Returning Home: Is It Possible?
“There is something greatly re-assuring about returning home to find your childhood neighborhood unchanged. In a world of constant change and turbulence it was so nice for me to find that time had stood still where I grew up. The most formative twenty years of my life were spent there and so many lessons learned on that street.
Many of my core values were taught to me by those neighbors. The values of friendship and of keeping a watchful eye on those you care about were taught to me there. The values of being courteous, of respectful social interaction and of hard work were handed down as were providing for family, generosity towards others and acts of kindness for others during hard times.
The lessons were learned daily through observation and by becoming a part of a small community that cared about their own. We helped each other in large tasks, rooted on the kids while they played games and shared in block parties and barbeques. There was always a feeling of an extended family there for me.
Those days are gone now as we all moved on eventually, but the lessons learned remain with me. I don’t know where they all are now; many dead I’m sure, some moved away. If they were here now I would thank them for taking me under their wing and caring for me so well.”
I wrote those words in my journal shortly after returning to my childhood neighborhood after having been away for quite a long time.
I’m not sure what I expected when I drove to Tacoma a couple months ago with the express purpose of seeing my old childhood home and neighborhood. I have driven by the area many times over the years since I moved out at the age of twenty-five, but never had really stopped and walked around and dredged up memories from the past like I did that day.
My family moved to the little brick home on 18th Street when I was five and there I remained until I was twenty-five. The neighborhood was rich with children my age and over the years we formed friendships and bonds that lasted for decades. It was there that I established social skills, there that I honed athletic skills, there that my father died and there that I met my first girlfriend. In that neighborhood I found my first job, working in the Proctor Bowling Alley setting pins and keeping score at tournaments. It was there that my mother worked at the Proctor Dime Store and there that I ran for Precinct Committeeman in my first and only attempt at politics. It was there that I got my first dog, Pixie, who would be my constant companion for eighteen years, and there that I mowed lawns and shoveled walks for neighbors to earn spending money. It was there that I got my first car, a 1969 Camaro, and there that I grew to be a man when dad died shortly after my 20th birthday.
The memories flooded through me that day. I remembered the shortcuts I used to take to friends’ homes and amazingly I remembered the names of each of my neighbors during those years. I remembered making fun of Mr. Lilly almost daily after his family bought a small Volvo and he would contort his body to get into it. I remembered the sadness when that same Lilly family lost their oldest son to leukemia. I remembered seeing my next-door neighbor wheeled out of his house on a stretcher, white sheet covering his head, after he committed suicide when he was 102 years of age, and I remembered Mrs. Mertz bringing me comic books when I had the flu.
When it snowed the neighbors would block off the street and they would line the road while the kids sledded down the ice-covered 18th Street, hollering encouragement and pelting us with snowballs as we slid by. I remembered holding Mrs. Stine while her home burned to the ground one cold December night as the snow tried in vain to put out the fire, and I remembered the cold that would not leave my bones that January when my dad died.
I would climb the apple tree in our backyard and survey the neighborhood for hours, safe and content hidden amongst the branches, and I would partake in the almost daily games of baseball, football, and basketball with the other kids on our block.
I encountered meanness and hatred at times growing up there, racial and religious bigotry for sure, but I also encountered caring and love and a genuine bond that formed from house to house as each neighbor believed that you take care of your own. It was, in effect, a microcosm of society in general and it prepared me well for the world I would enter when I finally left that home.
Bev was with me that day and she remarked that I had had a marvelous childhood, so different from hers, and that she was jealous. And that’s when it hit me, that I truly did have a wonderful childhood. I had loving parents, concerned neighbors and learned practically every lesson I would need in future years during the interaction within that social setting. It was a safe place to grow up; I could make mistakes and yet know that I wouldn’t be blamed or shamed for making them. I knew that there was always someone to cover my back each and every day, that I was not alone and that no matter what happened the next day would bring unlimited possibilities.
Those days truly are gone now. I suspect that most if not all of the neighbors are dead; I know for a fact six of the kids I grew up with died. Henry, Bobby, and Bill died of cancer. Sharon was beaten to death by a jealous and violent husband. Danny died in Vietnam and Jackie in a car accident. Karl went on to own his own construction firm and I have lost track of him and the others over the years. My mother, father, and sister are all dead and I have no doubt that they are joined in their new neighborhood by many of the others who used to share a beer with them on hot summer nights at the corner of 18th and Monroe.
I miss them all and I miss those times, but the lessons that were passed on to me have now been passed on to my son and that’s as it should be. It is the way of life, the constant flow of information and lessons learned that provide the common thread for all of us. Bev was right of course; I am a lucky man for having been raised in that neighborhood.
I know quite a few of my adult friends who had horrific childhoods, devoid of love, lacking in so many of the things I took for granted during my upbringing. Some experienced abandonment, some abuse, some indifference, and they marvel at the life I had as a child. Yes, I am a lucky man.
I was a bit surprised by the emotions that flowed that day; I’m still not sure what to make of it but obviously those emotions needed to be released and so they were. I doubt that I will return; there really is no reason to. I managed to see and experience all that I needed to that day. Some inner hunger was satisfied and now I can move on.
I finished that day at the cemetery where I visited the gravesites of my mom, dad, aunt , grandma and grandpa. I did not shed a tear because that visit to the cemetery was not about sadness but rather about remembering all that had been good in my life. I said a silent thank you to my relatives before we left to return to Olympia. I’m not sure if they heard me but I just felt better saying it. It turns out you really can go home again!
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