July 10, 2022
By Arthur H. Gunther III
ANY VILLAGE, USA — Times change, people do, communities certainly. “You can’t go home again,” literally, as Thomas Wolfe put it. Yet, the pull of one’s childhood place is mighty strong, despite the “better” land you may now live in, some memories you might want to forget, the effect of the mind’s eye looking through rose-colored glasses and feeling alien in what was once your territory. Any village, any town where your being was formed is an extension of the womb, that particular place from that particular mother.
So it was with some goosebumps that I recently drove through my old haunts, on a volunteer errand to install a coat rack for a non-profit. My childhood village, which was also my father’s and to which my grandfather came in young adulthood, has changed so very much, the combined and continuing effects of suburbia eating up downtowns as strip and mall shopping rises; no planning for renewal and growth; older housing neglected, turned into rentals that often gouge immigrants and the poor; a population increasingly of self-interest and exclusion; and a government proving dysfunctional and charging high taxes for the privilege.
Actually, I am in my hometown every Tuesday, but my 2:30 a.m. entry to cook in a breakfast program is as focused on that task as a horse with blinders is on the race. So, I see little of the streets where I walked and rode my bike; the four schools I attended; my friends’ homes; and the country lanes where young adult emotions began to take hold. I do not see my grandparents going to work at the smoking pipe factory, or, if I had been there, my Dad running the 100-yard dash on the high school track. I cannot find my old teachers or grandparents, the hardware stores, the many druggists, the movie theater, the soda fountain. I do not grasp the sense of what was my shared community in the space of my time there.
But when I came later in the week, in the daylight to install the coat rack, I saw life on the streets. I saw so many new buildings, encountered heavy traffic, recognized no one. I saw change, and I felt alienated, though I had no right to be affected, for this was no longer the exact place where I grew up, where life literally formed for me and those around me.
I then drove through the 1865 tunnel under the old Erie, the line that brought my grandfather to town and the tunnel through which my father took us to swim in a nearby town. I continued on this road and another, taking a route back to my present home 10 miles away that I had not used for years. I passed this house or that, the remnant of a farm, a hill where I picked flowers for my mother’s birthday when I was 10. I saw my past.
It was then that while I realized you can never go home again, emotions set deeply inside always tug at your senses when you are close to your roots. It is like a mother’s reassurance to her child, no matter how old you become.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier version.