Bone cells last the longest. Regenerating every 30 years, they are the oldest cells in our body. Our stomach lining is renewed every couple of days, red blood cells 3 times a year. So there is nothing of this place left in me. None of this dust or thick, humid, mosquito-plagued air permeates my being. I have London skin, English blood, British bones forged from 30 years of wet brick and the breeze off the Thames. My building blocks are of fish and chips and strong beer and the breath of passing tourists from around the world.
But I am acutely aware that this is home. This is the land and community into which I was born. My fetal cells, child cells, teen, were all collected on an isthmus of land sandwiched between swamplands and the Delaware River. That child was built of maple trees and flying cut grass. He was forged in summer sunlight, bright enough to turn the highway white.
From the height of the great green steel bridges that straddle the river I gain my first view of the town. The canopy has thickened in the 30 years since I left. Lush, green, inviting, the leafy clumps are enriched by the slow flowing marsh.
But it is cancerous, toxic and silent. I swivel my head across the landscape left to right from the chemical plant at the north end of town to the south where it disappears into the swamp amidst charismatic churches and bait shops.
My maternal grandparent’s house was a copy of every other one on their street. A functional box design, it nested between a toxic, foul smelling canal that poured perpendicular from the sprawling chemical factory that employed half the men in town.
We lived down the street until I was 3; the house behind the fire house. Tacked to the wall above my bed, a large map of the world was the last thing I saw as I fell asleep.
At the other end of the street a copse of 100 maple trees hides the chemical factory gates. The trees are not so close together as to provide cover. There was tokenism in mind when they were planted. Like the canal, they draw their lifeblood from the chemical tainted waters deep underground. They are contaminated and poisonous.
It is one of my first memories- the great maple trees towering overhead, their trunks far too wide to embrace. Their paper bark peeling away perhaps blistered and burned by the chemical water table.
My grandparents would hide Easter eggs there in the hollow and knotted feet of their roots. Pastel colours of a hot water and vinegar dye, they would dot the copse like phosphorus mushrooms fed on the noxious emit of the chemical plant.
I expect the maple trees in the copse to be 500 feet tall by now. Nearly half a century has passed. But they are not. They are the same height I remember them as a child.
My grandparents house has been rebuilt and is unrecognisable.
I look to the white hot highway. It is the fierce summer sunlight that turns the world the colour of faded Polaroid photographs. It is the sunlight that awoke the child behind the firehouse, illuminating the global view above his bed.
We would sit on the curb in that white summer heat watching the parade of veterans and marching bands some pageant queen perched on the back of a convertible.
John ran the shop across the street. He was old and sold soda from a fountain that was antique even then. After church we would go in for a pretzel rod or a banana popsicle. John was kind, quiet sort of man.
I heard the adults talking. John had gone to Greece and died.
I asked where Greece was. The explanation was far across the sea. I was thrilled. Thrilled to learn there was another land beyond the seashore.
I associate this place with boredom and that association has not left me 30 years on.
It is not real. It is a snap shot. I measure myself against it and make a notch on the doorframe.
My mother tells the story. I have no recollection of the event at all. The facts are diluted and shaken in the space of a generation. I ran with a branch around that maple tree. My aunt tried to take it from me but I eluded her chase, falling and somehow ramming the stick down my throat. The hospital extracted it and the distance by which it missed my larynx shortens with each re-telling.
I do not recall one dot of the event. It is folk lore to me. But the paper thin bark peeling from the maples, the pastel coloured eggs, my grandparents’ house built by Russian tradesmen are all clear.
At two years old I could have lost my voice.
But I have not lost my voice. I have a voice.
-Southern New Jersey
Keep the Faith,