One Can’t Go Home Again, But One Can Drive By

Culture Watch

Mr. Beres, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was sports information director at Northwestern, and later at the University of Oregon.

There is a kind of history that transcends what one finds in books. It's an awareness that accompanies passing years. Part of it is a reminder from a modern bard-- that one can't"go home" again. I found that out during a trip of memory back to the Illinois town that nurtured me through boyhood.

It's chancy to retrace one's steps back into the past while sentiment lingers. So I learned when once again I trod the still familiar streets, and felt drawn to the house that had been my family's sanctuary for 62 years before it went on the market.

The house, sold after Mom's death, had remained a warm, reliable retreat for me decades after I'd left. As I drove past when it no longer was ours to claim, I expected something significant to have changed, to be different.

It was still the two-level, five-room frame house with 30 feet of grassy yard in front and 30 in back. I'd raked and mowed them often enough to remember the dimensions. The place looked as if it were inviting me back. But I no longer had a key, and it no longer had familiar figures to welcome me through the front door.

I did a double take. The old garage that had stood empty until Dad bought our first car in 1946, was no more. The driveway now stretched in a curve back of the house, where a larger garage neared completion.

That one change in the landscape didn't supply closure for my childhood environment. But it said,"The transition is over." It verified this piece of real estate, like all others, never really belongs to any of us. Regardless of a bill of sale and a burned mortgage, we all are temporary tenants. What remains is intangible and unchangeable-- memories of a time when it was home.

I took note of the velvety green expanse of the front yard we once shared with the neighbor next door. Back in the '40s, my Dad and our neighbor had agreed it was worth sacrificing the green lawn each fall so their kids could convert it into a playground football field. For several years, a 10-foot strip down the middle of both yards never had a blade of grass. Our autumn scrimmages turned it into bare dirt. It didn't look good. But, as our dads knew, it kept the kids from wandering.

Names of most early neighbors revived as I took a mental walk down the boulevard which in my childhood had full-grown rose bushes on the grassy separator in the middle. Wherever one chose to sink roots, next door neighbors-- in those days, at least-- became like family.

This recollection--maybe dog-eared by time-- was stirred by a contrasting experience half a century later in my home on the West Coast. Late at night, our neighborhood had a power failure. We ventured outside with flashlights, as did other residents. The lost electricity was a concern. But it brought a dividend: we wound up cultivating a measure of camaraderie with neighbors, something that rarely happens in the insulated suburbia of today.

It reminded me of what I've lost with time. Not just the house, but an identity-- an identification with others which residents of a mid-20th century neighborhood in middle America once took for granted.

As modern life evolves, much is better. I'm also aware some of the good we once knew is gone forever.

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Coryell - 8/22/2002

good article. very relevant to me, as I'm in the process of losing my last parent. I'm an only child.