colorado, and shipped him home on a Monday. Wednesday found me boarding what may have been my last flight bound for Spokane, WA, the place half my family has been kicking andshoving to get away from for the past eighty years.

Spokane, WA. Have you been there? The past few times I’ve visited I’ve been struck by the raw beauty of the place. It’s a trueNorthwestern city, unspoiled (Lord knows) by rapid wealth. Granite boulders, a river that churns and foams through the center of a town which is now mostly vacant storefronts, yellow and red maple leaves mixed with pine needles filling the sidewalks and gutters, the fresh smell of felled trees from the lumber yards that you encounter along Highway 90 when you head out for Coeur d’Alene. But I’ve been raised to consider Spokane as something like the seventh circle of hell. Like that circle, onlylamer, more banal. The third circle, maybe, or the fifth. I wish I had some Dante handy so I could look up the place where people are hard-bitten and knocked around, where their youngsters rebel, run away to Walla Walla or Seattle, and then return, widowed or disappointed, swallowing hard to make amends for the past by settling into the same houses they were born into. That’s the circle for Spooksville, as my mother and uncle call it.

For me, Spokane = The Rest Of America. It’s exotic, in a way: America’s true self, a city by a river—not an ocean—where the voter base comes from, where they get those samples for TV polls of people who are white,“decent,” middle-class and Christian, in contrast to my world, where we are all multicultural, over-read, liberals-or-worse, obsessive. In Spokane, my Boppa was a pharmacist, a lifelongcompany man. He bought a new Chrysler every five years, and I made a point of avoiding finding out how he voted. Standing at his grave, under the trees, overlooking the river,I felt as if a whole era of that America, not just my own distorted past, was tumbling down into the pit with him, the way all the cups and saucers and spoons and glasses tumble together and off the edge of the table when someone tries to do that trick ofgetting the cloth out from under them: Kids sitting on the jump seat, cars smelling of newness and of menthol—thump, crash, it all goes into the pit. A world where everyone was named Noreen, Winnie, Bob, Al, Rita, and they all came over on Saturday night to play cards and drink rum and cokes—whoosh, plouf, over the edge. Past age 12, you got cat-eyed rhinestone glasses, over 25 you got a beehive hairdo. Men used grooming products like Ultramax and Grecian, unguents that smelled of Vicks Vaporub, and they shot their cuffs back to expose heavy gold bracelets as they opened the door for you to get in the car, to get in the store, to get in the house—tumble, fumble, jumble, it all sails down into Boppa’s grave. My mother and uncle can toss in the Dylan Thomas, gin and pills they took to get away from there. My aunt brushes herself off and goes on the Zone diet.

Actually, what I’m talking about died awhile ago, about ten years or so, when my grandmother got sick. The world I saw fall away with my grandfather was really hers. Despite the man-of-the-family, high-roller bit parts played by men, this was woman-country, claustrophobically domestic because—and I just came to this realization at the funeral—what I’m describing is the last incarnation of an America in which families were still founded on the accident ofhaving to get married. Spokane, and that America, could have embroidered a giant uterus across the stars and stripes and flown it as a banner for their time. Pregnancy ran everything. That’s why my mother’s generation hated it so much.

Case in point: one of the few surefire ways to piss my mother off when I was a little kid was to talk about the show Happy Days. She would thunder, “That show is bullshit! What are their names? Richie?Fonzi? You think those were nice guys? They weren’t. They were racist, they were horny as hell, and they were cowards. Talk about a double standard. They were terrified of women. We were terrified ofourselves. Do you want to know about the fifties? They were about repression! We were mean, we were constantly ashamed, and all that femininity stuff was just a cover for what we really wanted, which we thought was marriage, but wasreally just sex, the one cast-iron, no no no, yes yes yes thing none of us could stop thinking about.

“The outfits look nice? Give me a break. Girdles, garters,petticoats. Ugh. Do you know what made those poodle skirts, those dresses stand out so far? Crinolines, two or three of them. Dipped in sugar syrup. We would dip them on Saturday and hang them out on the clothesline to dry, and then all the next day sugary slime would be melting down our legs. Everyone. All the girls. Dipping their underskirts in sugar and judging each other like hell, knocking each other over. Racing from puberty to catch a man. Happy Days, right. Give me a break! Nostalgic crap.”

That’s the point, really. By the time I got to Spokane all this stuff was already nostalgic. I was growing up singing along with Helen Reddy’s I am Woman; at school my teachers wore love beads and gave each other massages at recess. I knew the word “nostalgia” because my mother read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude aloud to her boyfriend and me during long car trips. I can’t remember ever nothaving known where babies came from, or that there was no Santa Claus. But I do remember that in 1974 we spent a Christmas in Spokane, where the fridge overflowed with home made fudge and the ever-exotic, if inedible,penuche, and one of the salads at dinner was comprised of marsh-mallows, Kraft French dressing and mandarin oranges. Though I knew, because I’d looked, that the prettiest package under the tree, a pink and gold package, with ribbons and lace and little white bells on it, contained a nightgown and a year’s supply of underpants, I still woke up bolt upright for the only time of my life on a Christmas morning and roused my mother to get at that present, a.s.a.p: “It’s Christmas!” My mother, confronted with a child who was suddenly channeling Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, said, “Not at 5 a.m. it’s not.” and we both fell back to sleep.

To my mother, this stuff was not charming or magical. It was the legacy of an indescribable poverty, an economic and emotional deprivation, that pervaded Spokane in the twenties and during thedepression. My mother sees the fifties and then the house I spent that Christmas in as a recoil from the years my orphaned grandmother and her sisters were shipped around from household to household, sleeping in a cousin’s henhouse one winter, food and toilet paper brought them by school friends who smuggled the stuff from home. Years that culminated in meeting up with my handsome grandfather, inhigh school, and in having to get married. What followed, a house with heat and private bedrooms, a garden for vegetables and raspberry bushes, three daughters, from their spitup to adolescence and sugary crinolines, the Bing Crosby records on the hi fi, were charged with a silent rage about the way things had begun, my grandfather unable to go to WWII, my grandmother unable to go to college.

Mom’s reading is more correct than mine is, of course. That’s what it was all about for most people in Spokane. I told her about this essay, and how I wanted to mention my grandmother’s Hallmark Card store, and the massive freezer in the basement she kept chock full of jams, roasts and rolls. Right up until the moment of the telling, I had thought of these as the ideals ofAmerican abundance and good housekeeping, some of those core family values that quack W. Bush keeps talking about, but my Mom put it back in place: “Just remember to write that cards were a luxury. Hallmark Cards were expensive. Mother and father would never have paid for those things, or for wrapping paper. But once she had the store, wrapping paper was on everything.

“And the food mother kept in that freezer was never for eating. That wasn’t the point of it. You just had to have it, like those cases of soda crackers stacked in the basement. Who would eat them?” That’s true. I don’t think we ever ate anything from the freezer. Though my grandmother once broke a toe when she dropped some item, frozen solid, on it.

Spokane, unlikely exotic locale. But as it folded onto itself over my grandfather, cushioning and tamping him down into itself again, there I was, working overtime on making meaning, helpless against my desire to make the scene emblematic. I have replaced, probably permanently, my vision of a city preserved in honest chastity (not to mention Betty Crocker and Kraft) from the revels of ’68. But I’ve done so with a sort of John Ford image of lean-jawed, hardscrabble folk making do. Still nostalgic, still not accurate, still not to the point, still playing against my parents’“Spooksville,” still pretending that there’s something more than water pouring down that crashing river, more than dirt filling in the gap that losing a generation opens up. •