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]

A Watercolor Found

My father never said much about his life.  He did have his favorite stories that he would tell us when his four boys were…little boys.  Some of the tales were family jokes, like this one: “We were so poor, one Christmas we got a pair of roller skates.  We had to wait until the next Christmas to get the key.”  We knew he wasn’t serious…we didn’t think so, anyway.  Other stories were about the neighborhood bully who would wait at the end of the street…the street that my dad had to walk along to get to school.  This bully would then shake him down for his lunch, which usually included an apple from a tree in my father’s backyard.

“Give us an apple, Egan,” he would say.  My father usually gave it to him.  After all, what small boy would, in his right mind, resist a guy who had something wrong with his neck, and so, he had to turn around with his entire body, like Frankenstein’s monster?  All the while pounding an iron fence railing into the palm of his hand as a way to reinforce his toughness.

To make matters worse, the boy’s street name was “Stiffy Stefanko.”

That was my father’s childhood.  How much of it was true?  I certainly don’t know, but being Irish, my father knew a good story and how to tell it.

I’ve already written about that Christmas Eve episode and the coal.  It was one of my last blog posts.  I’m fairly sure there was a great deal of truth in that story.

My dad went through a rough time in the 1960’s when he felt he was about to be pushed out of IBM because he didn’t have a college degree in Engineering.  He told me once his manager had spoken to him about how much time he spent in the bathroom.  My guess is that the manager was about 28 years old.  My father had joined IBM in 1936.  How humiliating that talk about time in the bathroom must have been for a middle-aged man who had made bombsights for the U.S. military during WWII?  He had bought a house that people thought was expensive because it was on Front Street in Owego, NY.  It wasn’t expensive.  He worked for years on repairs and improvements.  I remember when my parents burned the mortgage sometime in the 1960’s.

My dad never talked about religion.  He only once said that he was not prepared for First Communion, only that he was waiting for a friend in a church and the nun grabbed him and told him to get into line.

As the boys went away to college, my father began to have some time to breathe.  He took masonry classes at TCCC.  He took night classes in Mechanical Drawing.  (He even moon-lighted for a time to make ends meet.)

He was interested in many things.  And, I found out too late that he was something of an artist.

While he spent his last months at Robert Packer in Sayre, he told me he was having nightmares.  In these terrible dreams, men were trying to break in the up stairs window and shouted at him: “We’re taking this house, Egan, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That was probably my father’s greatest fear…to lose the house he had worked so hard for so many decades.

After he died, in February, 2004, it came to my wife, my only living brother, Dan and myself to clean out our family home, 420 Front St. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.  To throw away the objects of your childhood was a heart-breaking thing for me.  I grow attached to things.  It’s a long story.

But, in all those letters, medical bills, post cards, and IBM pay stubs from 1956, I found a small drawing glued onto a bit of cardboard.  It was a winter scene.  My father drew it with a fair hand probably as a gift to my mother, perhaps as a wedding present or a homemade holiday card.

My father always wanted a cabin…somewhere.  It could have been a cottage in Ireland, a cabin in the wood lot he owned off Gaskill Hill Road.  Or, a farm scene he remembered from his childhood when he lived in the Pennsylvania country near Scranton.

But, it was not the house that ran short of coal that Christmas Eve.  I can see the smoke rising from the chimney.  It was not a poor farm house…rather it was a cute little place set on a hill and surrounded by snow.

This was probably the house of my father’s dreams.  No bully waiting at the corner.  No black-faced father just home from the mines.  No coal-pit beyond the hill.  No cold bedrooms, only warmth inside.

I am connected to that picture somehow,  even though it was sketched out 15 or 20 years before I was born.  It’s my drawing now.  But I’ll never own the scene he painted.  That is his dream…and always will be.  I’ll have possession of a piece of paper but the inspiration and the dream that created the little sketch will never truly be my own.

On the back it says: MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR…all in caps and heartfelt.

And, a name in black ink in the lower right corner:


Paul Egan #2  copy