Friday, April 22, 2011

Postcard from Cambridge

The kids are on spring break, I was invited to give a paper at Harvard's medieval colloquium, my family lives nearby ... So why would we not make a family trip of it?

We arrived Wednesday to a temperature drop of 40 degrees, from DC's too warm 80 to Boston's too cold 40. We met my mom, dad, sister, brother and niece that evening in a restaurant in Porter Square, and had a late night dessert of cinnamon ice cream (it is never too cold for ice cream). The following day my family played at being tourists while I lunched with James Simpson, discussed dissertation projects with four very bright graduate students, and presented my paper on Jewish-Christian neighboring to a lively group of faculty, students and visitors. A vigorous Q&A was followed by an excellent Indian dinner. I even got to meet Nicholas Watson's sons, who look just like him and are incredibly poised and charming for adolescents. I told my own son he needs to hang out with them and learn some poise and charm. He rolled his eyes at me. Tonight we have a dinner reservation for 13 as we go out with all the friends from the area we have stayed close to. It will be fun, and wonderful. We are worn out from walking the Freedom Trail and then meandering many miles besides.

Cambridge will always feel like home in the most profoundly ambivalent way: the place I was born, the place I received my career training, a place that I have always at once loved and felt agitated by. I miss it when away, but returning is reencountering a past that doesn't hold only pleasant memories. And that's why, with my family here, I've been trying to forge some new ones.

9 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

This post is a minor milestone: the first I've composed on my iPad.

James Mitchell said...

I suppose the venues of youth are almost automatically conflicted and consequently the sites of injury and wrong paths taken -- this is not a time of life when one is often tempted to address the moment with: Verweile doch, du bist so schoen.

But let me tell you, it happens one day when you return to Boston and Cambridge for your 50th reunion of one thing or another, and you walk about the Square on a Sunday morning when the streets are empty, and remember the music you loved and the people and friends long since vanished, and you lapse into a kind of rapture about the utter uniqueness and unrecoverability of it all, then the memories of whatever was once found dumb or messy just aren't there anymore.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

James: beautiful. Thank you.

James Mitchell said...

Which however does not excuse the deletion of Brigham's Ice Cream parlor kitty-corner across from the Brattle Theater. Major fail!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Though on the positive side James, Harvard Square does continue to have some very good ice cream options - eg, Liz's!

James Mitchell said...

Duly noted, but in the case of Brigham's it was not only the ice-cream but the associated thing-ability that defined the experience: silver-plated cups and spoons in distinctive shapes, fluted ice-cream soda glasses made actually of glass, the automatic glass of water filled with ice-cubes, the old-English mongrammed "B" on the embossed napklns, the steel milk-shape cans that probably fit into every Hamilton-Beach mixer ever made, and the like more.

One could contemplate the durability of utensilia in a pre-plastic age, but what excites the memory is the way those hard metals containing ice-cream conducted the coldness along the fingers, or how they appeared silvery to the eye.

That's the bother with history, the sensuality leaks out of it.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

James, that comment amounts to a kind of poem. It's also powerfully nostalgic for me, in that in activates everything I remember about Brigham's (though the one I recall most was in Porter Square, and I would add to your description color: dark colored jimmies on light colored ice cream within a cold metal bowl).

Because of your comment, by the way, I took my whole family out for ice cream last night to celebrate the end of spring break. sadly, though, DC is an ice cream impoverished city.

James Mitchell said...

DC is no doubt impoverished in many respects, but enriched by your presence. Happy Passover.

Heo said...

Reason #785 to love this blog: Commenters who quote Faust and wax poetic about the nature of memory. Seriously, this made my morning.

Also, congratulations on the new iPad!