We Can Never Go Back

 

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

I was driving on the old road the other day when I passed the turnoff leading to the house my husband grew up in. It was an older mid-century home, expanded on the footprint of the original farmhouse, surrounded on all sides by old, leafy oaks and ash; a few birch and fir trees obscured the driveway creating a curtain concealing it from the noisy main road beyond. It was a house full of life — until it wasn’t. It sat empty for a while, long enough to erode what man so foolishly thinks can withstand the hands of nature. Developers eventually tore it down. And most of the trees. The empty lot was the monstrosity that preceded the garish monstrosity that was eventually built.

But the worst part was seeing everything that tied my husband to this place be so effortlessly pushed aside by a team of bulldozers: learning to ride a bike in the driveway and to throw a baseball. The summer he spent camping in a tent in the yard under a canopy of trees and stars. And then I thought of the house I grew up in, only a few miles from where my family lives now — the home my grandfather built in the mid-’60s, that I grew up in, and where my parents still live — and what will happen when it just isn’t?

I hate the thought that the rooms will hear laughter that I don’t recognize; that the sliver of wall on the basement landing – the one that marked the heights of my brothers and me as we grew – from four feet to five, then inching past six, would someday be painted over, hidden from the eyes of some new family, a secret between our memories and the apparitions of time. And I hate that someday I will drive by, and I will be the stranger looking at the home my grandfather built before there was a paved street leading to it. And I hate that I will never be able to go back, not just to the house, but to a time when I knew there was a place I could go where everything was as it should be. Where I knew my brothers were asleep in their rooms under the same roof. Where we built forts in the woods behind the backyard hill. Where the oak tree stood tall and strong and old, its burled, thick bark rough under our dirty hands – a monument to permanent things, reliable and wise and seeing everything but revealing nothing. But I grew up. I grew up taking for granted that one day I could never go back.

But isn’t that the natural order of things? The enduring truth is that no, we can never go back. We go out into the world and see and hear and feel things for the first time and then many times, and to take those experiences back to where we came would be to intrude on our own innocence. It is lost to time and the hazy nostalgia of what we thought it must have been like when things were simple. The world grows larger but our sense of it becomes smaller.

There is a story about the poet Robert Frost recalled by writer Ray Joseph’s piece “Robert Frost’s Secret” in the September 1954 Sunday newspaper supplement This Week Magazine

“In all your years and all your travels,” I asked, “what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?”

He paused a moment, then with the twinkle sparkling under those brambly eyebrows he replied: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on. In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles . . . with politicians and people slinging the word fear around, all of us become discouraged . . . tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.

How do we go about our lives in such a hurry, ever impatient about the things that require patience, consuming more information before we’ve thought about what we’ve just forgotten, rushing towards the door before we even know where we are… And I wonder how I can possibly keep up with the life I don’t have time to live right now. And for what? To be a mark in time — given back to the earth just as we were born of it? Is there more — there must be more. But then the question becomes: what is more? And it’s so easy to hear the stark plainness, the total unfeeling, hard, blunt blow that mercilessly strikes the heart in Robert Frost’s words, “It goes on.

We press on, dutifully, one day after another, and then a week, a month, a year. Until the innocence of childhood has grown into the tottery of youth, the reliability of adulthood, and finally the certainty of death. But the thing that is more, that goes on, is life. And we can make for our children what we cannot remake for ourselves. Because the best way for those memories to stay alive is to recreate them for the next generation.

As more of our traditions are cast aside as archaic, passe, or “problematic;” as we see public schools trying to use racist policies to heal past racism; as children are exploited and used to score political points that steal their innocence, it is more important than ever to pass the lessons of childhood and growing up, unmolested from the cynicism and Behemoths that are always waiting at their heels. Children are the purest form of what humans can achieve: through their bottomless font of curiosity, their reckless disregard for boundaries, a wide-eyed incredulity at each new discovery — refreshed with each new day. I cannot understand those who look at children in our society as plagues: as disease spreaders (so we must keep them masked and isolated) or contributing to climate change, or preventing women from being content cogs in the industrial machine. Children are not the causes of our problems, but they could hold the answers, through meaning, purpose, discovery, and creativity.

