Yes, But Why Can’t You Go Home Again?

It’s a cliché.  It’s a meme.  It’s been repeated a hundred billion times by three hundred billion people.

“You can’t go home again”

I’ve read Thomas Wolfe’s book by the same name.  It was a long time ago.  I may be wrong (correct me if I am), but I do not recall Wolfe ever saying exactly why that fact is true.  I’m sure it was part of the subtext, but it got by me when I was nineteen.

I’m writing a book (a short memoir) of my childhood memories of our family home in Owego, NY.  Perhaps that’s why this question is on my mind these days.  Or, maybe it’s because I’m looking hard into the eyes of my 68th birthday.

Nearly everyone I know has this same feeling.  There are a few people I know that continue to live in the house where they grew up.  For them, there may not be the sea-change like those that do leave.

They wait for a turn on the swing set.  They dress for a prom.  They turn around and they are telling their children where the peanut butter jar is located.  They go into the kitchen to get a cup of tea or a beer and they return to find six grandchildren.

And on it goes.

I’ve lived through my own “you can’t go home again” moment, but I’m at a loss to explain the small details.

Exactly when did that moment occur when I realized it was not my home anymore…just my parents house where I could spend the weekend?

When did that moment enter my mind?

How long do you have to be away before the comfort and magic of home become only a room to find a bed among storage boxes?

Is it a month?  Six months?  A tour of duty?  A year at college?  Getting married and buying a home of your own?

When did you cross that line?

I realize I’m speaking only to those who have (or had) a home in the first place.  I’ve never been homeless in America or lived in a shanty-town, like so many of people of the Third World.

I can’t speak to that.  I had loving parents and siblings.  I had a fireplace to warm myself in a drafty house.  I had stairs to climb, in tears when I knew I would not be able to fall asleep.  Those stairs were there when I was carried in the arms of my father when I fell asleep…exhausted from the heat of play in the heat of summer, or worn out by rolling a giant snowman in January.

Often I feel cursed by the fact that I live so deeply in the past.  Memories keep me awake at night.

I worry about whether someone I haven’t seen in fifty years, still thinks good thoughts about me.

In the end, I still don’t comprehend when the moment comes when the home fires go out, and the living room where I fell asleep on the floor (and my mother covers me with a blanket), is now empty.

The laughter has stopped, the crying had ended and the arguments are over.

The bedroom I slept in while I struggled through my teenage years is empty now and waiting for someone else.

If a child gets to use that room…someday in the distant future…they will move away and then come back to visit.

Then they too will know that you can’t come home again.


 [The bedroom where I studied and slept when I was a teenager]

This Old House

There is so much to be done when your last surviving parent dies.  My father passed away nearly ten years to the day and I can remember so much of the aftermath that my brother, wife and I had to deal with.  The lawyers, the probate, the will, endless medical records, phone calls, funeral arrangement and other decisions more numerous to mention.

Some of that process was unbearable.  I went through hundreds of family photos, many were unlabeled, cracked and yellowed.  Who were these people? When was this shot taken?  I found a few to mount and have on view during the wake.  Each one of the pictures that I could recognize brought along a thousand memories.

There were papers to shred that contained medical information that no one needed ever know about.  There were old tax forms from the late 1970’s that he thought he needed to keep.

Then there was the house.  Dealing with the rooms and contents was something I had dreaded for years.  My father, you see, never liked to throw things away.  He felt that when the next World War or Great Depression came again, these were items he might need.

To be fair, he realized this was going to be a problem, so about ten years before his death, he began to “clean things out” as he put it.

“I’ve been in the cellar and have some trash.  I’m cleaning things out,” he would say on the phone.  I listened as I sat in my apartment in Manhattan with him at the other end of the line, in our family home in Owego, New York.

So, on the next visit, I would ask about the trash.  He would point to a box, about the size that would hold a case of beer.  I went to the back porch where the box sat and I opened it.  Inside was about five empty gallon cans that once held paint.  Paint that was applied to one of our bedrooms about 1968.  I folded the box closed and thought about the “stuff” in the house.  I knew someday there would be a job to do–and that job was going to fall on my brother, my wife and myself.

To put things in a little better perspective, I should tell you that my mother passed away ten years before he did.  That gave him nearly ten years in a big old house by himself.

Then something happened that was to set in motion a long series of events that were to culminate on a July day, the 14th to be exact, because it was my son’s birthday.  It begins with his diagnosis of a lesion.  It was terminal.

The phone rang at our apartment in New York.  It was my father.  My wife picked up the extension first.  She spoke with  him for few moments before I got the other phone to my ear.  My dad was in mid-sentence–I heard him crying and saying, with difficulty, how proud he was of me. (I had just learned I was in total remission from a rare leukemia).

Before I knew it, we were going through the papers and beginning the process of cleaning out the house.

The house.

