This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Olivia Clare, whose first published story, “Pétur,” which was originally published in Issue 14: The Abnormal, and won a 2014 O. Henry Prize.
When I took this picture, it was for someone who had never been to Louisiana. This magnolia lives in Baton Rouge in my father’s front yard in a small magnolia tree. In the house in which I grew up (not the house to which this magnolia belongs, but a hazier, duskier, years-ago place) we had two large magnolia trees, each the size of a tiny cottage, or at least that is how my child-self thought of them. I don’t remember ever climbing these, as much as I like to think I did.
It is not at all original to write about a magnolia or about trees from one’s childhood front yard. Yet the flora and fauna from my childhood, still existing somewhere in me, in my interior child-life, are the places from which so many of my words and stories bloom. What, I wondered/wonder, are these non-human forms that live with us just as deeply as human forms do?
I trusted every plant I knew. They concealed nothing. They asked nothing. And if I was obstinate or grouchy, they did not mind. They even had names—my grandmother’s roses, especially. They came with names, and you could give them your own. Leona or Hilda or Beau. You could name many things, I discovered.
There are certain places I’m not able to write about until I leave them, and I did not write about Louisiana until nearly fifteen years after I’d left. I visit often. Several times, I’ve driven by my childhood home. I have even, with the new owner’s permission, taken photos, which never come out the way I expect or want them to. The roots for nostalgia are Greek. They mean “homecoming” and “pain.” We know you can’t go home again, but you can drive up to it. You can drive into the driveway of your childhood home, turn off your car engine, listen to the birds in the magnolia tree in the yard, look at your favorite window, the shutters, the roof, the eaves. And if you are very lucky, and if you look closely, you might see people coming out of the house, perhaps family members or friends, and you can speak to them, ask them how they are, and remember.
I think too of all the things I do not remember, and the things I have never written down, and wonder where those exist. There is a place. They—these objects, events, walkways, storefronts, bridges, lakes, somehow sadly too far back and now outside my memory—accumulate. They bring me here, bring me up to this day, though I can’t now name or know them.
Olivia Clare is the author of a short story collection, Disasters in the First World, from Black Cat/Grove Atlantic. Her novel is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. She is also the author of a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day (New Issues, 2015). Her stories have appeared in Ecotone, Granta, Southern Review, n+1, Boston Review, and elsewhere. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Southern Review, London Magazine, FIELD, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Sam Houston State University. www.olivia-clare.com