YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN, BUT THEN WHAT?

As a travel blogger, I have become obsessed lately with the idea of home, and I am wondering why.

Granted, my husband, Allen and I do not settle very long anywhere.

When we fly to Boston, we say we are going home (beloved children, friends and work). When we fly to Aspen, where we spend more time than in Boston because we love how we feel there, we still call it Aspen. Then there is London….it has a “home” quality because we get lots of familial love from children and grandchildren. Then there is New York, where we lived for 30 years….sometimes it feels alien; sometimes as if the years since we left were a dream, and it is the most familiar of all.

But is home New Jersey where I grew up? I can feel autumn in our backyard, spring drifting through wide-open windows, the smell of my house, the favorite dinner when we came back from summer camp….

Do you know that it is only in New Jersey that people going to the beach go “down the shore?” It’s true. Maybe I am heading in that direction.

Years ago my youngest grandchild, Nicolas, was sobbing and wailing, “I just want to go ho-o-o-o-me.” But he was home, and we were there with his parents and sister, yet he could not be convinced. What did he mean by “home?” Did he mean he just wanted to be held and hugged? Did he mean his crib? His bunny? We hugged and held and consoled, and he gradually relaxed — but it was interesting that as he was learning to speak and communicate his feelings, his unhappiness was expressed as not being home.

Here is Roger Cohen in The New York Times on January 15, 2015:

Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.

A year ago, Allen and I returned to the Jersey shore. We had not been there for over 25 years. I had been longing to go back just one more time. With a wedding to attend in Pennsylvania, I rationalized it was on the way.

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, going down the shore had been a ritual from my earliest days- my maternal grandparents lived there. As teens we cut school, lathered ourselves with baby oil and iodine, drove too fast down the Garden State Parkway, smoked and reveled in our invulnerability and had no fear of the damage we were doing to our bodies. As young marrieds, we rented summerhouses and kept our toddlers at the beach until they fell asleep, and we carried them to their beds sun-soaked, salty and happy.

Allen and I visited Asbury Park…supposedly returning to its former glory of the 1940s-50s…but it was not anywhere near glory, and in fact was depressingly decrepit; Deal and Elberon where we had rented houses, played tennis and watched the moon landing, but missed getting to Woodstock; Ocean Grove, which we had called Ocean Grave because it was originally a religious colony, but now was all spruced up by young gay couples; and finally Bradley Beach…because when I think of home and its connotations I think of 408 Evergreen Avenue, Bradley Beach, New Jersey, the house where my grandparents lived.

Bradley Beach, where the streets had been sand when my mother was a girl; where the boardwalk is still for promenading, and the beach is still white and wide, where the houses are still middle-class and neatly kept and the salt air blows 6 blocks inland to Main Street, where the train station has not changed, where the pharmacy still stands on the corner of 2nd Avenue. We parked in front of my grandparents’ house.

Of course it looked smaller than it had when I was a child, but it was basically the same…white stucco, big front porch with red tile flooring, blue awnings, and a small, but now rather neglected front lawn. I stared. My eyes welled up, and as we drove slowly away, I said, “STOP. I want to go in.”

“What are you going to say?” asked Allen.

“I will tell whoever answers the door that my grandparents lived here and ask if they would mind if I just looked inside.” This was totally unlike me…I normally would be much too embarrassed to ring the bell of strangers, but I did not want to miss the chance to see this house one last time, and maybe make sense of the bond I felt.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“No.” But I did it anyway.

As I walked up the porch steps, I saw the house was not as well kempt as I thought — the tile was cracked, everything sagged. I was announced by a grimy mutt gated on the porch. I had no need to ring the bell.

An elderly sloppy man tentatively opened the door, but as soon as I explained my mission, he welcomed me in. Inside was utter chaos….papers, books, cartons, junk, everywhere…he said they were getting ready to move. His wife was coloring with their grandchildren, and had to move mounds of stuff onto the floor just to find a tabletop to work on. The house was not the same…but the memories filled my head. The kitchen no longer had a big white enamel table, the red-leatherette dinette had been converted to an office, the mural was gone from the dining room walls, but the front and back stairs still met on the landing with its window seat and stained glass window. I used to read there. And despite the fact that the occupants were messy and grotty, there was a kindness in their treatment of me that was familiar. The spirit of my grandparents? (Too sentimental I know, but strong memories are powerful.) They offered me a drink, and yet I suddenly wanted to leave, afraid I would really embarrass myself and tear up right there. “I want this house back,” was all I wanted to say, but instead I thanked them profusely. I felt like Nicolas….my psyche crying, “I want to go home!”

Pauline and Jack Cantor bought this house shortly after my mother was born in 1917. Emigres from the same town in the Ukraine, they were the only Jews and Socialists in Bradley Beach for many years. Jack was an atheist, but believed in the history of the Jews. My grandmother went along, but was a quintessential doting, cooking Jewish grandmother. They spoke Yiddish when they did not want us to understand. My grandfather owned a dry goods store in Asbury Park (which I once heard my mother elevate to as a department store in her Palm Beach days…smile) and my grandmother drove a big blue Packard.

We always celebrated Christmas at their house. It was the highlight of our lives. Somehow my grandmother fit everyone in — her children, their children, cousins and more. I can’t remember where we all slept, but I do remember two card tables going all weekend. My aunt, the art teacher, always had a project for the kids…the dinette was our workroom. In my mind, the tree reached the ceiling and sparkled with colored balls and tinsel. My grandmother wanted to keep the living room curtains closed in case the rabbi walked by (she was still hedging her bets). Meals were raucous and delicious…I loved staying up and being privy to the adult humor, even if I just pretended to get it all. At night in bed my brother and I listened to the train whistles and hoped to hear Santa.

In summer, we all walked to the beach only two blocks away…you had to have a Bradley Beach badge to get on the beach, checked by old men sitting under umbrellas at the stairs that led from the boardwalk to the sand. We kept our badges every year. The grown-ups played backgammon all afternoon, the grandmothers dipped in the water in their black-skirted swimsuits, the men took us, shivering with fear and excitement, way out to jump the waves. At night we slept, sandy and content.

Why do I get teary when I think of being in that house again, even now a year later?

There are more than just happy memories of things that happened, or how it smelled, and how it looked. Maybe it is just that I have no time in my life to miss my grandparents, aunts, uncle, mother and father…and I am taking the time to miss them. That is surely a part of it, knowing I can never have them back.

And yet there is still more…how safe and happy I felt under layers of blankets sleeping in a twin bed beside my brother and hearing that long train whistle. How excited I was to ride the Asbury Park merry-go-round and catch a brass ring every time. But the real truth is…the truth of the painful, visceral nostalgia is: adoration. In that house, I did not have to try, did not have to excel, could never do anything wrong. I was a perfect person — just by being.

I would never have it again. I, like everyone else, would have to prove myself, again and again throughout my life. But what a baseline. Did it give me a foundation for confidence and security? Or have I not measured up? Or both? Am I happier for having revisited or not? Happier or not, it has been a revelation.

I can’t linger too long on this…I have to catch a plane to meet Allen in Uganda, but I think T.S. Eliot was right…

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

September, 2015

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