You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe, was required reading when I was in college. It is one of those stories that remain with you for life. The main character is a novice writer who leaves his hometown in North Carolina and moves to New York City where he writes a best seller. It references his life in the town he left behind. The residents there are initially thrilled but after reading the book they realize it is an expose of their lives. A classic confrontation occurs between the now threatened writer and his former neighbors. As he fights to come to terms with his life he deals head on with the enigmatic connection between reality and perspective.
Simply put, he (we) cannot go back to what was, because everything changes.
Many of us have experienced the phenomenon of a disappointing attempt to return to places, relationships, and events that were part of our youth. We all remember the backyard, which was large when we were young but shrunk over the years. We remember the steep hill, which became a gentle slope, the small tree in the front yard, which now dwarfs the house, the robust neighbor who now has white hair and uses a walker.
I recently went back to yet another class reunion and part of the arrangements was a tour of the school where I attended sixth grade through high school. The building is “NOMORASCHOOL” … now a historical makeover featuring rather pricey rental apartments. Our school lockers and some of the original wooden doors are currently set into the art deco walls as architectural features. Yup … definitely not my school. Try hard as I might, I could not conjure up the old place. Nothing was the same. But when I sat with my old classmates we were able to talk that place right back into life. Probably better than ever … in retrospect.
When I was a young child we went away to a family camp, which I referred to in my July story entitled and the rockets red glare. The camp is no longer there and the site has seen different uses over the decades. Without the stories remembered by our generation, the camp, like Camelot, will disappear forever. The only remnants of a once-thriving summer community are the pond and Talent Road that led to the camp. I am told that the area is now part of the recreation department for Litchfield, New Hampshire.
What is in our memory is static and does not account for aging and societal change. Literally none of my friends have tracked with me and we are only connected today by those memories of moments we shared at a particular time or place.
My husband’s father built a simple house with the help of his son and father. Now it is the home of my husband’s youngest son and his family. Although it has undergone a major renovation with only two of the original rooms remaining intact, my husband still refers to the property as the house his father built.
This reminds me of an old story, I call, “My Grandfather’s Axe.” A man shows his axe to a friend saying. “This was my grandfather’s axe. Yup my father replaced the handle and I replaced the blade.” Somewhere in this vision we must picture three generations using the same axe … but actually … not.
I am not crazy about nostalgic journeys. I prefer to leave the memories alone. For me, most of the trips back to my old neighborhood are fraught with sorrow. Maybe it is because I miss my youth or the family I once had. Or perhaps it is because that which was once a big yard is now a small yard. Never really having had a hometown where generations lived before me I do not have an historical attachment to any one place.
I recall my son talking to a friend on the phone. He was telling him that he was going home for Thanksgiving. In fact, he was coming to my house where he had never lived but he was coming to be with his mother and that was what he meant. No matter where we live or how far away our sleeping place, most of us want to be home for the holidays.
Sometime ago, I wrote a story about my aunt and uncle’s farm. My family visited there on Sundays back in the 1940s and early ’50s. When I read the story to my brother, he told me that it did not happen that way. What might have been more accurate is that he did not remember it that way. More than likely he was running around outside the farmhouse while I was inside with my aunt. Same day, same time … different perspectives.
So think about this:
People change. Property changes. Relationships change. Even memory erodes with time.
Who we were is not necessarily who we are today or who we will be tomorrow. And going home need not mean going back.