You can’t go home again. And maybe there’s a good reason.
I drove by my old house about a month ago after meeting with a friend. It was spur of the moment, a flight of fancy on a sunny day that could almost pass for spring. It wasn’t out of my way, just a five-minute detour on my way home.
I justified it by saying if someone was outside, I’d stop and catch up. But I really just wanted to see the house where I brought the babies home, raised my first yellow Lab and hung out on my neighbors’ decks for 13 years.
It was that kind of neighborhood, like a verse out of the Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday. Ordered lots filled mostly with capes, colonials and ranches from the 1920s to the 1960s. Meat sizzling on gas grills – not charcoal – every weekend. Homeowners mowing lawns and tending to beautiful roses flourishing in the soft sandy soil and salt air.
What we lacked in space we made up for in location. Just three-quarters of a mile from Long Island Sound and a 10-minute walk from downtown, we had quick access to the beach, harbor, railroad station and local businesses. One of our favorite things were walks after dinner to Gulf Beach, or leisurely loops to nearby streets to see Halloween and Christmas decorations with our son in the jogging stroller.
I fell in love with the neighborhood one day while driving through town. I was in my early 30s and in full nesting mode, desperate to leave our rented condo where I couldn’t hang pictures. We’d been having trouble finding a landing spot. It was 1990, and housing prices were soaring. We were looking, but nothing was grabbing us.
And then it happened. While driving through the neighborhood, I got this incredible feeling of comfort and security, sort of the definition of home. I could imagine myself there, strolling to the beach. I could settle in the shadow of the huge maples, making it seem more shaded street than main drag. We knew tons of people in town from our work on the newspaper, so I imagined them popping by. (This never happened, unless you include my mother-in-law, who had a knack of popping by five minutes after my son began napping.)
We found a cape that had undergone few changes since it was built in 1929. I detested the light blue vinyl siding, dreaming of restoring its original white wood shingles, but kept it to save money and time. I also disliked the tiny family room – a converted garage that was confining and always cold – but never got around to knocking down a wall to expand it. (These were the first things the new owner did when he moved in.)
We decided to move when the kids came along. We were on a busy street, terrified that they’d be hit by a car. We also outgrew the house. Toys and plastic kid paraphernalia were everywhere, and the walls were closing in on us. We scouted area towns for about two years before I finally found a place about 30 minutes to the east.
But a funny thing happens on the way to your new life. You move on, but you assume your old house is frozen in time, like the time capsule you and your neighbors buried in 2000 to mark the new century.
Time marches on, and everything changes. People put on new wood shingles, huge additions and junk the basketball hoop that took so long to cement in straight. They unearth the perennials and blaze roses that climbed the wooden fence in a blast of red every May, replacing them with curved stone walls.
Don’t get me wrong. The changes are a vast improvement to our tenure there. Remember, I was living with a younger version of The Curmudgeon, who quashed every improvement I proposed. It’s just bears no resemblance to the place I lived. At all.
Our tiny plot was perfect for sunny perennials planted with no real thought to layout or blooming times. Over the course of 13 years, thousands of dollars and countless hours were spent on plants and herbs, though it was never the showplace of the neighborhood. Not even close.
When my son was old enough, vegetables joined the mix – staked tomatoes, white eggplants and green peppers as fat as baseballs. In a nod to my Italian heritage, I installed a small fountain at the center of the garden. One Saturday, my neighbors Greg and Rich came over to help me lay a pea stone walkway around the garden.
It was that kind of place – neighbors helping neighbors, and deck parties every weekend. I was heart-broken when I peeked into the yard shortly after moving and saw that the plants had been pulled out. I never realized you could have such an emotional attachment to plantings, but I’m here to say you can.
The house has gradually changed over the years, but is unrecognizable in its current incarnation. The back’s been blown out, making room for a huge two story addition. The four-season porch is a two-car garage. The backyard deck is more house.
Any trace of us ever living there has been obliterated, unless you include the backyard garden shed that was there when we moved in. I hate that shed. I opened the shed door to get my seeding trays, and a squirrel jumped onto my head, leaving me with a huge bruise on my left temple and cuts on my scalp. Oh, and a round of rabies shots. Out of everything, the dastardly shed remains.
I’m not sure what drives us to look at our old houses, but part of it must be a desire to go back in time. We change – the scale, mirror, AARP card in the mailbox and calls about hearing aids tells us so – but we expect our old houses to remain unchanged. So much of us is contained in the walls of our houses that we expect – or maybe hope – that a little bit of us remains.
So I can’t go home again. Well, I can. My mom still lives in the house where I grew up and it’s nice to settle into my dad’s worn recliner in the family room. The recliner is the one place I can still almost feel my dad. He spent the bulk of his time in that chair, a nightly bourbon (or two?) at his side and pontificating about life.
He spent his final days in that chair, telling me not to worry about his swollen legs and feet, that he had seen plenty of patients with much worse swelling from heart failure. And I think that as long as he was in that chair – and not in his bed – we could both convince ourselves that it was true.
Of course, it wasn’t. But I will always appreciate him being a father, and trying to comfort me instead of worrying about himself, until his final breath. I guess the recliner reminds me of that every time I sit in it.
All things belonging to the earth will never change – the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever. – Thomas Wolfe, author of You Can’t Go Home Again