Why You Can’t Go Home Again (But Don’t Need To)

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
My great grandparents, Bill and Lola Rehkopf at their farm house in Chino, CA in 1913. My paternal grandmother was born in the house.

Home. The eternal quest but what does it really mean? We all know the sayings. Home is where the heart is. Home is where you make it. There’s no place like home. And the ultimate dodge, home is home. You may picture it as a house, your hometown, or perhaps where your family and friends live.

To me, growing up in a nomadic Navy family and 21 different houses, home was where my mother made it. When I was young I used to lay in my bed at night and picture each and every bedroom I had lived in; the memories of those spaces flashing through my mind. That was home. But when I left for college, I sought a new home, one of my own. But it eluded me until I had my own family. Ah, this is it. So, for many year I thought, home is where you make it.

However, following the recent death of my father, as my brother and I spent a week cleaning out our parent’s house, a new meaning of home emerged. It hit me like a freight train. Bam! Paradigm shift. Sorting through the endless remnants of my parent’s lives: there it was. Home on a historic platter. There was photos, books, bills, letters, financial papers, plaques, trinkets, you name it. There was stuff from my kids, my brothers kids, us as kids, my parents as kids, even my grand- and great- grandparents as kids; precious pieces of my families lives stretching back over a hundred years.

As the week wore on home began to feel different, something bigger. In touching, smelling, and reminiscing on the remnants of their lives, it took on a new meaning. A big part of my home was the long arc of my parent’s lives, both together and apart. I relived my mom’s grade school and my dad’s high school; I read letters they wrote to each other during the Korean war before they were married; I remembered conversations listening to reel-to-reel tapes from my father during the Vietnam War. Each item connected me to a person, a time, and a place; some in my memory, but many not.

My great-aunt Gaby (back) with Swiss Relative In Valangin, Switzerland, in 1919 during WWI.

In one small folder I found letters and telegrams from my great aunt Gaby,. She immigrated from Switzerland to Nebraska as a child and as a nurse in France in WWI she pushed through war, borders, and bureaucracy to visit her Swiss cousins in 1919. Almost a hundred years later we visited our Swiss cousins, the descendants from that day, and they still remembered stories of Gaby and her visit. Family endures over time.

But I felt something deeper, a growing concept of home that was still hard to grasp. Because buried in my parent’s belongings were a few of their parents possessions, and among those were older items from their parents. What lay before me was the sorting and sifting of mementoes from generations of my family; items from my ancestors stretching back five generations or more. As I held these precious possessions–faded photos, intimate notes, scribbled family trees, and scraps of needlepoint–I felt the eternal winds of time. I could see and feel the memories of their homes as brief moments of their lives flashed before me.

They called it paradise, I don’t know why.
You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.

Eagles, The Last Resort

In the end I decided that home is what I hold in my heart. Home is the collective memories of my parents and my immemorial connections to my ancestors. But time moves backward and forward, so it’s also the dreams I hold for my children and their futures. Home has an eternal meaning and never ends. As my children go out into the world and create their own families, my home will pass to them.

Now I know, as Wolfe so eloquently wrote, home is something you can’t grasp and hold onto. You can’t go home again because what we remember–the permanent and unchanging memory of a place–is swept away by the tides of time. But we can hold home in our hearts and let it resonate in our souls because it is our eternal connections to the past and the future. Home is within us and always will be. All you have to do is imagine it.

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch-we are going back from whence we came

John F. Kennedy

I have always been drawn to the sea. We are all children of the ocean: born of the sea, live by the sea, will return to the sea. And like our families, past and present, and our memories of place and time, the sea is home to us all.

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  2 comments for “Why You Can’t Go Home Again (But Don’t Need To)

  1. Jeffrey Patton
    August 8, 2019 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks Brian, I heard you had a hip replacement,, I hope it is going well.

    Thanks for your post, I enjoyed it.

    Jeff

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