Friday, March 07, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggedy Jig

This week I want to share part of a newspaper article that I have been saving for a few weeks. It is written by Jeff Opdyke, who covers personal finance for the Wall Street Journal.
He and his wife, Amy, moved back to South Louisiana, where they both grew up, but are considering moving again, and in the article he is ruminating over the reasons why things didn’t turn out as planned back “home.” The article's title is "There's No Place Like Home. Including Home."
...Then there’s the biggest reason: Home isn’t what it used to be.

People regularly dream of returning to the place where they grew up, where memories of family and friends are strongest, where they came of age. Or they dream of returning to that place where they first made it on their own - where they had their first job, where they first met their future spouse.
What we’ve learned over the past three years, though, is that home isn’t really about the place. It’s about a time. And for many people, going home again is an impossible quest to return to a life forged as a kid or a teen or a young adult. It is like one of those dreams where everything looks familiar, but nothing seems right.
...Amy also imagined our Louisiana life would be slower, because that’s how life was when she was here last, or when we visited. But, of course, our life - and the lives of our friends - are different than they were 20 years ago...Our older relatives need our help. To state the obvious: Life is different in your 30s and 40s than it was in your teens and 20s, no matter where you live.
“The Baton Rouge I left is a different world from what we have returned to,” Amy says...Perhaps most unsettling to Amy is that she envisioned our kids would know the childhood she and I had growing up in Baton Rouge, when we could ride our bikes all over the city or hang out in the street after dark playing with friends.
“That was really naive,” she says.... “I don’t know what I was thinking. We can’t let our son ride his bike around town like we did, and there’s no way I’m letting him run around the streets after dark with his friends.”

That article struck a chord with me. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the perfect childhood. Our mother still lives in the same house in which my sister and I grew up - with the exact same phone number I learned to memorize as a little girl. Now I live in Maine, but I get to go back to Memphis every couple of years or so, and every time reinforces in my mind how change is inevitable in life, not always for the better, and that, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “you can’t go home again.”

I now stand on that porch on Josephine Street and look next door at an overgrown empty lot, which used to hold the house where the Danny Whitley (my first crush) and his annoying little brother, Chuck, used to live. Our backyard, which used to be so full of green grass and shady trees and a clothesline full of billowing sheets just right for a makeshift tent, is now just dirt, thanks to the destruction of a series of energetic dogs through the years. Some of the trees have been cut down because of age or disease. It’s impossible to explain to my kids or grandkids that in that corner of the front yard was the old mimosa tree, and on one side of the driveway grew the honeysuckle bushes and and on the other side next to the house grew the lovely rosebushes, our first stop on Mother’s Day, where we each picked a fresh red rosebud to wear to church. There was the sidewalk where we played hopscotch and roller-skated, over there was the area we played impromptu “softball” or badminton games, back there was the place our family cat was buried. Inside the house are more memories. This is the window someone always had to climb in when our parents accidently locked the family out of the house. Over there is where the piano stood; over here is where Santa used to leave his stash. And look - that tiny bathroom! Can you imagine a house with one bathroom?! For four people?! How did we ever manage?

Now Memphis is a high-crime city and Mother lives in that house by herself, where she has been burglarized and robbed and has to be home before dark.

It’s not just the familiar places and things, of course. The most gut-wrenching reality is that our loved ones are either going fast or are already gone. Our dad has been dead since 1980 (age 64) but I still tear up when I think that never again will I see him crouched in the front yard battling with the crabgrass, or sitting at the dining room table working on his stamp collection, or getting excited about seeing the latest batch of home movies, or checking our arithmetic homework, or getting out the AAA book to plan our annual family vacation. When I visit Memphis, I won’t get to see our grandfather, Paw-Paw, throw his cane up in the air and catch it. I won’t ever again get to listen to Aunt Bessie tell her story about her dog with his eye...well, I won’t go into that here. Never again will the five cousins get together and have fun, now that the youngest, Mike, passed away last year. My best friend, Bernie, died at age 49, so no more duets for us. Never mind that our childhood church burned down years ago - the people with whom we have forged friendships and shared our lives there are leaving us every year. Our mother’s best friend (and therefore a close family friend to us all our lives) has been hospitalized for several weeks and may never get to return to her house to live independently. The only neighbor on Josephine Street left from “the old days” is now mentally impaired, and our mom has become almost like a caretaker for her. Mother, who avoids talking about death at all times, even mentioned she is going to more and more funerals these days.

As much as I cry and long for those lost times and people and places, I can’t wish that time had stopped at a certain point. If I were 10 years old again, there wouldn’t be an Ed or Rachel or Matthew or Caroline or Charlotte in my life. There wouldn’t be a Sarah to make me weep with her generosity or a Chris to make me laugh with his stories. My sister and I have done what we were supposed to do - grow up and forge new lives. Life has never been so sweet and yet so full of loss. Yes, I can’t really go home. But home is in my heart, with its beloved buildings and pets and games, and most of all, the people I love, both here and gone, who have made my time on earth rich and sweet. Life will always carry its dual offering of celebration and grief. The inability to feel the loss would come with a heavy price - the inability to remember the happiness. And that’s not a price I’m willing to pay.

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