Several years ago, I decided to test the theories of authors Thomas Wolfe and Thornton Wilder. I wondered whether Wolfe, who’d postulated that no one can ever go home again, was a cynic or a realist. I also wondered if my return home would be as painful for me as it was for Emily, the ghost depicted in Wilder’s play, Our Town, who insists upon revisiting one special day in her past.
Pulling up to the house in which I’d been born was a bit jarring. I’d assumed that things would have changed. But in my heart of hearts, I’d also assumed that the new owners would have maintained the gift that my grandmother had left them: meticulously tended roses growing lush and fragrant in our front yard. To my chagrin, the beautiful rose bushes were gone, but something new had been added. Against the dangerous element that had crept into the neighborhood, there were bars on every window of the ground floor of the house.
Depressed by this discovery, I headed a few blocks south to my old church. Along with my old elementary school, it comprised an entire block. It didn’t surprise or disturb me that Jesus hanging on the crucifix at the side of the church, along with young John the disciple, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene had been painted midnight black. I thought, “In China, Christ is yellow, in Latin America, he is brown; here, he is black.” The thing that really rattled me, though, was my old schoolyard.
The grounds where I was castigated by the nuns for simply breathing, where I’d jumped many a rope, and where I’d allowed a few boys to chase me in the name of puppy love were, in effect, gone. The land of my childhood memories had been transformed into a bustling open-air flea market, with no respect for the church that shared the same space. Immediately, I thought of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneylenders on the steps of the temple. But these vendors were not on the actual church steps … just a few yards beyond them. Everything I’d left behind was gone. Wolfe, I reasoned, was correct and so was Wilder. Perhaps it was best to let the past lie as nothing more than pleasant memories. Inside my own head, I could examine the past with fondness, as I do with old photographs.
But the journey home put new wrinkles in my brain.
If the younger, more carefree part of me had for all intents and purposes died when my family left the old house, if souls revert to pure energy when our bodies expire, and if structures retain energy, as physics and metaphysics heavily suggest — then who and what remains behind in the places that we loved, and in which we were loved?
Somewhere in an alternate universe or perhaps this one, in a simultaneous time continuum, do our younger selves still exist, blissfully unaware of our darker futures? And if so, is it possible to tap into that bittersweet energy and time? These were dangerous thoughts, I reasoned. After all, Wolfe insisted that memories of happier days live only in our hearts, and Wilder warned us against revisiting those places that brought us such joy in our youth.
Whether it was some demon or some angel that prodded me to test these theories on my own mother, I’ll never know. I only knew that, this past Mother’s Day, I thought I was helping my mom relive happy memories when I decided to take her back to the old home in which she’d grown up during the Great Depression.
Set in an area of Brooklyn, New York half gentrified and half stuck in the past, I’d assumed that my mother had grown up in one of the neighborhood’s gorgeous old brownstones, as had other members of her family. The gentrification efforts in this neck of the woods seemed to respect the lovely old character of the brownstones and their front gardens, flowering profusely on that windy spring day. But my mom directed me down a short block that had never housed brownstones. We pulled up to a tiny narrow house, attached on both sides to other houses. Still clinging hard to its original design, the house was in obvious disrepair. Still, I was shocked when my mother yelped, “Oh my God, it’s a dump!“
For a long moment, an uncomfortable silence reigned. My mother has spoken often and longingly of her youth, so I’d assumed I was doing a good thing by taking her back there. But perhaps the sight of her childhood home, once treasured and now dilapidated, was like a knife in her heart. As we both gazed at the little house in silence, I realized that although I had not been born in that house, as my mother had, I was looking at our ancestral homestead.
This was the first place that my grandparents had settled after they’d gotten married. Here, they’d birthed four children and here they were forced to stay for too many years; due to my grandfather’s illness, my grandmother became the sole support of the family. In an age when women of her generation, culture, and social background were kept “barefoot and pregnant,” my mother’s mother had attained — solely on merit and guts — a middle management position. With her blood, sweat, and tears, she single-handedly bought and made the payments on the well kept, two-family home in which, years later, I would be born.
As my mom and I sat and stared at her old house, images flitted across my mind. They were not memories but glimpses into the past. Suddenly, I saw my grandmother as I’d never seen her in life: as a young, bone-tired woman making her weary way up those steps after a long hard day’s, year’s, decade’s work. I saw her dropping that weary face to greet her family at the end of each workday with smiles and hugs. I saw her burying everything she must have confronted day after day, an immigrant woman in a man’s world, and an economically struggling world at that.
And then a new wrinkle appeared in my brain.
Fast-forwarding to the year 2010, I wondered if times are as hard now as they were in my grandmother’s day. Older and hopefully wiser than the kid who grew up in that nice two-family house, I have a deeper appreciation for what she’d endured in order to give her family, including her grandchildren, a better life. That’s when the new wrinkle bloomed. Maybe home is not so much a structure. Maybe it’s not the bricks, the wood, or the roses. Maybe home is a state of mind. And maybe, unlike the Wizard’s Dorothy, we don’t need a pair of ruby slippers to get us home again. All we need is love.