Marlowe Palimpsest

How do you know which of your memories are genuine and which have been altered over time or even made up?”–Fandango’s Provocative Question, March 6, 2019

Thank you, blogger Fandango, for today’s provocative question. It was time for a nice little stroll down memory lane.

This is the house where I grew up, 15825 Marlowe in Detroit, Michigan. This is a picture that I pulled today from Trulia, a real estate site.

My childhood home from Trulia, 2019

It’s a curious picture because that is what the house I grew up in looked like. Except that about ten or fifteen years ago, it fell into disrepair–there was a Google photo at the time, which showed broken windows and the door hanging off the front–from which I inferred it had probably become a crack house, given the date and location in what is now a not great region of Detroit. Somewhere I sequestered a photo from that date, though can’t find it at the moment because I don’t remember where I put it.

My Huge 1500 sq ft Home

The house was huge. My brother and I shared a back bedroom that would eventually become his room (he was older, the room was the bigger one 🙁 ). At  age six or so I moved to an upstairs bedroom next to my mom’s office. There were two attics that I used to poke into and play inside, so they must have been completely sealed and safe–I don’t remember bugs or mice. The kitchen was small by today’s standards, but the living room and dining room held plenty of people in the parties that my parents used to have. Lots of bookshelves. Huge record-playing area for my parents’ jazz collection, which was numerous and as big as the china cabinet.

The basement was also immense, with room for an entire TV area–two chairs and an old beat-up sofa–a shelf for games, a table for puzzles or one of those hockey/foosball games, laundry room, my dad’s “office,” and a bathroom. There was a laundry chute that went from my brother’s room that he and I used to hide in. Once, he infamously crawled in there for hide and seek and was there for hours while my mom frantically searched the neighborhood.  He still harbors guilt at that, as well he should.

I remember throwing a rubber ball against those rounded steps and, one day, breaking the glass in the front screen door. Sitting on the steps, waiting for daddy to come home from work in misery to confess my sins. I didn’t own up to everything, but that one was obvious. My brother and I once broke my parent’s bedroom door when fighting over the TV pliers–what we used to change the channel when the knob fell off. We carried the door upstairs and tried to switch it with one of the closet doors, but the closet door faced the wrong way, so we had to carry it back down again. I think we glued the plywood of the bedroom door back in to see if anyone “would notice.” I never heard anything more about it, so either my brother took the hit or my parents were oblivious.

vacant lot
My childhood home, from Redfin 2019


That vacant green space is where the house used to stand. This is the picture of 15825 Marlowe from another real estate site today, which says that it went through foreclosure. Not surprising.

The space is so small! It’s not possible that all the things I experienced in that “giant house” took place there. What’s that tree doing in the middle of the backyard? Where’s the garage? Where’s the basement, with the window that my brother used to know how to pry open to sneak in if we couldn’t find the key to get in? That window that his childhood acquaintance pried open to let in burglars who ransacked the house and stole the jazz albums and my brother’s baseball card collection.

If there can be two competing photos of the same place on the same day on the internet, how can I believe any sort of facts? My memory is faulty enough, but if photograph evidence is in error, what gives? Are we seeing signs that an alternate universe exists, one of those parallel timelines peeking through and co-existing? Is that second house made of anti-matter?

I know it couldn’t have been rebuilt because who would rebuild a house that looked like that … to look like that again in this day and age?  And I know it looked like that because I do have some sort of proof. I couldn’t find a photograph (again, faulty memory, where did I put that particular set of photos?) but I do have a scrapbook I made wherein I included I drawing I did when I was about eleven.

Childhood home, drawn August 14 of ? by kajmeister

Thank Goodness for Scrapbooks!

Making the few scrapbooks that I have was extremely time-consuming, but oh such a good use of time now. There are other pictures in the book on the nearby pages, which both simulate and overlay the reality at the time. Here’s a photo my mom had a photographer friend take for the Christmas card.

Chmajs pose for 1970 Christmas card

I struggled with the year for a minute, but we had the dog–my dad brought it home from the office, and my mom hated it and hated that my dad did that without asking! I had started growing my hair out, so it must have been fifth grade. I hated that pants suit. I took guitar lessons but never really learned how to play. My dad is not Finnish, so it’s weird that he has the Finnish sweatshirt on. My brother and I never played music together. If you’ve read my blog before, you know that he’s an extraordinarily talented jazz musician, and I still don’t understand how chords work.  In other words, this photo is a false front, an attempt at creating a memory in my mother’s mind, for a reality that didn’t exist.

Circa 1972

Here’s a photo of me at Disneyland, two pages over in the book. I had no interest in Pluto or in Disneyland when my dad told me to go over and say hi, so that he could take this picture. I was painfully aware of being far older than the other kids standing there. I was a hideously awkward chubby soon-to-be-lesbian eleven-year-old adolescent.  I smiled on command, but refused to look at either the guy in the Pluto suit or at my dad.

Not the Happiest Place on Earth for Me at the Time

Also, we went to Disneyland over Christmas vacation 1972, after my parents had separated in the summer. Maybe they were trying to reconcile during the vacation, as my dad and brother came out to California from Detroit? My parents got into a huge unpleasant fight in the parking lot. I think none of us wanted to be at Disneyland but felt obligated to go–we were in Los Angeles on the way to visit relatives, and isn’t every family in America required to go to Disneyland? At any rate, I don’t remember anything about being at Disneyland beyond the argument and that photo.