Life goes on. It must. What’s left for us is to decide what kind of life it will be.

“The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning, but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun, and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.” — Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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  1. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    I HATE driving past my childhood home.  I’m afraid of what I’ll see, or what I won’t.  I have nightmares about it.

    I know life goes on.  But it’s hard to accept.

    • #1
  2. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Jenna,

    There’s a lot here.

    I’ve lived in ten states in my six decades. Now I’m living a dozen miles from where I was born, in rural upstate New York. I’m the oldest of seven children, six surviving: My younger sister passed away several years ago, taken by breast cancer. She was closest to me in age and interests, and there are countless childhood memories shared only by the two of us, and now mine alone. I’ve often thought of that, of how, when I pass on, the events Stephanie and I experienced — the games we played, the forts we built, the rocks we climbed — will be gone. And then in what sense did they ever happen?

    We have a duty to leave, eventually, and make way for the next generations. Perhaps our inconsequential memories have that duty as well.


    I lent my sister a favorite book, _The Best Loved Poems of the American People_. She gave it back to me shortly before she died. When I eventually opened it, I found a paperclip marking a poem, one that, despite my having memorized a good portion of the book over the years, I had largely ignored.

    Farewell to the Farm
    Robert Louis Stevenson (1913)

    THE COACH is at the door at last;
    The eager children, mounting fast
    And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

    To house and garden, field and lawn,
    The meadow-gates we swang upon,
    To pump and stable, tree and swing,
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

    And fare you well for evermore,
    O ladder at the hayloft door,
    O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

    Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
    The trees and houses smaller grow;
    Last, round the woody turn we swing;
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!


    Love life and all your people while you’re here and they’re here.

    Hank

    • #2
  3. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Mad Gerald (View Comment):

    I HATE driving past my childhood home. I’m afraid of what I’ll see, or what I won’t. I have nightmares about it.

    I know life goes on. But it’s hard to accept.

    Yes, and I think there’s more than just a dislike of change. 

    • #3
  4. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Jenna,

    There’s a lot here.

    I’ve lived in ten states in my six decades. Now I’m living a dozen miles from where I was born, in rural upstate New York. I’m the oldest of seven children, six surviving: My younger sister passed away several years ago, taken by breast cancer. She was closest to me in age and interests, and there are countless childhood memories shared only by the two of us, and now mine alone. I’ve often thought of that, of how, when I pass on, the events Stephanie and I experienced — the games we played, the forts we built, the rocks we climbed — will be gone. And then in what sense did they ever happen?

    We have a duty to leave, eventually, and make way for the next generations. Perhaps our inconsequential memories have that duty as well.


    I lent my sister a favorite book, _The Best Loved Poems of the American People_. She gave it back to me shortly before she died. When I eventually opened it, I found a paperclip marking a poem, one that, despite my having memorized a good portion of the book over the years, I had largely ignored.

    Farewell to the Farm
    Robert Louis Stevenson (1913)

    THE COACH is at the door at last;
    The eager children, mounting fast
    And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

    To house and garden, field and lawn,
    The meadow-gates we swang upon,
    To pump and stable, tree and swing,
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

    And fare you well for evermore,
    O ladder at the hayloft door,
    O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

    Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
    The trees and houses smaller grow;
    Last, round the woody turn we swing;
    Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!


    Love life and all your people while you’re here and they’re here.

    Hank

    That is so profound and so beautiful. Cherish those memories. Thank so much for sharing this.

    • #4
  5. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Jenna,

    There’s a lot here.

    Indeed. The house in which I grew up is still there, but has no meaning; it’s too remote. When my dad moved out it snapped all connections.

    On Sundays we went to the farm, where my Mom grew up. There was the old house, where Grandma and Grandpa lived, and the new house, where their son – who took over the farm – lived with his family. A modern rambler. After Grandma and Grandpa died, the old house fell into disrepair, and razed. There’s nothing on the site now.

    But. But. If you go to Google satellite view, you can see a ring of trees around an empty space. Defining its presence by its absence. Guarding, and mourning.

