My grandparents’ farmhouse in Catalonia, with the covered terrace from which we watched the summer storms gallop towards us, the stables at the back, the chickens in the courtyard, and the well under the apple tree, was the sacred space of my early years. Its power radiated out to encompass my grandfather’s garden, the fields of wheat and corn, and the path that led to the threshing floor and the big hay barn.
I was eighteen, and already living in the U.S., when I spent my last summer there. After that, I stayed away. Instead of getting on a plane and going back to the place, I built a shrine to it in my soul. I made frequent visits to this shrine, disguised as my eight-year-old self, smelling once again the stable smells, hoping for a glimpse of the new litter of kittens in the hayloft, and giving wide berth to the chickens with their bold eyes and sharp beaks.
Then about a year ago I went on Google Earth, looking for the chapel where I made my first communion. It was located well outside the village, surrounded by gardens and groves of fruit trees. Google Earth found the chapel all right, but it was now IN the village, which had grown amoeba-like around it. The old houses had a gentrified look, with new paint and geranium-filled window boxes, and the streets were paved. This was clearly a prosperous, with-it village. There was even a bar with an English name, The Monkey Bar.
I moved the cursor to the other end of town, dreading what I might find. But no, my grandparents’ house was still there, the white stucco flaking off, the blue tiles surrounding the windows cracked, but essentially the same. The bay window where I spent my eighth summer reading The Wind in the Willows and The Jungle Book was still there, its shutters hanging crookedly. The neglected apple trees were drooping over the well. But the path that led to the threshing floor was still unpaved, and the creek with its border of weeds and brambles had also survived.
Still, the sight of all this didn’t make me happy. I don’t know where Google Earth had taken me, but it wasn’t to the place of my childhood summers. As my throat tightened and tears stung in my eyes, I closed the app, and tried to forget what I had seen.
And then, a year later, I heard that the path, the threshing floor, and the haybarn, along with the fields of wheat and corn, were gone, paved over, and a beltway encircled that once-silent village. Again, my throat constricted and my eyes teared. But why? Even if it had all miraculously stayed the same, I would never have gone back, because the difference between the outward reality of the place and the shrine I had built to it in my soul was the exact measure of the distance between the me of today and the unrecoverable me with scabbed knees and espadrilles.
So I retreat more and more frequently to my inner shrine, trying to recapture the smell of the first raindrops on the dusty path, the yowling of the farm cats as my grandmother came out of the kitchen with their ration of bread crusts. And yet I know that with every visit my memory of those summers grows fainter, less accurate and more imagined, the way successive drafts of a manuscript obscure the rhythms and color of the original.
Trying to find a vestige of the child I was, I pull my left pant leg up to my knee, which for a long time bore a small oval scar, the souvenir of a fall on the gravel in front of the farm house. But the scar has disappeared, obliterated by my body’s relentless compulsion to overwrite the past. The path to the hay barn is gone, and so is the child who ran up and down it, raising clouds of dust. My invisible shrine is all that remains, crumbling and fading a little more with each visit, but offering a consoling illusion of permanence.