My short-lived comic book career, 1972

The Fossil Record

The braids show up again though on the next page, so I must have worn them often enough. This is one of several comic books I drew in the seventh grade. My mother at that time was becoming a bit famous for teaching “Women in the Media” at the budding Women’s Studies Department at Sacramento State. I particularly like the combination of the raised fist and the peace sign. I was very fond of the ceramic peace necklace that I once owned; sad when it broke.

In other words, I have more confidence in my memories than many of these photographs. I could say that the way to ensure proof of accurate memories is through facts and photographs, but these are themselves superimposed over the reality. In this case, you have to peel away the picture a little to get at the reality beneath. Of course, our memory system in general is faulty and subject to edit within our brains. I have been cheating here, since I have been relating memories that occurred mostly during trauma. Memory scientists even suggest that the way to remember something important is to connect it with something unusual, like a surprise.


a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.
From the Greek \ palimpsēstos, from palin again + psēstos rubbed smooth, from psēn to scrape

But we cheat when we pose for photos, or even select certain things to represent our pasts, rather than others. Scrapbooks and photos are not only false fronts, but similar to fossil records. What only exists is what we still have. We don’t really know all of what went on back then. Dinosaurs could have had propellers made of plastic, but they wouldn’t have been imprinted in the rock.

I enjoyed seeing The Lego Movie 2 yesterday, though I remember now very little from it…lots of pink hearts and yellow stars…like Lucky Charms? (no, that’s yellow moons, why does my memory still hold on to that tidbit of information?) According to my diary page, also in this scrapbook, Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974 at exactly 9:12 pm.  Then, I went to some sort of rehearsal.

The memories, the truth, the scenes, the advertising jingles, the photos, the conversations, all seem to be layered one over each other haphazardly, which is probably why we can’t recall them on command with accuracy. Take the photos anyway. Write the notes and the journal entries. Draw pictures. Organize what you can. It will all blend together in the end.

8 Replies to “Marlowe Palimpsest”

    1. Wow! So … many of us might have the “where’s the house I remembered ?” experience.

  1. “That window that his childhood acquaintance pried open to let in burglars who ransacked the house and stole the jazz albums and my brother’s baseball card collection.” I shudder just thinking of this.

  2. Just read Palimpsest and was so moved by your stories, photos, truth-telling, Maria! I’m just starting the sorting process now of hundreds of letters and drawings I made, photos galore, scrapbooks from 4th grade on, trip journals…your brilliant comments are a big help! What is truth? What really happened? Thank you!

  3. So I am guessing the county owns the property and the eventual new owners will dig out the basement. Do you think they will leave it empty? What does the rest of the street look like?

    1. Alas, Detroit is sadly still a dead city in the middle residential area. I visited the street just a year ago. All the houses are still there but many are uninhabitable and a general melancholy settles around the street. They also have cut down all the lovely large maples that had lined the street on both sides, so the effect is of stark sunlight on tired, untended lots. I took some pics of me standing in the lot. I look pretty sad. And yet – I could still see Mr. DeVirgilo’s house across the street (he always had good Halloween candy), and Mr. Williams’ house was still next door, with his front lawn you couldn’t touch or get yelled at.

      Who knows what treasures lay beneath the soil? Perhaps some ancient archaeologist will dig up the lot someday and the remains of our record player and my train set will be considered rare historical artifacts!

  4. I am inspired by these dear memories to write my own “history of Marlowe”, which I will likely do. Maria and I shared these experiences and many more…the one punchline to the broken door story is that we actually ended up sticking the broken panel to the original door back in place, unglued. My father came home, opened the door, and the whole wooden middle of the panel fell off. I just looked at him like “why did you do THAT?” He wasn’t fooled….a tearful confession followed.

    I’ve thought a lot about the nature of memory in relation to this post. I think it’s important to note that human memory is a holistic, pragmatic thing: we file things away in emotional, mental, even spiritual categories in the sense that we remember the salient impact things had on us, what we made them mean, as much as the facts of the events. In that sense memories are totally subjective, but also TRUE in that they reflect our perception of our own past realities and reactions.

    Because of the subjective, holistic nature of memories I’ve found it to be true that one can CHANGE memories, and in so doing somewhat change what the past was at any moment. For example, if you’ve ever forgiven someone (or forgiven yourself) for something in the past you can start to see your perceptions of the meanings and even details of events shift as your interpretation and ‘re-filing’ of the event shifts.

    Marlowe was a magic place – a place of possibility, of new perceptions as we grew. We had our own floor – the basement – to sculpt and roam as we saw fit, so even at that tiny size the house had vast potentiality of purposes, as we constructed forts, games, sports, and various projects. Don’t even get me started on the GARAGE….

    BTW Maria here’s one last mystery solved – I didn’t hide in the laundry chute, I actually went about 8 doors down to play with this kids’ large wooden sailboat, which I had previously seen in their garage. When mom came looking I hid in that garage, afraid of getting in trouble for stealing into someone else’s garage, and also for not coming when called. She was so upset all that was left behind in her joy to see me. So my strategy worked — I am only now confessing 8 years later! 🙂

    John Chmaj

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