Issue #34 (June 1984)
What we think of as roots is really more like this
Why this trepidation? I was 38 years old - wasn't I adult enough by now to visit the town where I grew up (or tried to) without the old fears and ghosts attacking me? "Be a grownup!" I told myself.
[quoteright]It was the summer of 1982, and I was visiting my home town
in upstate New York. I had not liked growing up in that town. I had not liked growing up. I left home as a college freshman and never lived at "home" again, returning as an adult only for infrequent obligatory visits. I had needed to leave to learn - or to create - who I was. As my life elsewhere grew, so did the time between visits, and eventually years passed between them. And yet, we really don't leave places behind. We take them with us, and they grab us back.
How hard it is to escape from places!
When I think of my childhood, even happy memories are cold. I picture snow falling outside my window as I contemplated God from my perch on my red hassock. I picture the bowl of vanilla ice cream with Hershey's chocolate sauce melting to just the right frothy consistency on top of the television set as my brother and I huddled in blankets watching horror movies late at night. Somehow my childhood memories are all cold as empty Christmases, unexpressed emotions, and inner storms.
Since my turbulent youth, though, I had changed. My father had changed. My mother had died. I needed to start over, to sweep away memories of tears and insecurities and stand on my now sturdy legs without wobbling. It was time to be a grownup and stop panicking about going "home."
My visit turned out to be the best I have had there. Yes, I had to realize, any ghosts were my own. My father and stepmother were warm, interested in me, loving. I was delighted to return the same. My father and I went out to dinner together, just the two of us, and marveled that we had never done that before. "We'll have to make a habit of this," we agreed jovially. I didn't know that this was the last time I would see my father alive.
One day during that visit I took off on my bicycle to explore. I cycled around downtown. I traveled to my father's old office, where I used to go after school to wait for rides home. I passed the house where I grew up. When my brother and I were children, we wrote a secret letter and hid it in the chimney for future generations to find - our version of a time capsule, though we didn't know the term and thought we had invented the noncept. I wondered if anyone had found it yet. I wondered what it said.
Of course I had to revisit the high school. I found ii effortlessly, even though I wasn't sure I remembered where it was. It had been a new school when I attended, but no longer. It seemed less grand, just a cluster of buildings, already outgrown. When I was there, it had seemed immense and glorious.
I stood quietly watching the school, one foot still on the pedal, ready to take off quickly. This was where I studied as if my whole future would be determined by an algebra test. This was where I ran for treasurer and was defeated because a) I was too quiet and people didn't know me, and b) my opponent was a football player. This was where the course of my life was set by an extraordinary English teacher who instilled in me a fervent, hungry love for literature. I wish I had written to this teacher to let him know how important he was to me, for I learned some time later that he committed suicide. What rags and shreds of himself did he keep seeing on fences that made escape so important?
And this was where I fell in love with my first love. That's another story, one not to be written here, but my ghosts were also of the handsome Italian with hair that flopped over his forehead and his little tag-along. No, I didn't regret breaking up with him; in fact, the ghosts were the might-have-beans of a life I once thought I wanted that could never have brought me fulfillment.
But even when the decisions are right and the growth is good and clearly measurable, every path, however overgrown by now, still has my footprints. And on every fence flutters a piece of my past, little bits and rags and shreds of myself that remind me how hard it is to escape from places.
Joan Price makes her home in Sebastopol, California, far from the crowded noisy busle of big cities.
Joan Price makes her home in Sebastopol, California, far from the crowded noisy bustle of big cities.