Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Thomas Wolfe Was Right

A friend sent pictures of his mother's house--his own boyhood home--destroyed by the tornadoes that ripped through Kansas earlier this month. His aged mother rode out the storm in a closet, and is now safely ensconced with relatives in another state.

I can't even begin to imagine.

Homes are a funny thing. I have another friend who has made a career of flipping houses. He buys them, renovates them (invariably leaving them much, much nicer than he found them), lives in them...but with the expressed idea that as soon as someone offers him X dollars, he's out of there. Some of these places were so gorgeous that I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to live anywhere else. But as soon as he gets his price, poof! he's gone, with no seeming attachment to the place at all.

Not me. Nearly 40 years later, I still can't quite get my head around the fact that someone else--by now, probably several someones--live in my childhood home in Omaha. I still often dream of that house, of living in it even now, as an adult.

To have one's childhood home destroyed is, as mentioned, almost unimaginable to me. I tend to think of such things often, as I see older neighborhoods knocked down to make room for office or retail space. I was wondering as recently as this week, as I happened to notice a small office building tucked in the middle of a block that had been all residential when I was a kid riding my bike through that neighborhood. Obviously a couple of houses had been razed to make room for the office building. How strange it would be to come back to your old neighborhood and find your house...gone. Replaced by another structure.

I think that would be especially odd in a case like this, where the other houses along the block--on either side, in fact--are still standing.

And still houses: That would be another strange thing, I think--to revisit your childhood home and find that it, though still standing and perhaps outwardly house-like, is in fact a place of business. I noted that many years ago with what had 30 years ago been the home of a friend from junior high and high school: the house is still there, it still looks like a house, but it's a business. How weird.

So what would be stranger: (a) You go home again and find your old house is gone, razed to make room for an office building, a freeway, a parking lot; (b) You go home and find your old house is still there but is now a barber shop or a dental clinic; (c) You go home and find strangers living there--little kids running in the yard where you as a little kid ran...your yard! (This in fact happened to me on a trip to Omaha some years ago. I had of course been back to the old neighborhood many times in the intervening years, but apparently no one had been visible at the ancestral estate on those occasions, else I think I wouldn't have been as jarred by the experience as I was.)

It is funny the impression these places make on you. Or me, at least. I've mentioned the dreams I have yet today of "my" house in Omaha. It is not at all unusual for me to dream that, in adulthood, I have bought that house and moved my family into it. (Not a farfetched notion, had events gone differently: There's little doubt in my mind but that, had my dad not been offered or had not accepted a job transfer to Sioux Falls, my parents--or my dad, had their lives gone along a similar route in that scenario--would be living in that house yet today.) But I seldom if ever dream of my childhood home in Sioux Falls, the house where my dad still lives. Whenever I think of the early days of my marriage, I invariably picture our apartment in St. Paul--almost never our apartment in Sioux Falls, which I suppose makes some sense since the former was our first home. But even more often than that I conjure up images of our first house, which we have not lived in for nearly 12 years. Indeed, we have lived in this house longer than any of our previous addresses, yet I never dream about this house.

As I said, weird.

But I think I was wrong in titling this ramble. Wolfe was not quite right. You sometimes can go home again. But it probably won't be very satisfying.

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