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Going Home Again

by Julia Sneden

When I revisited my childhood home a few months ago, I did so with some trepidation. I am a firm believer in Thomas Wolfe’s dictum: You can’t go home again. When you’ve been away for a long time, home has changed and so have you, and only a fool would expect to find things as they once were.

I had left my home a couple of years after I went off to college. My mother had remarried and moved East, and while we returned to California in the summers for a couple of years, eventually they decided to sell the place. For several years thereafter, I felt adrift, and endured a profoundly unhappy period in my life. It wasn’t so much my mother’s remarriage, but rather the loss of my home that left me feeling rootless and lonely. I was old enough to understand that nothing stays the same, but young enough to miss desperately the physical surroundings of a place I dearly loved.

It’s tempting to say that once you’ve left it, “home” exists only in the memory, but even that is a false assumption, because memory itself is unreliable. When I drove up the hill where I had lived for my formative years and looked back at the view, I was astonished to see that either my memory was wildly askew, or Motorcycle Hill had moved a good quarter mile east in the last earthquake.

Actually, I seem often to suffer from an odd skewing of remembered places. When I returned to my college for my 25th reunion, I was astounded to find one very old building where I had spent a lot of time, sitting at an angle at least 45 º off from the vision I carried in my head. I’m strongly astigmatic, but even El Greco couldn’t have warped that vision as much as I had.

I can’t help extrapolating the glitches in my visual memory to the substance of my emotional recall of family members. Am I as off with the latter as I was with the former? Probably: after all, I viewed the adults in my family from a child’s perspective. At that, a child’s perceptions are probably just as valid as what the adults would call reality. Like beauty, each member’s interpretation of family dynamics exists in the eye of the beholder. In any event, my interpretations appeared true to me, and those perceptions have shaped who I am.

I was a bit nervous about trying to contact cold the people who now live in our old house. I printed out one of my old columns that contained a description of the house, and put it in with a short letter addressed simply “To The People Who Live At…” I soon had a friendly response from the lady of the house, who filled me in on its history between 1956 (the year we left) and the present. Apparently there had been just two owners after us, before they bought it. It was in sorry shape, because a bunch of druggies who rented from the second owner had trashed the place. All windows were broken, floors were ruined, the grounds left to weeds and garbage, etc. It hurt the heart to think of what went on there.

However, the people who rescued the place have spent untold hours repairing, restoring, improving, and landscaping the property. They obviously love it with the same passion as those of us who lived happily there, fifty years ago.

We exchanged pictures of the house then and now, and I proffered what I knew of its history, including its importance to our family. It was a perfect dwelling for three generations: A large living room, dining room and kitchen connected two separate bedroom areas. My parents, brother and I had bedrooms up the hill, above the garage, while my grandmothers and great aunt had their own little sitting room and bedrooms on the other side of the central area, on down the hill. Evidently the place provided the same sort of privacy/togetherness for the new family, which had moved in with two teenagers and shortly thereafter had a new baby.

When I decided to go to California for my 50th high school reunion, my new friends graciously asked me to come by, and despite some worry that it might be a huge emotional wrench, I decided to do so.

I didn’t really expect many things to be the same, and indeed there were great changes. My beloved climbing tree was gone, as were all my mother’s terraced gardens and most of the landscaping on the uphill side of the house. She had a rose border all around the large turn-around at the end of our driveway, but all that remains of that is one scraggly bush that the owner loves and calls her “wild rose.” Many, many trees are missing, but others that simply weren’t there when I was young have grown large enough to obscure much of the view down to the San Francisco Bay. The owners, however, have done a lot landscaping of their own, and it’s beautiful and imaginative work. Their emphasis is to the downhill side of the house, whereas in our day, there was nothing down there but a grove of live oaks and a small orchard. What’s there now is different; it’s lovely; it’s theirs.

The floor plan inside the house remains much the same as I remember it, with a few exceptions. The colors and wall treatments are different, of course, but the lovely, soaring, redwood ceiling and cross beams in the living room are still there. Some closets have been combined, and a bedroom/bathroom combination has been re-worked. There’s a new front entrance, and some walls have been taken out to create a handsome new kitchen and dining room, and the kitchen has been nicely updated.

Two porches are now too rotten to step out onto (and are next on the “to do” list), and the wooden walkway that ran along outside my bedroom window (and allowed me to use the window as a door) is just gone, leaving a large gaping ditch beside the house.

But I was able to recognize what I loved in the old place: its configuration, its setting, but even more the energy and love of a family who enjoy it fully. It didn’t need to be my family (although I think we all felt an immediate and deep sense of connection).

I am grateful for the owners’ kindness in allowing me to prowl through the house and grounds. I hadn’t “gone home again,” but perhaps I had done something better. The adult me and the child me felt somehow knitted together in a new way. I drove slowly down the hill, every fiber of my body recognizing the lay of the land and the bends of the road. I was glad that I had been allowed to see the old place in good hands.

I think of it often, our house on the hill. I used to sit out at the end of our long, west-facing driveway and watch the fog roll in over the mountains that we called, simply, “Skyline.” It looked like the foam of a long comber curling over onto the beach. It fills me with a kind of wild joy to think of those mountains and the line of fog: I know that they are still there, and will be, long after I am not.

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