Thomas Wolfe is credited with the often-quoted line, “You can’t go home again.” Folks like to speculate about what it means both literally and figuratively. And I, too, have thought about the idea since last weekend, when my high school reunion brought me back to South Louisiana, and the town where I was born.
Nothing, of course, remains the same in our dynamic world, even the place where we grew from children into adults. But we look for the familiar when we return, a little bit of nostalgia that assures us that the memories weren’t just products of our imaginations. The small businesses, the mom and pop shops, have been replaced by the behemoth chain stores in most cities the size of mine. A ride down the most traveled road in the Parish where I lived looks like Anyplace, USA with Home Depot and Target and Kohl’s predictably dotting the landscape. You can stop to eat at the usual chain restaurants and order from a familiar menu, if you’d like. Some people find that reassuring. Not me.
But fortunately, where I am from, not all of paradise was paved to put up a parking lot. The two lane road into town looks just as it did when I was a child sitting in the back seat of my parents’ Buick so many decades ago. The gas station where they filled your tank, wiped your windshield, and checked your tires, (all with a smile btw) is still there, as well as the bar that serves the coldest beer around. Main Street with its oak-lined courthouse square is unchanged, along with an area they call “back of town.” I went to mass at the cathedral, which is just as I had remembered it. And my high school looks the same as the day that I graduated. That is comforting.
But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous about going home for this event. Would there be a connection after so many years away, I wondered? Heck, just yesterday, we were seniors; now we get the senior discount. Life has happened far too quickly. And while we had all said our tearful goodbyes and made pinky-swear promises to stay in touch many moons ago when we donned our caps and gowns, that didn’t always happen, even with technology. It isn’t surprising: time changes things. Besides, as I had I untethered my boat and drifted to a different shore, my view of home had grown wider with each passing decade. For better or worse, I was no longer a part of the community.
I felt that pang of longing, an ache of regret for missing all that had happened while I was away. Let’s face it: the subsequent shared moments between those who remained simply weren’t a part of my story. Sadly, I had been absent for it all… births, weddings, funerals….the happy and sad experiences that cement relationships which only grow stronger. And while I had “liked” the monthly photos posted on social media of the girls on their night out, trying to identify the faces that had changed over the years, I wasn’t a part of any of it. Ultimately, the passage of time made everything and everyone there seem foreign. For better or worse, I had broken the bond, severed the ties. Indeed, I had become a tourist, a visitor in what was once my homeland.
Or so I thought.
It is always interesting to me how our imagined insecurities cloud our perceptions. We are, at such moments, our own worst enemies. And so, I wondered if getting together with classmates who might hardly even recognize me would feel awkward, difficult. But being sick has taught me to run into the headwind, to seize the day, to be brave and strong. Regardless of my uncertainties, I felt compelled to return for what I figured could be my last visit. Perhaps, I thought, going back home would even be therapeutic. And it was.
I will spare you the details, since this isn’t about what the band played or what was served for dinner or what I wore. It is much more than that. No, it is about the remarkable experience of reconnecting with the people who have known me all of my life, who remember when I lost my two front teeth at six or broke my foot in the seventh grade. These are the folks whose roots were once entwined with mine before I was transplanted someplace else. It is about remembering the common history, the ties that once bound us, and now, remarkably, still do.
I realize how very blessed I am to have been so readily welcomed with open arms, to have been recognized as one of the tribe, the prodigal daughter coming home. I am so grateful for several amazing hometown relationships that have survived the long breaks in time, the conversations that picked up mid-sentence from decades ago. I was thrilled with the squeals of delight and uncontrolled laughter over shared memories of crazy antics and unrequited love that defined our adolescence. To be remembered is nice, but to be loved is priceless. Friendships that never fade away, that withstand the ultimate test are more precious than gold. And indeed, I am rich.
I am inclined to think that Mr. Wolfe was wrong. Going home again is not only possible, it is wonderfully healing and good for the soul. I highly recommend it. And honestly, for one special weekend, they made me feel like the homecoming queen. It sure was amazing.