My husband hung up the wind chimes today. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, as my husband is a competent man and gravity is working as it should. It is a big deal, though, because these are big wind chimes, eight feet tall, made of steel tubes that gong when the wind catcher catches. They aren’t beautiful to look at, nor beautiful to hear, unless you really dig church, but they are beautiful to me, and now that they’re up, after two weeks at our new house, I know we are home. Again. This is our third move in five years.
I inherited the wind chimes from my folks. My parents had the sort of love affair that required them to marry each other twice. This would be more romantic if there wasn’t a divorce in the middle of that, say, or if they weren’t in the process of a second divorce when my mother died. Where some couples have trial separations, my parents had trial marriages. The family agrees that if these two were still alive today, they would be going for yet another round.
On the second try, they moved to Washington state, to a house overlooking the Hood Canal, a tiny, perfect part of the Puget Sound. For the nine months they managed to keep their romance together this time, the house was alive with the magic of second chances. Where the first album I ever remember hearing is Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits loud on Pops’s eight-track, the Washington trial marriage, fifteen years later, was perfectly timed with the release of Simon’s Graceland. The house rang with Pops’s voice singing along to you “You Can Call Me Al,” a pointed reference to a past love of Mom’s. This Al had died years before, but death brings no end to competition in marriages such as this, and Pops took more pleasure from it than he should have. Mom loved Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and would insist the song was about me, one of the prettier riddles I inherited.
For those nine months, everything worked. Washington helped. Mom loved the rain, Pops loved Mom. And Mom loved the wind chimes that were Pops’s gift to her on the occasion of their second wedding. Her hearing was always poor and this might have contributed to the idea Pops had to present his once-and-again bride with the most magnificent chimes he could imagine. It might also have been a simple Freudian urge on his part. He’d give her the biggest, longest wind chimes anyone had ever seen. Take that, Al!
Along with the rest of the baggage that comes with this history, I inherited the wind chimes. And the audacity to hang them up. It might be the glimmer of second chances, but whatever happened there in those nine months made me love the Pacific Northwest for all time. I can feel the Puget Sound from my new Berkeley home, far from me but connected, like a traveling lover or a child off at college. It was a home to me. And the wind chimes that first hung there bring that feeling of home to wherever I am clumsily starting again: today Berkeley, Oakland before this, Santa Cruz, New York, Los Angeles before that, and every ring sounds like a place I’ve known.
In England last year I had a conversation with Ted Hodgkinson at Granta magazine about how American writers have a unique ability to capture place. I wasn’t convinced by Ted’s argument, despite the charm of his accent. I found myself falling more in line with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who says of the U.S., “No author, without trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery …” Hawthorne goes on to explain this difficulty as owing to “a common-place prosperity,” and that’s where he loses me, but he did have me at the start. This is such a young country; how can we writers capture a place that’s barely been caught in life? Perhaps the only way is through the do-over, the way my parents did it. The country is young but its chances are old, inherited, imported, stolen, and manufactured, and in that idea is the romance necessary to make a place come alive.
Perhaps one needs more of a manic pedigree than Hawthorne’s. Or maybe all we need to capture place is a longing for stability along with a legacy of separation that makes old places stay alive for us when they, and the people who brought them to life, are long gone. We have to bring and make our own resonance here, build our Gothic cathedrals from metal tubing and industrial wire, weigh this all down, wait for the wind, close our eyes, and hear the generations ring.
Tupelo Hassman is a writer living and teaching in California. Her debut novel, girlchild, is now out in paperback from Picador.