You Can’t Go Home Again (And Why Would You?)

Wednesday evening, my brother John and I were sitting in his living room in Charlotte, N.C., when the conversation turned to our shared past. We grew up in an odd little development called Trucksville Gardens in Northeast Pa. It was a five-block Levittown-style neighborhood stretching up a steep hill and containing maybe 30 post-war frame houses plunked down incongruously in the middle of an otherwise rural landscape. I didn’t think it odd at the time, but as a grownup the design and placement of Trucksville Gardens’ neat grid plan — interrupting fields, farms and woodlands – puzzled me as much as those desert Nazca line drawings that can only be recognized as components of vast pictographs from outer space: Who put it there? And why?

Eventually, John and I fell into a spirited contest of conjuring the entire neighborhood of our youth, vying to recall who lived in each house on each street, right down to their dogs; it was pretty easy because in the entire time I lived there only one family moved out and one family moved in.

After I left Charlotte, I wound through the splendid isolation of the Smokey Mountains National Park and then jogged north to hit the Interstate, where I joined a vast caravan of Americans speeding hither and yon. A good many of my fellow travelers were undoubtedly racing to visit distant family.

We didn’t travel on holidays when I was a kid, and we had no need of family reunions: Virtually every member of our vast extended family lived within a 10-mile radius. My parents lived in their house at 197 Skyline Drive for 56 years. We didn’t have a full-blown gathering of the tribes every weekend but we often had a quorum. On summer Saturdays my parents hosted cookouts, my dad doling out charred burgers to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins … frequently joined by the parish priest and a few stray neighbors who contrived to walk by our house while he was at his grill.

That family dynamic, typical of the era, would soon die like the embers in Dad’s grill; the next generations of our family were scattered to the winds. I’m the youngest of six and by the time I reached second grade one sister had gone away to nursing school. Then another moved out west. Yet another took a job as a school teacher near Harrisburg. My brother eventually started a long career circuit that took him first south, then west, then back south. At 18, I went away to college and except for one stray summer never came back except to visit. I can count 21 mailing addresses across several states since then.

And now I am driving across the country to visit my own wandering children – my youngest daughter in Nashville, my eldest in the Rockies. I miss them. My wife Gina and I wish we could see them more often. But mostly we want them to be happy, doing what they want wherever they want to do it. After all, that’s what we did.

It was fitting that on my serpentine ramble from Charlotte to Nashville I stopped at the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe, the tragically doomed author of You Can’t Go Home Again. As a college student, I was in thrall of Wolfe (and that other peripatetic storyteller, Jack Keroauc) and had ambitions to become a great novelist, wandering the earth, consuming life in great reckless gulps, and checking out by age 30, my legend assured. I loved Wolfe’s romantic, excessive, extravagant prose and his ability to write an enthralling 20-page scene of a train leaving a station. (I find it rather less enthralling today and upon reading labyrinthine passages from his works while visiting the home where he grew up — a shambling clapboard heap wedged between a YMCA, a luxury hotel and an apartment building off Asheville’s main drag — I found myself editing with an eye to greater economy; in my mental rewrite, that train clears the station in just under two pages).

Wolfe’s cutting, thinly-disguised autobiographical first novel of growing up in Asheville, Look Homeward Angel was so withering that the rage of the townspeople he depicted made him an exile for seven years – and suggested to me an unexpected perk of writing great literature: revenge!

Tucked in a trunk – where they shall remain until they are incinerated upon my death – are my short stories and story fragments written in the Wolfean style, brimming with attempts at romantic, excessive, extravagant prose but mainly filled with windy, overwrought sentences full of unnecessary adjectives and unearned reflections on the vicissitudes of time and tide that added up to … not much. Hey, I was 19. Fortunately, though, I would soon discover journalism, which values concision over profundity and offers the writer the pleasure of craft over the suffering of art. I never considered journalism a consolation prize for failed literary dreams. Far from it. Reporters get to experience and write about people and situations no novelist could dream up.

As a bonus, I got to live past 30.

I’m not particularly nostalgic. The idea that one can’t go home again doesn’t feel like a profound or melancholy revelation to me; I never had a desire to go home again. And past a point for all of us, there is no home to go home to. The house I grew up in hasn’t changed much and in my father’s last years he liked me to drive him past it when I came to visit; my Mom and Dad spent their last years in a retirement community nearby. He took great joy in recalling his adventures (and misadventures) in roofing, landscaping and battling burrowing woodchucks. As we cruised by, I’d look upon the same scene waiting – even hoping – to feel some warm wave of something. I might have felt a faint ripple of wistfulness, but mostly what I saw was a house I lived in long ago.

With the exception of Pittsburgh, where inter-generational families cling to each other like refugees in a lifeboat, a preponderance of Americans, particularly the college-educated, eventually leave their hometowns behind. You can find no end of sociological studies (and lamentations) online about the decline of the geographically proximate extended family. Why, a few generations ago, did young people coming of age leave kith and kin and strike out for distant points? The studies list all sorts of factors, but my reading is that young people began to migrate primarily because they could. The spread of the interstate system and unprecedented opportunities for social mobility across class lines opened up new vistas and made it possible to build a home and fashion a life without a supportive network of family. Today, cooking shows and DIY programs take the place of apprenticing to older relatives, and daycares and nursing homes now cover the cradle and grave stages of life.

You don’t hear of too many people dying at home anymore, a thought that registered as I stood next to the bed where Thomas Wolfe’s brother Ben died, the basis for one of the most poignant scenes in Look Homeward Angel (and at least three pages too long).

For a few days, I am enjoying the pleasure being squired around Nashville by Nora and her awesome boyfriend Sean, smiling as I get glimpses of the life they are building together. When you become a parent, it feels as though your children represent intriguing new characters in your life story. But as they grow you realize they are the protagonists in their own stories – stories in which you are a supporting character. I don’t feel as if my children have flown the coop and deserted me. On the contrary, I admire their adventurous spirit and self-sufficiency.

I’m grateful their wanderings give me new destinations to explore on my own journey. And I know that wherever they go they pause occasionally to look homeward.

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