Homeward Bound

Greg Dawson discovers that you can go home again, but it probably won’t be exactly as you remembered it.

Soon a new school year will begin, and for some students their first assignment will be an essay: “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”

I’ll go first. I went home to Indiana and drove by the six places I lived as a child and as an adult with my wife, Candy, and our kids. I didn’t get out of the car, just paused long enough to take updated mental snapshots.

Of course I didn’t go to Bloomington for that purpose. It’s just that I can’t go there and not touch those home bases. Nor can we visit Fernandina Beach without passing by the places Candy lived. It’s a homing instinct we can’t resist.

We live in south Orlando and rarely venture north of Colonial Drive. Whenever we do, we go out of our way to check on the house near Winter Park High where Chris and Aimee grew up. Their heights and weights are recorded on the kitchen wall. Logic says they were painted over long ago, but in my mind’s eye they remain pristine, forever young.

The repeated homecomings, the ceaseless quest for a new place to call home are strands in the American DNA. We’re a nation of immigrants turned nomads. No one expressed it more poetically than Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again.

“Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America—that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement,” Wolfe wrote. His protagonist, George Webber, “was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there.”

The typical American moves 11.7 times, according to the Census Bureau. Many moves are to Florida, the most nomadic state next to Nevada. Only 35 percent of Florida residents were born here. Louisiana has the most natives (78 percent), then Midwest states with 70-75 percent.

A common complaint of many transplants like me is that Florida feels rootless, with no sense of community. But maybe it’s that very rootlessness that forms the bonds of our majority-immigrant community.

When strangers here meet, the first question is not, as it might be in the Midwest, “What do you do” or “Where did you go to high school” but rather “Where are you from?”

So it was when we met Marsha and her husband, Tim. Right off we learned that Marsha is from Chicago, Tim is the rare native, from Sarasota. With origins established, talk turned to careers and family and pets.

A few years later Candy and Marsha were visiting Chicago together. One day Marsha was dreamily examining a map. Pointing to the north side, she said her mother grew up there in a brownstone. Marsha had fond memories of time spent in her mother’s childhood home with grandmother “Nanie.”

“They used to pack me off to her after my baby brother was born. I was about 7—a handful. I still see the things my grandmother and I did together, washing our hair in the kitchen sink, making marble bread, going shopping—walking down those streets.”

For nearly 50 years Marsha never went home again to Nanie’s. In the meantime, she lost her mother.

“After my mom died I started to have dreams about my grandmother’s house. It kept haunting me.” 

Now they were almost there. Candy, an unsinkable enthusiast, said, “Let’s find it! What street is it on?”

Marsha was pretty sure it was California Avenue, but the map showed California was miles long, and they were on foot. With no address and no landmarks to go by, they dropped the quixotic search. 

Days later, with no agenda, they hopped on the nearest “L” and rode it to the end of the line. They wandered along shady sidewalks of an old neighborhood. Suddenly, Marsha stopped dead in her tracks.

“This is it. I feel it.”

Looking up they saw a street sign: “Sacramento Ave.” A few steps to the left, there it was: Nanie’s home.

Serendipitously, the tenant was in the midst of moving out. She gladly opened the door to Marsha’s past.

“I was transported,” Marsha said. “I saw everything from when I was a little girl. The porch where I used to take naps, the closets in my mother’s room that I was scared of because of spooky things. I think something was propelling me there. I needed to do it to put it to rest. Ever since I went in the place, I don’t have dreams anymore.”

Sometimes you have to wait a lifetime for the train that will take you home again. 

Categories: Column