You Can’t Go Home Again

Playing in Columbia RiverFew people talk about the dangers posed to your memory when you return to places you used to live. Depending on how long you’ve been gone, changes are likely to be huge, and the shock of the new may overwrite or change what you recall of the past. At the very least, for better or worse, your past memories will carry the stamp of the new. Sometimes changes may be better than you recall.

That’s how memory works. Each time we replay a memory, we embed a fragment of the present to what we recall from before. This fragment may be comprised of things like feelings evoked by the memory, further evaluation and insight, comparison with current conditions, or all of the above.

Sometimes, particularly if you haven’t been gone long, or you return to a spot in nature, you may find things more or less as you left them and you will feel an exciting sense of reconnection. But you may be disappointed.

I’ve experienced shocking disappointment a few times over the last several years, especially in my hometown of Los Alamos where fire destroyed trees on the mountains forming the backdrop for the town. The business district has been changed almost totally, to the extent of running a street through the middle of the pedestrian area. My high school has been torn down and replaced with a shiny new facility more like a college campus than high school as I remember it. Even the canyon where I spent vast amounts of girlhood time has been pruned, thinned, and otherwise fireproofed. I hardly recognize it.

Right now I’m in Richland, Washington where  my husband and I lived for nineteen years when our children were young. We’re here to visit my father, not revive memories, but still, change is apparent. Yesterday we drove past “our” house, the one we designed and built over forty years ago. That was a  pleasant surprise. It looks even better than it did when we lived there, at least from the outside. I took two granddaughters to play on the bank of the Columbia river their mommy enjoyed. That was sublime.

But the school our kids attended is almost entirely changed. My daughter was shocked, as I was in Los Alamos. The old ferry landing is gone. Egad! That was my place of solace. The river is still there, overflowing with spring run-off. The view is much the same. The basics of the old business district remain intact, though the inhabitants of stores come and go. But it's no longer home.

Part of the difference is people. At 93, although still proudly self-sufficient, my father is really old. My mother is gone. My best friend here died a year ago, and I have not stayed in touch with others. I'm a stranger in town.

When I return to my current Pittsburgh home after a trip like this, my old memories do resurface, only slightly marred by recent developments. But at least for me, physically returning to past locations has never enhanced old memories. I'm better off looking at photos, listening to old music, or talking to people who were there.

However, after all the above, I do journal my thoughts about changes, and may include some of that in a story or two.

Write now: contribute to a conversation on this topic by leaving a comment about your experience in this regard. How has it worked for you to "go home" or return to places from your past? This may include both fondly remembered places and those where you've held traumatic memories.


Linda Thomas said...

My old elementary and junior high schools north of Seattle were demolished in the past few months and it left a sad, empty feeling in me. It stirred up lots of memories, sure, but that empty feeling didn't feel good. My old high school was transformed a decade or so ago into the school district headquarters. I walked the halls last summer, entering through the main front doors, and oh--- the memories, the faces I saw in my mind's eye! And I looked down the hallway to the left, and when I saw the place where it angled off to the left, I caught my breath: I stood on that spot when I heard that JFK had died. Ah, memories. Thanks for your inspiring post, Sharon. :)
Linda Thomas

SuziCate said...

I have found many changes at the place I call "home". Much of it scarcely looks the same yet, much is still the same; the curve (no longer gravel but paved) as you enter the bridge over the river and the company row houses (no longer alike, but updated)...some landmarks are gone while others are there. I was fortunate to be able to tour my childhood home. It doesn't seem quite as large and as intimidating as it did to me as a child. It seems comfortable, large and airy. Walking through the rooms and over the grounds brought back lots of memories for me. It helped me focus on the changes and appreciate the days of simpler times. I found the contrast of the changes have helped me clarify my memory as in being able to write in better detail.

Sharon said...

Thank you Joan, Suzi, and Linda for affirming that the old advice to revisit past places to rekindle memories. `

Maya said...

Every time I visit my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, tons of memories come rushing back as all the old buildings and brownstone houses still stand from previous centuries. There's the old P.S. 9 schoolyard where I kissed Anthony on a cold, dark winter evening, my arms around his waist inside his warm sheepskin coat. The 1867 school building where I attended kindergarten and first grade is across the street, same as ever, and I remember where I stood outside the schoolyard fence waiting for my sister to come and get me (supposedly she forgot).

Sharon said...

Lovely memories Maya. I get a sense of them from your simpke mention.