    • #5
  6. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    And life flows on, 

    within you, and without you.

    -George Harrison

    • #6
  7. She Member
    She
    @She

    JennaStocker: I hate the thought that the rooms will hear laughter that I don’t recognize; that the sliver of wall on the basement landing – the one that marked the heights of my brothers and me as we grew – from four feet to five, then inching past six, would someday be painted over, hidden from the eyes of some new family, a secret between our memories and the apparitions of time.

    In the mid-1960’s my family rented–for our first year living near Pittsburgh–a house in a suburb just south of the city.  It had been built just before the Second World War by the couple (then in their own mid-60’s) still living in it: The gentleman was a Swiss engineer who’d emigrated a few years prior to the War, and the lady was a very talented artist with the soul (her son said) of a gypsy.  The two of them set off with their camper to spend a year in Mexico, and left the house to us.  It was a beautiful house, set back from the road in a lovely setting on a quiet street with nice neighbors and lots of kids.  A far cry from my rather unpleasant first year in the US which was spent in a rather crummy and sterile apartment building in a rather unfriendly Boston.

    The huge eat-in kitchen/dining room featured–on the back wall, on the closet trim–the measure recording (back to the early 1940s), in pencil, the heights, dates, and names of the house’s children, and those of many of the neighbors (including Get Smart’s Agent 99, who grew up next-door-but-one, in the house we were to buy ourselves the following year, having settled in pretty well to the neighborhood that would become our home for the next 15 years).

    About ten years ago, I was in my old neighborhood for one reason or another, and drove by that house, only to see a sign that it was for sale.  A man was whacking weeds at the end of the driveway.  I stopped.  We chatted and I told him that I used to live there.  He and his wife had bought it from the original owners a couple of decades previously, and had raised their own kids there.  He was now divorced.  He asked me if I’d like to go inside and see the old place,  I said, “Sure.”  (I know, right?  I’m a walking, talking object lesson of the fact that some people never learn.)

    Lovely man.  And it touched me to see how much of the original place they’d retained.  Oh, they’d painted and changed many things, and added quite a bit.  But the spirit of the place was just the same.  And on that back wall in the kitchen?  There were the original pencil marks and names and date (including mine and those of my siblings, and of their own children). They’d left it unchanged and visible because it was so personal and had obviously meant so much.  It almost made me cry.

    Nothing lasts forever.  The house has been bought and sold again since then, and I have no idea if the pencil marks on the door frame are still visible. But they meant a lot to many different families over many years, and there or not, they’re indelible to me and many others.  I remember them only with love.

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    So very beautiful and touching, Jenna. Thanks so much for filling the first part of my day with love.

    • #8
  9. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    She (View Comment):

    JennaStocker: I hate the thought that the rooms will hear laughter that I don’t recognize; that the sliver of wall on the basement landing – the one that marked the heights of my brothers and me as we grew – from four feet to five, then inching past six, would someday be painted over, hidden from the eyes of some new family, a secret between our memories and the apparitions of time.

    In the mid-1960’s my family rented–for our first year living near Pittsburgh–a house in a suburb just south of the city. It had been built just before the Second World War by the couple (then in their own mid-60’s) still living in it: The gentleman was a Swiss engineer who’d emigrated a few years prior to the War, and the lady was a very talented artist with the soul (her son said) of a gypsy. The two of them set off with their camper to spend a year in Mexico, and left the house to us. It was a beautiful house, set back from the road in a lovely setting on a quiet street with nice neighbors and lots of kids. A far cry from my rather unpleasant first year in the US which was spent in a rather crummy and sterile apartment building in a rather unfriendly Boston.

    The huge eat-in kitchen/dining room featured–on the back wall, on the closet trim–the measure recording (back to the early 1940s), in pencil, the heights, dates, and names of the house’s children, and those of many of the neighbors (including Get Smart’s Agent 99, who grew up next-door-but-one, in the house we were to buy ourselves the following year, having settled in pretty well to the neighborhood that would become our home for the next 15 years).

