duende The duende is a demonic earth spirit who helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that “ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head”; who brings the artist face-to-face with death, and who helps him create and communicate memorable, spine-chilling art.
I spent my entire childhood in growing up in one house. My parents moved when I was twenty-three; the house was torn down a year later.
I drove past the house when it was in the process of being demolished. The concrete foundation was there, along with frame of the walls and the ceiling. I parked the car, got out, and took a wander through the skeletal remains of my childhood.
I’ve dealt with deaths and break-ups and all manner of typical emotional landmines and upheavals. Perhaps it is a reflection of something that’s either dead or repressed inside me as a human being, but seeing my old house like that was easily the most scarring moment in my entire life.
It wasn’t the whole picture that terrified me. It was the details.
It was the splotch of paint on the roof from where I fucked up trying to paint my bedroom when I was twelve.
It was the bloodstain on the concrete from my sister’s accident with the window back in ‘93.
It was the plastic hooks for the garbage bag hanger in the old laundry room.
It was the shape of the Big and Little Dippers traced over twenty years ago by my father with plastic glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of my old bedroom.
It was the hook hanging from the ceiling in the old dining room; the hook from which nothing ever hung.
It was the specks of black mould along my old window sill. It was the specific scuff marks on the door jamb. It was the knots in the wood in the ceiling.
It was the details.
The details are what stick with us.
No one will ever be able to recount a strict chronology of their life: a “this happened, then that happened, then that happened,” all events and people and places being equal and measured. Psychology doesn’t work that way.
We remember moments: someone’s laugh, the feeling of blushing, the smell of a room.
Pictures of a house or a city that try to capture everything are nothing more than realtor’s photographs or cheap postcards.
The life is in the details.
That’s what I take photographs of. They are nothing more than keys to memory, to a feeling, to a moment in time.
The life is in the details.
The details seep into everything I do: once I walked past an antiquestore and saw an old Pears Soap tin like my mum used to have; once I walked past an insurance agent and saw through the window a little kid in the waiting room playing with an old Fisher Price car garage; once I was looking for an apartment and their washing machine had the same kind of knobs as my parents’ old washing machine; once I wrote a science fiction story and the main character was perpetually homesick in that same way I have always been.
The details are impossible to ignore. They live in the corner of my mind in that same way your nose sits blurrily on the edge of everything you see. As with nostalgia; as with grief.
Nostalgia holds grief as its shadow self.
Published as “Ashleigh’s Story,” as a part of the re:moved project (2011; formerly at: removedprojectonline.blogspot.com), along with the following narrative:
I grew up in, not a small town, but a “municipality.” At the local government level, North Delta was just one-third of the larger, more holistically named “Delta.” We were surrounded on all sides: other cities to the north and east, Richmond, Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, and Surrey; the United States to the south; and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Despite being engulfed in the (sub)urban sprawl of what has go coolly been named “Metro Vancouver,” North Delta only really has about 20,000 people. It was like a small town smack in the middle of a big city.
Granted, things have changed since I was a kid, but growing up, there was one baseball park, one library, one recreation centre, and two high schools. There was geographic split in the middle of North Delta, and, while there were railroad tracks, they did not follow this divide. It was the two high schools that made that distinction. The south side of North Delta was the rich side. The north side, well, we were poorer.
Our neighbourhood was tucked in the last little corner before crossing the street meant you were in Surrey. Our block was full of kids, most of whom I went to school with. In summers we ran around like we were in a Mark Twain story. We built forts, started fights, lost our shoes, and listened for the high-pitched whistles that called us indoors again.
The house I lived in from the ages of four to twenty-three was the centre of all of this. My sister and I were latch-key kids and my parents were open and easy-going. Kids could get away with things at our house that they couldn’t at home. This carried on well into my teens. In high school, we at the “poor school” made a frequent habitat of my parents’ generosity.
By the time I reached twenty-three, I was almost done with university, and was starting my full-time job. My boyfriend at the time had all but moved in and with my sister well-entrenched in post-secondary, my parents finally decided enough was enough. Unlike most parents who downgrade to a smaller house when on the verge of being empty-nesters, my parents upgraded. They bid adieu to the rancher and bought a classic split-level: the North Delta equivalent of the Vancouver Special.
It seemed fine at first, the thought of moving. It was exciting. When the realization started to kick in, I was deep in the throes of a “quarter-life crisis”; basically, it felt like my life was falling apart, past and future no longer making. That narrative thread you always feel like you’ve been following was starting to unravel. It’s difficult, that moment nothing seems to make sense anymore; the lines between truth and fiction are blurring and no matter how hard you squint it’s all getting away from you.
Anyway, to me it was like that old house came to be everything that I was leaving behind. My old house was the part of the past that would always be comfortable. It was the safety net. Seeing it destroyed was terrifying. It was like being cut loose all alone. Where I’ve tried to see it as cutting the umbilical cord, sometimes I still feel cast adrift without an anchor.