In trying to explain the set of feelings I have about my impending move west, I find myself frequently using the phrase “I am deeply, deeply, natally from New Jersey.” In saying that, I am telling a little bit of a fib (I was born in New York City, but quickly thereafter transported to Montclair, NJ) but the spirit of the claim is true. On my mother’s side of my family, people emigrated to America (usually from Ireland), come to Essex County, and stay there. My great-great-grandfather – Edward M. Waldron – emigrated in the 1880s. He married a woman whose own father (my great-great-great-grandfather – James Moran) had emigrated in the 1840s. Other branches of this particular family tell similar stories. We were from Ireland, and then we were from Essex County.
All of this has gotten me thinking recently about the work that maps do for us – in terms of memory, mythmaking, and claimsmaking. I came across this map of Essex County in the 1850s (comprising more space than the county does now) and showing “the names of property holders from actual surveys.” It is difficult to reconcile the suburbia that I grew up in as empty farm lands, but moving through the space of the town now, it is possible to imagine what a hotel at the corner of Bloomfield and Valley might have looked like, or that a chemical works, paper mill and cesspool once occupied the space now taken up by a discount liquor store. With some (very) few exceptions, that past is invisible to us – but imagination can put it back in place.
It is not quite the same thing, but I’ve been doing some imaginative geographical work of my own of late. Just over one year ago, I got my first tattoo, which was based on a 1927 street map of Montclair. The tattoo is of the area in which I grew up – as I said at the time, leaving New Jersey makes me want to indelibly mark it on my person. A month ago, I added to the map, this time showing the area of town where my partner and I currently live. The two maplets are connected by the railroad – which famously collapses space and time, but which also collapses space on my body.
Just as I like the idea of imagining the past haunting the present through old maps, I like the idea that these New Jersey spaces will haunt my body as I travel and age.