    About ten years ago, I was in my old neighborhood for one reason or another, and drove by that house, only to see a sign that it was for sale. A man was whacking weeds at the end of the driveway. I stopped. We chatted and I told him that I used to live there. He and his wife had bought it from the original owners a couple of decades previously, and had raised their own kids there. He was now divorced. He asked me if I’d like to go inside and see the old place, I said, “Sure.” (I know, right? I’m a walking, talking object lesson of the fact that some people never learn.)

    Lovely man. And it touched me to see how much of the original place they’d retained. Oh, they’d painted and changed many things, and added quite a bit. But the spirit of the place was just the same. And on that back wall in the kitchen? There were the original pencil marks and names and date (including mine and those of my siblings, and of their own children). They’d left it unchanged and visible because it was so personal and had obviously meant so much. It almost made me cry.

    Nothing lasts forever. The house has been bought and sold again since then, and I have no idea if the pencil marks on the door frame are still visible. But they meant a lot to many different families over many years, and there or not, they’re indelible to me and many others. I remember them only with love.

    What a lovely memory, She. I don’t know if I’d have the will to venture in, but I’m glad you did and that the spirit was alive.

    • #9
  10. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    So very beautiful and touching, Jenna. Thanks so much for filling the first part of my day with love.

    Thank you, @susanquinn That means a lot.

    • #10
  11. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Mad Gerald (View Comment):

    I HATE driving past my childhood home. I’m afraid of what I’ll see, or what I won’t. I have nightmares about it.

    I know life goes on. But it’s hard to accept.

    I think if the new owners had done a little upkeep on it, it wouldn’t be so bad. But every time I drive by, I see signs of disrepair.

    • #11
  12. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

    Now I know where Rich Mullins got this lyric for “Growing Young”

    • #12
  13. Kelly B Member
    Kelly B
    @KellyB

    She (View Comment):

    The huge eat-in kitchen/dining room featured–on the back wall, on the closet trim–the measure recording (back to the early 1940s), in pencil, the heights, dates, and names of the house’s children, and those of many of the neighbors (including Get Smart’s Agent 99, who grew up next-door-but-one, in the house we were to buy ourselves the following year, having settled in pretty well to the neighborhood that would become our home for the next 15 years).

    About ten years ago, I was in my old neighborhood for one reason or another, and drove by that house, only to see a sign that it was for sale. A man was whacking weeds at the end of the driveway. I stopped. We chatted and I told him that I used to live there. He and his wife had bought it from the original owners a couple of decades previously, and had raised their own kids there. He was now divorced. He asked me if I’d like to go inside and see the old place, I said, “Sure.” (I know, right? I’m a walking, talking object lesson of the fact that some people never learn.)

    Lovely man. And it touched me to see how much of the original place they’d retained. Oh, they’d painted and changed many things, and added quite a bit. But the spirit of the place was just the same. And on that back wall in the kitchen? There were the original pencil marks and names and date (including mine and those of my siblings, and of their own children). They’d left it unchanged and visible because it was so personal and had obviously meant so much. It almost made me cry.

    Nothing lasts forever. The house has been bought and sold again since then, and I have no idea if the pencil marks on the door frame are still visible. But they meant a lot to many different families over many years, and there or not, they’re indelible to me and many others. I remember them only with love.

    I was going to tell a similar story about the house we sold in Colorado to come here – built in the early 1950s, we bought it from the original owners. On the frame of the pantry door were their children’s measurements. We added ours, and pointed that out to the new owners. I wouldn’t dare go back to see if they preserved them, but I hope they did.

    • #13
  14. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Kelly B (View Comment):
    We added ours, and pointed that out to the new owners. I wouldn’t dare go back to see if they preserved them, but I hope they did.

    I hope so, too.

    • #14
  15. DrewInWisconsin, Oik Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oik
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Somehow losing my grandparents (and later my parents) home on the lake was worse than my childhood home. But thanks to the ridiculous property taxes, my parents were forced to sell, and the house I’d hoped to retire in someday went to a guy who immediately started . . . changing it.

