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On Not Being Able To Go Home Again

It’s the middle of November, the second weekend after my father’s death at age eighty-nine, and I’m back in my hometown in suburban Philadelphia, staying with friends. I head out to a local convenience store for breakfast, around the corner from the house where I grew up. Climbing out of the car, I take a few moments to root around in the back seat of my car for a face mask, because there is still a pandemic raging, however much everyone would prefer to forget that fact. This enrages the driver of the car in the next parking space, because it means he has to wait those extra few seconds for me before leaving, and he starts honking his horn and cursing me out. Perhaps because I’m so deep in mourning, I feel nothing but pity for this person who imagines he is in such a rush on a Sunday morning that the tiny delay sends him into a rage. Welcome home — you can never go home again.

My younger brother claims our old suburb has gentrified, but honestly, I don’t see it. Our old house still stands, a solid brick structure in a post-World War II subdivision of houses with identical floor plans. When I drive past the streetcorner up the block from the old place after my encounter with the man in a hurry, the neighborhood is so little changed from forty years ago that I experience a moment of vertigo. Why can’t I just turn right here, by the pair of traffic signals that blinked tirelessly through all the years I was growing up, and step right back into my childhood? Across the street is my elementary school, unchanged except for the color of the cladding under the windows. The illusion of stasis is so powerful that I can only dispel it, on my way back home later in the day, by driving past the old house and reminding myself that my parents sold it twelve years ago, when I took the above picture of my childhood bedroom, stripped to the walls with even the carpet whose orangey-red pattern is woven into my brain removed. That carpet where I used to crouch, huddled up beside the “heat register” in my pajamas, reading books! Only the greenish paneling was still there, and the new owners doubtless took that out, too.

The old house is not even the same structure anymore, with the attached garage torn down and replaced with a new addition, and all the old trees save one cut down and replaced by new ones. Not to mention that there’s a US MARINES flag out front. My family was always so un-military.

For many years after my parents decamped to a condo, I used to dream that the move was not quite complete. In these dreams, my parents had sold the house, but were still living there. There was still some trace of my childhood left. In waking daydreams, I would walk back into 1975 as I am now, introduce myself to my parents and the child version of myself as a long-lost son of my Great-Uncle Max who I am named for, and stay long enough to mentor young Martin and untangle the convoluted self-pity and social anxiety that would shadow my life until well into middle age. Sometimes I fantasized instead about making such an appearance in my father’s life when he was six-year-old boy, to help him untangle his mental obsessions and regrets about utterly trivial events, before they ever had a chance to take root in his mind. But the only time I can effect change is, of course, in the present. In my experience, the past contains more fears and regrets than occasions for nostalgia; the only reason to revisit it, even in memory, is for the people we have lost. You really can’t go home again.

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