My parents bought this big Queen Anne in 1945.  I was born in 1947, so this is the house where mom and dad brought me in early June of ’47.  It was the home of my infancy, childhood, teenage years and adulthood.  When I left for college in 1965, the house ceased to be my home, as such, it was a place where I would visit or live for a short time.  It  was my home but only in that unique way that is buried in the phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

As I went from room to room, cleaning and gleaning, I was like an archeologist, peeling away the layers of several lives.  I would sit with a box trying to decide what would stay and what would go, what to leave in and what to take out.  Memories would push me against the wall while I thought of all that had transpired in the old place.

I was the youngest of four boys.  There were five bedrooms.  Each of our rooms was our castle.  Each room defined who we were as boys.

I recalled building a house of blocks around our cat while it slept in the middle of the living room.  The train set around the Christmas tree.  The parakeet that opened its door and flew out of an open window.  I recalled the late summer haze and crickets from the Brick Pond.  The river bank where I capsized in a canoe.  The Old Fort on the adjacent property where we had lethal apple fights.  The living room where my mother would host Home Bureau meetings.  The card parties my parents threw–I would peek through the wood rungs of the bannister and see a room full of blue smoke.  Once, on the morning after one of these parties, I came down and found long-necked beer bottles in various places.  I was a curious brat, so I looked around to make sure of my privacy, and took a gulp from a bottle of Utica Club.  How could I have known that someone had used the bottle as an ash tray.  But, luck was with me–we had a downstairs bathroom where I could vomit in peace.

I listened to my first Bob Dylan song on our Hi-Fi.  A friend brought it over.

“God, this guy can’t sing,” I said.  I went back to my Dion albums.  That same room is where where I kissed my childhood sweetheart, while Ray Charles sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or Roy Orbison breaking my heart with “Crying”.

Then the attic.  I was faced with getting rid of items that had been laying in the same place for over fifty years.  I did it all like a robot and I was to pay the price dearly for all this loss a few years later–but that’s another story.

So, two years after my past was driven away in the back of a green pickup truck, the house was ready to be sold.  I felt as if our family practically discovered Owego we had been there so long.  But in an old town, sixty years is thought of as yesterday.  It’s as if we had moved in yesterday.

But we didn’t.  This was my house of memories, adventures, laughter, romances and unbearable heartaches.

The new owners wanted the keys.  The agent had let them in and they waited for me on that July 14th.  I went up the steps of my porch and rang the bell, like a fuller brush man, I turned the ornate doorknob that my little boy hands had turned in summer heat and winter cold.  I was let into my living room.  There they were: husband, wife, two somewhat bratty boys and a sulking teenage girl, all goth, all black, who sat by herself on the window seat.

They want to hear some stories about the house, but the most repeated question was “was it haunted?”.  How could I answer that?  Of course it was haunted.  Couldn’t they hear the voices of four boys running by?  The wooden blocks tumbling down when the cat woke up from her nap?  The walls had sixty years of ghost voices still embedded in the plaster.  The floor had sixty years of ghost footfalls.

Was it haunted?  I didn’t think they would want to hear of the ghosts of my departed parents and two brothers.  So I told them a few stories I had heard over the years.  How my older brother settled into his bath near the top of the stairs.  He said he heard the front door open and then steps on the wooden stairs–what spooked him was the fact the footfalls never ended.  I told them how my mother would go into the back yard to do some gardening and then felt, she said, the presence of an Indian standing nearby.  I held back on telling them that one night our cat was in one of the bedrooms and three of the boys, me included, were trying to catch it.  But it looked beyond us and arched her back and hissed.  I looked over at the goth-girl, and saw how pretty she was through the black eyeshadow and Elvira look.  I didn’t tell her that all the boys were convinced that the very window seat she reclined on had the perfect shape of a coffin and that we were all sure that there was a mummified body in there.

I did tell them that there was a room with four doors on the second floor.  You had to take someone in there, close the doors, blindfold them and spin them around to disorient them.  Trying to find the way out was downright puzzling–in a scary way.

But I didn’t tell them that in the space between where I was sitting and where the husband was standing there once appeared a disembodied head that floated in the pre-dawn light.  My brother swore he saw this after he woke from an early morning nap.

So, the time came.  I shook hands and without a second thought handed over the keys to the big oak front door.  How could I dwell–the tears were welling in my eyes.  I bid them a hasty good-bye and good luck with the old place.

I left one last time through the door that I was carried crying to kindergarten, the door I went off to school each day, the door I went out to my Senior Prom and the day I left for college.

I’ve no doubt every family has such a tale to tell–such a house to celebrate and then to mourn.

I heard several years later that the family broke up.  The parents divorced.  Maybe, I thought, just maybe, the house was too haunted for them by my family and the spirit energy that filled each closet and cranny.  Maybe there were too many people living in that big old house.

I have not set foot in the house since July 14, 2006, and I don’t think I ever will.  I closed the door behind me that day, and I locked it.

420 Front St.-