What is it about the urge to revisit our past, either in our thoughts or in person? Why do we do it? What are we hoping to feel, learn, experience, see? A few years ago my husband and I decided to take a trip “home” to where we were born – Rockford, Illinois and Buffalo, New York – both once heavily industrial cities, both trying to rebirth themselves.
One of the first stops in Rockford was at a childhood home of my husband’s which his father had built. We parked in front of a neat, well-tended bungalow. When we went to the door and introduced ourselves, the owner invited us in, gave a home tour, served cider and cookies, and told us all about the changes in the neighborhood.
From there we went to a baseball field where the Rockford Peaches once played fast pitch softball. Remember the film A League of Their Own? For a brief time, we stepped back into that world. My husband had practiced his own baseball skills here.
Then we went to his elementary school. When we arrived at the front door, it took us a minute to register the sign posted on it: Abortion Clinic. M-m-m-m. Focusing on the place and not the abortion debate, it was not quite the school he remembered.
Flashback success score for the feel good factor? 2 – 1.
When we reached Buffalo, I wanted to go to the Grosvenor Research Library, pronounced Grove-ner, built in the late 1800’s. It was a reference library only, books and resources had to be used on the premises. There were valuable collections, primary sources, and pieces such as Mark Twain’s original manuscript Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Twain had been part owner and editor of a Buffalo newspaper called the Buffalo Express from 1869 to 1871.) It was here at the old Grosvenor I’d done a bit of studying during college and a great deal more of meeting a boyfriend.
Since the parking lot near the library was full, we parked on the street. I ran along the sidewalk, up the steps, eager to go inside. But that wasn’t to be. Yellow tape and a big sign on the double doors announced: This Building Condemned. My body sagged like a deflated balloon.
Several blocks from the library was another spot I wanted to see, a place called The Encore. It was a coffee house and the place students went to discuss the state of the world and life and love. I remembered its dimly lit atmosphere, small tables, coffee, and smoke. Sadly, the coffee house had been replaced with a printing business.
From there we drove to see a house where I spent my teens. It was located in a small town on Buffalo’s outskirts called Getzville, originally a German farming community. It was a dull little place with a long bus ride to school over in the town of Williamsville. But the house I liked. The backyard sloped to Ellicott Creek which meandered its way to the Niagara River and eventually over Niagara Falls.
Built on close to an acre, the house, a two-story Craftsman style, had a white picket fence, gazebo, carriage style garage by the road, and a boathouse. (We used to go canoeing along the creek.) The place had once been the summer home of a wealthy Buffalo businessman.
When my husband and I drove up, I saw a front lawn full of untrimmed trees and bushes, the house barely visible. We parked and I got out of the car, camera in hand. The plan was to take several pictures and then we’d go to the front door and introduce ourselves.
As we took a few pictures, I became aware of a woman making her way through the trees toward us. She moved like a battle ship. She spoke like a navy commander.
“Why are you taking pictures of my house?”
“I-I-I-I used to live here,” I stammered. We introduced ourselves.
Still suspicious, she grilled me. We learned she was the person who bought the house from my parents.
“What happened to their baby grand piano?”
“I have it,” I replied.
“I wanted that piano, but your parents wouldn’t sell it to me.”
Good grief, was she still angry from not being able to buy a piano? Happy to finally dump that anger? No, it turns out she thought we were from the county. It seems she and Erie County were in some sort of litigation. Needless to say, we were not invited to do anything. I’d really wanted to walk onto the property, down to the creek, see the old boat house, stand under the weeping willow trees along the water’s edge. The stroll down memory lane that day was like a character’s bad flashback in a short story.
Flashback success score for the feel good factor? 0 – 3.
When I did my intern teaching, I taught at an elementary school in the city of Niagara Falls. Everyday I saw the Falls, heard the roar, felt the rising mist. Everyday the sight had thrilled me. We drove to that city the next day. I discovered the sight still held the magic. At least one place we visited hadn’t changed much at all.
What did the trip accomplish? There were real surges of excitement at seeing the places that helped shape us as individuals. There were surges of sadness that places had changed, knowing, of course, that time marches on. There were feelings of nostalgia, knowing, despite everything we’d encountered growing up, the drama and the trauma, the ups and downs, that things turned out pretty well. Mainly, there was a sense of understanding and appreciation for the environment, the people, and the society that had given us so much and so many precious memories. Unexpected signs on doors had not changed those.