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Feb 2004 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Eating the Past
By Holly Iglesias

It was no accident that I ended up in the Cuban community of Miami as a young adult. I had taken the cherished midwestern value of solid ground to heart but was also beginning to see that it imposed serious limitations to a budding spirit of adventure. Leaving St. Louis, I was headed to Cuba by the overland route — a physical impossibility, granted, but metaphorically a grand gesture for a poet-in-training. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that I was headed toward a community which fed upon the details of an imaginary place, an era that no longer existed (if, in fact, it ever did), a community in exile from its own culture.

It seems clear now that my true destination was a life of my own and a reclamation of the past. Perhaps one message in Joyce's portrait of the young artist is the necessity of leaving one's homeland in order to see it clearly and love it well. The exile can create a home with words. Or with food, as Miami Cubans do, distilling identity into tiny cups of espresso and dense squares of flan. This task of reduction becomes all the easier in a place that constantly re-invents itself, where a sense of history has marginal value, and making it up as you go is a much admired and necessary skill.

Toasted ravioli.

There, I said it, because I, too, know how to write history and heritage in shorthand, which is what an exile community does. Condensing enormous sweeps of time and space into bite-size nuggets is a peculiar habit called nostalgia (the Greek word for homesickness). It compresses experience into easily digested morsels and serves up the past as a snack.

I think the current penchant for trivia reveals our hunger for history, a way to amass facts in the atmosphere of a game, hoping to assemble the pieces into a picture of what happened. To say nothing of the fondness for luminous details, which belies the poet inside everyone, even when the silky ribbon of memory gets tangled with complexity — the sway of trolleys, the drone of a bus in the Maplewood Loop, the last segment of the Arch fitted into place, beatniks in Gaslight Square, '66 Rexall, Prom Magazine, Bettendorf's, Pruitt-Igoe.

Nostalgia is a piece of cake compared to history, which requires a tolerance for paradox and a hefty dose of patience, a commodity in short supply as we kiss centuries hello and goodbye like commuters at rush hour, hat in one hand, coffee in the other.

Among the archetypes that haunt my dreams are The One Who Leaves and Those Who Stay. As one who left, I know that I never really walk away; rather I am always walking toward. I am afflicted with an acute longing for the past, for its textures and tastes. This yearning manifests in my work as an attempt to make art from history, to capture in words what has slipped beyond the grasp of the physical senses.

Middle age has brought out in me a hankering for the company of the old folks who inhabited my childhood. The praise they doled out for recitals and good grades, the fragile, ornate candies they brought as hostess gifts, their indulgence of children with overwrought Victorian storybooks and recklessly precious coats in fabrics that never survived the wear and tear of young bodies at play.

Great aunts and grandparents who dressed in dark clothes and black shoes, who spoke a delicate, archaic language, who laughed and wept easily and had absolutely no sense of irony or sarcasm. Who lunched on dollops of chicken salad and slipped dimes into our pockets and shouted whenever they talked on the telephone. Uncles in bow ties and stiff collars who acted as though they were slightly naughty whenever they rolled up their sleeves, exposing raw wrists and skin paler than tissue paper.

People who lived in row houses or apartment buildings, whose kitchens had iceboxes and ceramic sinks without spray nozzles or garbage disposals, who brushed their coats and carried handkerchiefs and dressed their hair with pomade. Who were visibly stunned by the heaving abundance of holiday meals and had keen recollection of the foods of their youth. They sighed at the thought of thick ham sandwiches, the crust of salt on soda crackers, the scent of Mama's angel food cake.

My parents, like many of their generation, marked progress by distance from the city and the past. In a ceaseless march west, proto-typically American in character, they pressed through mid-line St. Louis from Grand to Lindbergh over the course of thirty years. My childhood and adolescence were thus situated solidly in the realm of The Suburbs, but complicated by the fact of having four grandparents who lived in The City. Grandparents who never owned a home or drove a car, who railed against chain stores and godlessness with equal vigor, who played cards and told stories and listened to the radio. People who saved string and darned their socks and sharpened pencils with a paring knife.

As far as I could tell, there was a line between the shabby past and the manicured lawns of the present, and it lay somewhere between Kingshighway and Skinker. I began to imagine that the past must have been unkind to my parents for them to want travel so far from it; that the old folks in their lives must have been intolerably crabby and critical. Otherwise, how could they endure the separation? I spent hours musing over their high school yearbooks, adoring their faces like an ardent lover, and wondering what was the spark, the trigger, the snap that sent them packing and walking right out of one frame and into another.

