This past week, I had the chance to go back to my hometown.
I lived in the same house for almost the entirety of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is of visiting the house before we moved in, walking through its empty rooms at night, while my parents (who were still married at this point) talked about how my sister and I would get the large bedroom facing the front of the house. We cheered. It is the house where I learned about my parents’ divorce, the house where I begrudgingly practiced my ballet in the kitchen, the house where I read books in my closet–it was a walk-in, and had a perfectly-sloping section of floor where I could curl up with Little Women or a Fear Street book, complete with my stash of packets of Equal (because when your mother doesn’t keep candy in the house, things can get desperate for a fourth-grader with a sweet tooth).
It is also a house I had not been in since I was seventeen and my family moved to Utah nine weeks into my senior year. After my mother and stepdad had driven off in the moving truck, I stayed with a neighbor for a week, finishing up the quarter; I would fly out to join them after they arrived in Provo with all of our possessions. On my last day, before I flew out, I used my key to let myself into the house one last time. I walked around, saying goodbye to every room: the living room where we watched The Ten Commandments on Sundays (one of a few permitted Sabbath films), the dining room where we had Sunday brunch throughout my childhood, the bedroom my sister and I had shared (and where I honed–if not perfected–a knack for stealing her much cuter clothes). It was, I knew, the end of an era with this house, and I felt a need to give that its due before I left. When I locked the door behind me that October day, I honestly did not think I would ever come back.
Until I did. I returned to the area (technically, to a much bigger city nearby, but close enough) for a business trip; after my first big event of the day, I went, as business travelers are wont to do, in search of a Panera near my hotel. The rental car GPS needed me to make a U-turn, and as I prepared to do so, I was suddenly hit with a sudden, powerful sense of realization: I knew this place. I remembered hot summer days when my sister and I, bored and looking for entertainment, would walk to the nearest grocery store and buy potato chips and sour cream dip, spending out our meager babysitting funds for the sake of junk food to accompany the old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls we had taped on blank VHS cassettes. Without even pausing, I turned onto the side street, and within minutes I had navigated myself back home.
It was exactly as I remembered it: the bleached-blue, cloudless sky; slightly battered siding; and bright collections of recycling bins on every curb. Here was the neighbor’s shed I had been convinced as a child was a secret lair; here, where the neighborhood kids had played Revolutionary War (there was a boy who had a tricorner hat and a wooden musket); here, the drainage path that was the perfect size to serve as a riverbank for fairies.
As I looked closer, though, I recognized changes. The azalea bushes I remembered from our front garden had been ripped out, replaced by nothing in particular. The house looked scragglier, more faded than I remembered. There was a Halloween banner on the front door. I stood there, taking it all in, until I realized a woman was staring at me. I smiled, embarrassed.
“I used to live here,” I told her, pointing at the house. “This is where I grew up, and I just came back to see the house.” She shrugged.
“Okay,” she responded. “I just thought you might have hit something with your car, is all.” She went back to taking groceries out of her car, and bringing them into the house. MY house. Now, though, it was hers. Someone else lived in that house, and in the house next door; someone had cut down the towering pines in the backyard (which is totally fair; I’m amazed they had never yet crashed into someone’s roof). Another neighbor saw me walking around out back, and asked if I was looking for someone; he too thought my presence strange, though he decided on a simple grunt before going back into his house (one thing that hasn’t changed: no one on that street was ever fond of newcomers).
At this point, the knowledge that some things change has decomposed into a cliche. Still, though, there is something odd about the feeling of seeing your old home belong to strangers–to strangers, no less, who think your desire to revisit that place is at best an odd affectation. It’s amazing to realize what you remember about your own past that you thought you had forgotten: secret haunts, offhand memories, the powerfully tugging emotion of a particular time and place. For that, if nothing else, I am so glad I went; it was a chance to remember how it felt to be a much-younger version of myself, who worried a lot and never did her homework, who did ballet and read in the closet, and who played in storm drains, looking for fairies.