Thursday, November 3, 2016

You Can't Go Home Again


In my case, that title is literally true. A few years back, my childhood home was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy and a new unrecognizable monstrosity built in its place. Someone sent me a photo and I still haven’t recovered from it.

But of course, the house and the life I lived in it for my first 18 years and 21 more visiting my parents is alive and ever present in my memory. And all the rest of my childhood neighborhood in Roselle, New Jersey is intact—Harrison School, Warinanco Park, the corner store and so on. So when I landed in Newark Airport on my way to the next Orff Conference in Atlantic City, I thought about whether I should take a short detour to Sheridan Avenue. I decided not to, but still have a day on the other end to think about it.

But meanwhile, off I went on the familiar Garden State Parkway, plugged in my i-Pod in my rental car and serendipitously, the song “Tenderly” came on just as I past Exit 136 and saw the sign for Roselle/ Linden. That’s one of the signature tunes from my childhood that my Dad used to play on the Baldwin organ while I was upstairs in my room and the sound of it kicks up the muscle memory of a childhood mostly filled with warmth, wonder, security, the time when death was a fake clinging and dropping in the cowboys and Indians movies, the TV showed images of the bright future the labor-saving devices of the 50’s promised and the big problems were Ward and June a bit worried about the Beav or the pot roast burning just as the boss was coming to dinner. Soon I have to vote on California propositions like whether porn stars should wear condoms in their movies and a national election featuring someone so deeply unqualified on every level, so morally degraded, so much lower than the Potter character in “It’s a Wonderful Life” we love to hate that I just have to think, “What the hell happened here?”

Not that the 50’s were the wonderful era when America was great. We were testing atomic bombs wiping out whole islands, shouting hate at 9 black teenagers just wanting to go to school supported by the governor’s state troops, keeping women trapped in their homes and not trusting them to serve on juries and on and on. But in our efforts to bring out all the repressed parts of ourselves from the basement and shine them fully in the light, we fell short of the full moral redemption such exposure seemed to promise. Well, that’s a matter for another discussion.

What I wanted to share was that feeling of hearing “Tenderly” passing the exit to my childhood home. I thought deeply of my Dad, 9 years gone now, my Mom, 3 years off the planet, that kid I used to be and that life I used to live. We always say that time goes so fast and life is so short, but didn’t that feel like several lifetimes ago? Who was that boy? What was that life? So many stories I lived then that have changed—and needed to change. And others that never changed—maybe the wonder grew dimmer, the innocence frayed around the edges, the hope was beaten over the head day after day by the headlines (and never more than in the past few weeks!), but the best of that little boy still holds a small candle of remembrance. I don’t need to physically drive by my old house to remember it—indeed, the right piece of music, the taste of bananas and sour cream, the opening to an old movie can bring it all back faster and deeper than sitting on my front stoop again.

And why bring it back anyway? Well, if our lives are a piece of music, it’s always a good idea to keep the opening theme in mind while spinning out the variations and then return to it at the end. Hopefully, I’m still in the variations stage, but it has served me well to keep the song singing in all the many decades of my varied life.

And on I drove to Atlantic City, passing all the exits for the Jersey shore beaches I used to go to—Sandy Hook, Seaside Heights, Asbury Park, Long Beach Island. And now in my 36th Orff Conference, another recurrent theme in the symphony. Here is another set of past lives and lovely ghosts and comrades aging together over the years, alongside the next generation of hopefuls. Maybe you can't go home again, but you can keep home singing in you every step of the way.

And I will meet them now for dinner.

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