INSIGHTS

When you can’t go home again

Lord Byron, recalling some poignant scene from his youth and marveling at how such memories endure, wrote in Don Juan:



“And dear the childhood spot We never forget, though there we are forgot.”



When computers can read these words and feel the resonance of their power, we can compare them to the human mind. Not before. As we grow older we learn that the apparently simple things in life-sex, love, work, aging-are the deepest wellsprings of mystery. Byron has hold of such a mystery here.

All of us have places, objects, perhaps lines from songs that are the museums of our memories. What about the eerie experience of returning to your old elementary school (grown so small now) and wondering how you ever drank from that tiny fountain or thought the playground so vast?

No doubt these thoughts are partly born of autumn, the season most conducive to musings on change and mortality. But there’s a more concrete, more personal reason as well: The first house I lived in is finally gone. It had to happen someday. The blow was postponed for a very long time. But now it’s gone, and part of my past is gone with it.

Twenty years ago my family moved from that house where I was born to a new house in a new neighborhood. The house we left- an old clapboard two-bedroom with peeling wallpaper and a leaking roof-was too shabby to sentimentalize. Not even the gilding of nostalgia can make me forget the paper-thin carpets worn out by the incessant energy of three children, the doors pulled slightly off their jambs as the house settled, or the windows that did not quite seal tight, letting the December winds whistle into the kitchen.

No, it isn’t what the house looked like, but the simple fact that it was, that makes it hard to lose. There is only one first home, as there is only one first friend, first love, first job. Certain things happen only once. And so, as the years passed, I watched the house. When business or visits to family and friends took me through the suburb, I’d drive by. Sometimes it was enough just to see it was there, but often I’d stop to see what a succession of renters and owners had done to the place. Apparently, most of the occupants had no more budget for renovation and landscaping than we had, and for a decade or so, the house looked pretty much as we had left it. Little changed. Of course, change was exactly what I feared. I had lived here as a child, and now I could show my own son the place where my life began. Better, I knew, if I could pass on to him some majestic estate where my father’s father had lived, but this was something. In our frantically mobile world, many people did not have even this much. As long as the house stood, even with strangers inside, it was a ramshackle monument in defiance of time. The seasons changed, presidents rose and fell and old crises were swapped for new, but the house remained an island of permanence in an angry sea of change.

In a way, the house stayed faithful longer than I did. I left Dallas to work in another city, and while I was gone they tore it down. I came back to visit my parents, and though my brother had told me the house was gone, the first sight brought a shock. The piles of lumber and rubble were still there, as was the little patio (we called it the terrace, I suddenly remembered) out back. At the beginning of each summer, my father would bring a load of sand from the local lumberyard and dump it near the terrace. My brother and I had spent entire days building elaborate castles and forts in the sand. Now I crossed the terrace in three strides and stood wondering how my world could ever have been so small, how I could have been so easily satisfied.

Almost a year later I moved back to Dallas. On my first drive by the old house I was braced for the worst. Surely by now someone had found a way to profit from this “undeveloped” land and had plunked down a Shell station or a Taco Bell where my past had been. But no, not yet. The lot was cleared of the rubble, but nothing else had happened. Maybe it will stay this way, I said to myself-a naive thought even for someone who doesn’t keep up with land values.

For a while, I transferred my allegiance from the house to the land, which then became my surviving link to the past. In season, wild berries still grew along the fence-row, plump enough to see from the street. The tree we had climbed to get on the roof still stood beside the vanished house. Its upper limbs didn’t look as trustworthy as before, but the trunk was thick and rooted securely in the past. Our four acres had once stretched to the horizon, safely circumscribing my world. Now I could see a row of tract homes creeping closer, just a hundred yards away. But another year passed, then another, and nothing more happened to the land.

Of course, this story can end only one way. Someone once said that we are all under a sentence of death with an indefinite reprieve. So was the land. I got busy and didn’t go by for several months; when I returned, midnight had passed and the governor had failed to call. The land was covered by two apartment units called Rolling Meadows or Cresting Trails or something. I couldn’t be sure, but I think the swimming pool sits right where the big tree was. The St. Augustine grass that had survived so many Texas summers was snuffed out by a huge slab of asphalt, where Camaros and Datsuns seemed to be the cars of choice. The song got it right: They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.



EVERYTHING CHANGES, but somethings change more slowly than others. TheState Fair returns this month, as much a partof October as daylight savings time and Halloween. If you’ve been going to the fair aslong as I have, you probably like it just as itis-hopelessly tacky and tasteless, the antithesis of upward mobility and sophistication. Imagine a wine bar on the Midway. It’sfine to touch the fair up now and then withsome cosmetic changes, and the Art Decobuildings must be kept from decay, butanything much more drastic than replacingthe original Youngblood’s Chicken with theOld Mill restaurant should raise the hacklesof ardent fairgoers. There should never be aNew State Fair. The Old State Fair is alreadya Classic.

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