Have you ever had the opportunity to revisit places from your past? What was the experience like? Did the places live up to your memories of them? Had they changed? Was the visit a disappointment, or did it feel like a conversation with an old friend you talk to far less often than you would like….Like the time in between was insignificant because you pick up right where you left off?
It may sound weird, but sometimes I feel like my memory has a mind of its own. I remember most things, many with ridiculous detail, yet sometimes can’t remember what my purpose was when I entered a room. Why is it that some memories are so strong and others never make the cut?
Several years ago, I had a job where I traveled quit a bit. One of my clients was in Arlington, VA which put me close to the area where I did my early growing up. I spent my 1st through 4th grade years in Kettering, Maryland and I still had some old family friends who lived in the DC area. It has always been important to me to see old friends in places that I travel if I can and to explore landmarks and places from my past that were important to me. I expressed this to my friend in DC and she offered to drive me back to my old neighborhood, one that was a source of strong memories for me, good and bad. We got out of her car on my old street and looked at the house I had lived in and I was immediately struck by how much your perspective changes as you grow up. The house looked very much the same but I was not ready for how small everything looked to the man I had become. My memories of it from my boyhood were of a big place with a big yard and a big hill in back to sled down in the winter…it did not look that way to me that day. The people who lived there then were home and came outside to figure out why their house was an object of our interest. It turned out that they were the children of the woman who bought our house from my parents and they invited us in when they realized who I was and why I was interested. It was wonderful and very strange all at the same time. My sense of wonder came from the memories that flooded back … my time there…things I had done…adventures I had in the woods behind the house…building tree forts…friends I had had (my best friend’s parents still lived next door). That said, it was very strange too. The neighborhood seemed much smaller. Houses looked different…It brought to mind Thomas Wolfe’s famous quote ‘You can’t go home again’. It also supplied me with new memories of an significant place. I valued my glimpse back to my boyhood and reflected on the man I had become.
This happened again to me recently. My daughter and I took a great trip back to California, starting in San Diego (my old home town) and driving up the coast, finishing 8 days later in Sacramento. It was one of great nostalgia for me, an opportunity for us to bond, and mostly a chance for me to show her places and introduce her to important people who have played important parts in the story that is my life.
I had written in a previous post, dedicated to my dad and his memory, that I had a sobering moment after his death as I went through his personal effects. I found that I only ever knew a small fraction of the man my father had been. For much of my life he was a very private man, lost in his own thoughts and strong drink, trying to forget the atrocities he had seen in the Vietnam War. To see pictures of him and to read his correspondence with friends and loved ones prior to his military service added color to the portrait that exists of him in my mind and it was something I was very grateful for then and now. Part of the reason I planned this trip with my daughter was to share parts of my life with her…things that she might never have known about or have thought to ask.
We visited the town that my late mother had grown up in….we paid our respects at the graves of my beloved grandparents on a hillside overlooking the ocean, leaving the flowers we had picked out. I marveled at the grown up demeanor of my young daughter at that site…so grown up and respectful at such a young age, telling me that she had never been to a cemetery before (as if I didn’t know that) and placing a reassuring hand on me when I got emotional while remembering my grandparents. Hopefully these memories will be with her for a long time as she learned more about who her family was and how and where they had lived. I stopped short of taking her to the place where her great grandparents had lived for 50 years of her life. In retrospect, I am still glad I did, though it might have been for selfish reasons.
I remember my grandparents house with great fondness. It was a magical place for me and the memories of the place itself and the times I spent there are some of the most vivid ones I carry with me to this day. When they passed away, the house was sold and demolished and a new house was built on the highly prized land it was on. I could not bring myself to drive the 15 or so miles into Carmel Valley to show my daughter where the house I remembered ‘should have been’. Perhaps I was afraid that it would seem too alien to me and that it would somehow diminish my memories of it… I don’t think it mattered much to her, but I did share with her why we didn’t go there and even at 10 years old, I think she understood.
As we worked our way up the coast, we did take a detour to Novato, CA and stopped at what had been Hamilton Air Force Base (now called Hamilton Field). I had lived there for grades 4-8 and had moved again mid-semester of my 9th grade year. Everything was different. All the houses had been torn down in my old neighborhood and replaced with houses and apartments…none of the roads worked the same with the exception of one…the road to my old baseball field. This carried with it one of my fondest childhood memories…the memory of the magical summer of my 12th year when I set the league record for home runs in a season. I stared for a long time at that field. This was, I felt, a more important sight for her to see because I knew she would be able to relate to it….especially since she is almost that age and involved in sports herself. The detour was well worth it because much as the trip itself, I feel like it brought us closer together and added some color to her own picture of her dad.
My girlfriend recently told me that sometimes she thinks I think too much about the past. Perhaps she is right (just don’t tell her 😉 ). I can blame it on being cursed by a vivid memory for such things…I can even justify it by taking the position that it was important for shaping the person I am today. But realistically, I think the trick is to realize the lessons you have learned… but only so much as they apply to the here and now and beyond. Something I think I need to try to get better about…and I am glad I wrote it down…in case I walk into a room tomorrow and forget what I was supposed to remember 🙂
I hope this resonated with some of you… and if not…thanks for indulging me and letting me get it out.