As a teenager, I wanted for myself something a bit grainier than Wonder Bread, something with grit, something that required considerable chewing and might even chip a tooth. My grandparents ate thick porridges and dark bread. They lived in places that had stoops where people chatted with one another and a market on the corner where you could buy a pint of hand-packed of ice cream or a cheese sandwich wrapped in waxed paper. They told tales of woe and triumph. I suspected that they had an intimate relationship with the past and that living in The City had something to do with it.

My poor parents; their life paled in comparison. It seemed frivolous and dislocated from any sense of time: the cocktail parties, the sweater sets, croquet sets, the Swedish meatballs in a chafing dish. What I now see is how their youth was shadowed by the ravages of war and the shame of Depression, a shame that always goes unspoken or denied. In this they followed their forebears who spoke only of the pull of America, never of the push, of the desperation that compelled them to leave their homelands.

Thus, childhood for me passed in a sort of time warp, in which there would be no looking back, especially when the future winked so flirtatiously and held out visions of station wagons and nylons and barbecue pits and oversized Frigidaires. Then came the inevitable rift between generations, when one's dream becomes the other's target of scorn, when the world yet again splits open as the lessons of history go unheeded.

Last summer, I spent two weeks at the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center on Skinker and the St. Louis Public Library Special Collections Department on Olive. I was conducting research for a poetry collection focused on the 1904 World's Fair. The impending centennial of an event that defined St. Louis' finest hour, which in turn celebrated the centennial of another event (the Louisiana Purchase) that charted the future trajectory of American politics, was too rich a metaphor to pass up. This frame inside a frame inside a frame was a postmodern dream, or nightmare, depending on your point of view.

The lush, sensual details of the Fair, the awe and tenderness with which it is remembered, the heft of history that came to bear on that single, local event provided me with solid ground to develop several themes that continuously surface in my writing. And like the present, the Fair created an instant nostalgia because it was no sooner built than it was razed.

Now you see it; now you don't.

Questions have an uncanny power to shape answers. Handling archival materials had the effect of generating questions so fast it made my mind spin and my pulse race.

How was Geronimo, a prisoner of war, able to spend several months at the Fair?

Why did spectators throw stones at the huts of Igorots in winter?

How did Helen Keller, the only living person to have a special day dedicated to her, experience the Fair? And why did Mark Twain decline to have a day named in his honor?

Why was Negro Day cancelled? Why was ragtime music prohibited from any of the "legitimate" concert venues on the Fairgrounds?

What were the occupations of the parents of Louisiana Purchase O'Leary, the first child born at the Fair?

What were Julia Davis' impressions of the view from the Ferris Wheel as she anticipated her freshman year at Sumner High School?

Why did a Pygmy hunting dance cause panic among 75,000 spectators?

Why did Pueblo potter Maria Montoya refuse to speak English at the Fair?

How much did admission to the Fair cost in relation to a laborer's hourly wage?

What did children remember about watching the demolition and the dynamiting of the Ferris Wheel?

Who took the footprints of an Ainu couple now resting in boxes at the library downtown?

What was the Statisticum? Who were the Hoo Hoos?

With sufficient patience, one can find answers to these questions — in books, magazines, brochures, newspapers, photos, film, video, audio tapes and on websites (a few of particular interest to local history are listed below). My particular craving for the past, however, requires something tangible — a souvenir calendar perhaps, a Heinz pickle pin.

Better yet, something audible. The Missouri Historical Society's oral history archive includes interviews, taped in the 1970s, of elderly people who attended the Fair as children. It was an amazing experience to listen to voices from the past recalling in intimate detail the particulars of their experience of a monumental occasion. But the greatest satisfaction came unexpectedly, like the rush of tears after a long journey, when I recognized the voice of my great aunt, long dead, gleefully recounting her exploits along the Pike.

You already know what's coming next — that she mentioned ice cream cones and root beer.

When my time comes to relate a version of the past, I will say that it smelled like lilacs and smoke from fireworks and frangipani and seaweed and sheets dried on the line. That it tasted like soft pretzels, a chocolate cherry concrete, pastelitos de coco, chili three ways, yuca con mojo, Gooey Butter coffee cake.

Or a single sip of water, the liquid arc almost beyond my reach as my grandfather held me up to a drinking fountain at the zoo. It was a St. Louis August, so hot we were dizzy, so hot he wore short sleeves, unusual for him, a man of a more formal generation, a man who was, on that scorching day a half century ago, about the age I am now.

Holly Iglesias (nee Krummenacher) is a poet living in western Massachusetts. Her recently completed manuscript is "Now You See It", which focuses on the 1904 World's Fair. She is currently working on a translation of the work of Cuban poet Caridad Atencio.

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