Thomas Wolfe, in his 1940 novel You Can't Go Home Again, has George Webber discover the primordial truth about things never staying the same. Places and people change-nothing remains as it once was. Never heeding the advice of those wiser than me and always pushing the envelope of fate, I attempted to go back to the four homes of my childhood! This opportunity to tempt the laws of life occurred this past August. My three children, granddaughter, and wife were spending a week at the Jersey shore where we as a family had wiled away many of lovely day sunning, swimming and, enjoying the lazy and hazy days of times years ago. Having lived in New Jersey as a child, my childhood summers would see my family at the Jersey shore.
On our way to Ocean City, NJ, my wife and I stopped at Oxford, PA to visit the farm where I spent the summers of my youth. This first of four homestead stops was a large dairy farm where every summer I would help out doing chores on the farm. In retrospect, I am sure that I was more of a nuisance than any sort of assistance. Nevertheless, summers spent on the farm gave me many memories of bailing hay, bringing the cows back to the barn, failing at learning to chew Red Man chewing tobacco, and even planting horse corn (I might add that I planted the corn in the front yard of the farm house rather than in the fields.)
Oxford had been a sleepy farming town, but it wasn't sleepy any more. New construction abounded no matter where I looked as I turned left at the Y in the road and drove down the road to the farm. It wasn't 100 yards before I could identify the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. This was the right road, but it didn't look like it at all. Realizing that my memory of directions could have played a trick on me, I decided that I would be best advised to not rely on my memory and ask for directions. I stopped at a house where a woman was working in her yard. I explained that I had spent my summers on the Reynolds's farm and wanted to double-check directions to the farm.
She looked troubled and asked whether I wanted directions to the farm or to the old farm house. From my confused expression, it wasn't long before she told me about how someone had purchased the farm from the family who had bought it fifty years ago from my cousins. The new owner sold the old farm house to someone who moved it to site a mile away. When I got to this new site, it was resting on its new and unfamiliar location, but the newest owners were in the process of gutting the house, which supplied me not only a place to sleep after long hours of work but also millions of memories of the good old days. Who would dare move my house-especially without first notifying me?
Then I went to Merchantville, NJ, where I
was born and toddled around before I was old enough to go down to
the farm. The first of the houses that I visited was my
grandparents' home where I lived with my mother while my father was
in the service in the Pacific during WWII. I easily found the
street and the house. However, no one was home. The 120-year old
home was also getting a complete internal makeover.
Again, I was
able to locate my actual first domicile.
I was beginning to see a pattern-a very unpleasant one. I had journeyed to the homes of my youth only to find that I couldn't recapture the past, and what did I discover? Wolfe was correct, you can't go home again. However, the vacation still had promise-Ocean City. I could count on that seaside resort never changing. I would have surely heard if they had moved the Atlantic Ocean or the island somewhere else. Ocean City is the kind of place that never changes. That is one of the selling points of Ocean City; it is the predictable perfect family resort along the Jersey shore. Along with the sea, sand, and the sun, you had Simms's sticky buns and Watson's Restaurant. There isn't anything better that sticky buns for breakfast and dinner at Watson's. Well, Wolfe could have added that you can't go back to your vacation home either. Watson's, the landmark restaurant of generations, isn't there anymore, and Simms's has been turned into a noisy arcade.
In spite of all the changes, the sand,
ocean, and sun haven't changed. However, along with the condition
and changes of the houses, I noticed that I had also changed. After
sixty plus years, I have slowed down and now look a little run down
at the edges-much to my chagrin.I learned
two vital lessons about life. You can't go home again, and
therefore, you ought to appreciate life in the here and now.
It won't be long before you will be longing to return to these days,
and you won't be able to do so.
This article was first published in the Dixon Telegraph on 8/28/05.