“Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they are passing; they seem to have been so when we look back on them; and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them.” — Robert Southey
On Going Home Again
Here’s the syntax of things–the blah-blah-blah you don’t have to read (but is, nevertheless, a big part of moving back home):
When I was working over two hundred miles from “home,” I had a continuing fear that my mother would die while I was swamped with work and no one would understand my grief, which I was already certain I would not want to share publicly. I worked not exactly in a high profile position, but I had three classrooms full of college age students who varied in temperament, from metaphorical dreams to literal nightmares. Yet, even the best students weren’t all that interested in the inconvenient truth that I was a person too (unless it meant getting out of a test or something like that).
So when my mother’s remission from lung cancer held long enough for me to consider and secure early retirement, my husband and I immediately began the process of searching for new homes. We wasted a lot of time looking for what we wanted. Eventually we found a house on a golf course that we both loved, but one that was still about an hour away. We showed my parents, and made an offer that was accepted. Unfortunately (and fortunately) it did not pass inspection.
At the time I was of a mind that we just needed to get closer than we were, but once the contract on the house we wanted fell through, my father made it clear that he was staying put, and that we should think about moving closer to my hometown, where my parents had resided since 1961. Or, the way he put it in reference to the other house was, “It’s too far to the Walgreens.”
We looked at many properties in my hometown, but many of them were older with one-car garages and small kitchens needing some renovation, and we were used to a newer home with a spacious kitchen and three-car garage. It’s hard to imagine how you will live in a new way until you live that way; so, we wasted months looking until my husband finally suggested a fairly new condominium that was in the heart of town and just blocks from my parents’ house. I really wanted no part of downsizing at the time, but in my husband’s infinite wisdom he explained that buying the condominium would just be a way to get us near my parents…reminding me that time was of essence. I honestly didn’t like the idea at all, but I cooperated, and then didn’t feel too disappointed when we were outbid. My husband, on the other hand, was very disappointed, and all of this delay wasted another four months while the other bidder could not secure financing and the realtor suddenly called us back to make another offer. By this time, the holidays had come and gone, and we didn’t get moved in until just before my mother’s 83rd birthday in January (which turned out to be her last).
When we first got settled, there were lots of boxes and less space, so I was involved in starting to get rid of as much as I could. We also found a new gym right away where I resumed personal training, and I spent way too much time trying to rehabilitate myself physically from the long-lasting physical effects of my closed head injury. I say too much time, because I was looking forward to having at least the rest of the year with my mom, when I didn’t even get another spring. All those workouts that mainly only caused more fatigue for me could have been postponed until spring, after all.
All this is to say that moving is messy and complicated, and it takes more time than you ever imagine it can. And life always has a plan of its own. But there is indeed an exquisite charm to moving back to the town where you grew up. And you can’t get the feeling by visiting or temporarily relocating; you have to come back lock, stock and barrel. I’m still processing it all myself; I’ve only been back one year, and as it turned out, on the heels of one of the most whirlwind years of my life.
And here’s the feeling/heart of it:
Those first nights in our new condominium were difficult for me, mostly because of the noise (we live across from the train station and down the street from the local police and fire stations–I know, it is nuts). But these were also difficult nights because I was used to staying at my parents’ home whenever we visited. Even though we occasionally saw them during the day, it was such a fulfillment of a dream and such a huge change to be finally “home” that I actually felt far from them at night, even though we were only three blocks away. It seems funny now, but that is how it felt then. I’m not overly attached to my folks if it seems that way; my mom was ill, and as a caretaker my dad was getting overwhelmed and I just wanted to be helpful. To a lesser extent, I was also trying to make up to myself for a lifetime of living away from them.
One night, I was so restless that something compelled me to take a drive. This was before we knew my mother would get pneumonia that winter; she was doing great at the time, just a little lethargic (for her). So, I got in the car and drove around, and because it was so late just decided to drive past my parents’ house. Instead of just driving by, something compelled me to pull into the driveway, where I turned off the key and just sat. I wanted to go in the house, but it was something like 3:00 in the morning, and naturally I didn’t want to wake them. I sat there thinking of them sleeping inside, then started to cry not a little wimpy cry, but a pretty significant sobbing kind of cry. This surprised me because at my age, I hardly ever cry at all. I was astonished not only at my tears, but at my heart…and looking back on it now, I think I might have had some intuition of what lay ahead…but in the moment it felt like I was just feeling the culmination of looking back on a lifetime.
I had moved away many years before against their wishes—my mother was particularly angry that I left, but my father lamented that it was his fault for allowing me to travel so far away for school. Now that I had lived decades apart from them, I felt I understood for the first time what they wanted to protect me from. It was something like standing behind the moon’s eclipse, unable to see the light, and now I saw what I couldn’t have seen when I left or all those years while I was away. I realized poignantly the sacrifices my parents made, all they had invested, how they must have worried and often rightly so. And as hackneyed as it threatened to feel, I felt foolish for believing that one had to leave home to create an independent life to fulfill one’s dreams. It was like lost in the funhouse, seeing one’s past in the wobbly, wavy mirrors of an unavoidable truth that wasn’t altogether a pleasant sight.
After that night, however, I adjusted well. My husband was enamored by our new way of living, by the many conveniences and all the great food and restaurants nearby. I took notice that every day was infused for me with childhood and early teenage memories every place I went, every street I saw. Even the air would bring back crisp memories of coats I wore and friends I knew…teachers and neighbors and events and activities turning in a merry-go-round of memory. Right there was the snow-hill we played on through recess, the skating rink and the tennis courts, the tree we hung out under, and the circle drive we did our first speeding around—well, some of us did our first speeding around…I did my share of shrieking. There was the little library, grown massive now, and there was the time we went streaking—the bare feet, the flip-flops, and the “shoe boots” that my mother lined with plastic bags for easy removal. There were even the dry tights I pulled on after school to replace the cold, snow-covered ones, and the knee-high stockings that I wore to a football game…
There was the stuffed animal my grandfather used as a promotion piece in his retail store, my grandmother’s garden, and the school fair with the abundant cakewalks. There was the park where I had my first kisses from someone I actually liked…and there were worries about wars and bombs and air pollution, and having to take a pill far into the future in place of eating food. There were stores and songs and slumber parties, and playground balls for kicking and throwing and catching. There were the early morning kickball games and the running relays after school, the kindergarten door I used to patrol when I was a 3rd grader, and the fast food place I got my first job at 15. There were parades and floats and sandy trips to the beach. It wasn’t the Charles River, but then, it wasn’t a river town.
Above all, there was that hometown feel where everywhere you go people are happy to see you, and they are kind and generous. The lady at the cleaners gave me a watercolor brushed calendar, the guy at the shoe repair shop sang me a song, the baker posed for a picture, the restaurant owner gave us free soup to take home, and the hairdresser gave me a hug. My doctors were nearby, and my care continued uninterrupted without the long, taxing commutes.
These are the simple things of one’s past that may sound banal, but when one is alive and grateful contain meaning that serves to give pause, and to encapsulate what the American poet Muriel Rukeyser penned as breathing in to create:
“Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.”
Such is the spark that poems are born of, when one is richly blessed.
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.