Recently, going through boxes in the basement, I ran across an old map of the place I once lived. I brought it with me when I moved west, clipping it from a crumbling book that was too far gone to save, intending to frame it one day. But I never did.
Alone in the room, tracing with the tip of my finger the twists and turns of surprisingly familiar rivers, mountains and geographic boundaries drawn on fine old gilt-edged paper, I could suddenly and distinctly recall the essential elements of my childhood in the South. The the slant of the hot summer sun and the heavy feel of the humid air, the sound of cicadas and Mockingbirds and the heady fragrance of gardenia and jasmine. It was as if I’d stirred the sediment at the bottom of a pond, releasing a wealth of memories only lightly buried. And all this from a piece of illustrated paper.
In some ways every map is a treasure map.
An old map is a moment in history captured on paper. Time passes and people and places change. Rivers are dammed and swallow small towns. War and weather alter the landscape. Political pressures ebb and flow, shifting boundary lines. Governments fail, people rise, and maps are drawn and drawn again.
There are other maps in other boxes in my basement. Some, like the state map I saved, are markers of another life. Others are souvenirs of places I’ve been or tokens of places I’d like to go. A few have no significance other than the fact that they are beautiful as only a map can be. Elaborately illustrated, beautifully designed, they are time capsules, a link to a place before it became what it is now.
Because I am a planner, I am already thinking ahead to the time when my life will shrink to fit a room, maybe two, and what I will carry with me when that time comes. I imagine the walls will be covered by some of my favorite paintings and a photographic timeline of the life I have lived; images of a young couple just married, both of us made beautiful by youth and happiness and love, portraits of the children we cherished and still more portraits of the families our children created.
And there will be a map or two, I think. A big world map and another of the United States.
Maybe I’ll keep a map Paris, too. Why not? I like the idea of finding it again some day, of running my finger over the lines so finely drawn, chasing the memory of my younger self down those beautiful and familiar streets and boulevards, when I am too old or frail to fly.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com