    • #15
  16. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    DrewInWisconsin, Oik (View Comment):

    Somehow losing my grandparents (and later my parents) home on the lake was worse than my childhood home. But thanks to the ridiculous property taxes, my parents were forced to sell, and the house I’d hoped to retire in someday went to a guy who immediately started . . . changing it.

    I think the way we lose them has a deep impact on how we feel about the loss. It was the same with my husband’s dad’s home. Just one tragedy piled so crudely on top of another.

    • #16
  17. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    Great Post Jenna.

    Living in a rural area as I do, almost all of our roads are “old”.  I left home at the age of 17 and, except for short visits, never returned until I was 65.  Every Memorial Day I (and my wife) take a drive over all the old roads (some of which are still graveled) to put flowers on the graves of my relatives.

    Each time, I drive past the house I was born in.  There have been modifications made to the structure but it’s still easy to recognize.  Just a few hundred feet up the road are the remains of the farmhouse that I spent part of my childhood in.  Finally, I drive into the village where my parents lived out their final days.

    I’ve been all over the world but this rural area has been my anchor, no matter how far away I went.  And yes, this is where I’ll finish out my life.

    I have read some of the comments that indicated bad memories and I feel bad for them.  I suppose I have been very fortunate.  

    Again, a great, thought provoking post.

    • #17
  18. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    Great Post Jenna.

    Living in a rural area as I do, almost all of our roads are “old”. I left home at the age of 17 and, except for short visits, never returned until I was 65. Every Memorial Day I (and my wife) take a drive over all the old roads (some of which are still graveled) to put flowers on the graves of my relatives.

    Each time, I drive past the house I was born in. There have been modifications made to the structure but it’s still easy to recognize. Just a few hundred feet up the road are the remains of the farmhouse that I spent part of my childhood in. Finally, I drive into the village where my parents lived out their final days.

    I’ve been all over the world but this rural area has been my anchor, no matter how far away I went. And yes, this is where I’ll finish out my life.

    I have read some of the comments that indicated bad memories and I feel bad for them. I suppose I have been very fortunate.

    Again, a great, thought provoking post.

    You bring up a good point, and one I’ve thought about since writing this. Maybe (at least for those of us with fond memories of these places) we mourn them and thin of them wistfully because they were just that: a permanence that seems to have vanished in today’s world of hysterics, ever faster news cycles, hurried and harried lives, and no retreat from it all like we used to have. They were vanguards from the world and they kept our innocence as sacred as we knew it to be. Thank you for your thoughtful comment and sharing your memory.

    • #18
  19. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    My grandmother’s old house was one of the most beautiful homes I ever lived in.  After she died my uncle sold it to build a grocery store.  Then he died and his similar home a few blocks away was sold and was also torn down.  There isn’t much left in that little town.  It was beautiful and now its a decaying dump on the banks of the Ohio river not that far from Columbus.    Lack of insight, short term greed, insufficient reverence or even understanding of the past. We lived there when my father was in China where we were all suppose to join him, but the communists won and tore it all down as well. 

    • #19
  20. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    I Walton (View Comment):

    My grandmother’s old house was one of the most beautiful homes I ever lived in. After she died my uncle sold it to build a grocery store. Then he died and his similar home a few blocks away was sold and was also torn down. There isn’t much left in that little town. It was beautiful and now its a decaying dump on the banks of the Ohio river not that far from Columbus. Lack of insight, short term greed, insufficient reverence or even understanding of the past. We lived there when my father was in China where we were all suppose to join him, but the communists won and tore it all down as well.

    I wonder how often that scene was replicated in towns across the Midwest? Terribly sad. Eventually no one is left to remember how it was and so people move on, I guess.

    • #20
  21. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    I Walton (View Comment):

    My grandmother’s old house was one of the most beautiful homes I ever lived in. After she died my uncle sold it to build a grocery store. Then he died and his similar home a few blocks away was sold and was also torn down. There isn’t much left in that little town. It was beautiful and now its a decaying dump on the banks of the Ohio river not that far from Columbus. Lack of insight, short term greed, insufficient reverence or even understanding of the past. We lived there when my father was in China where we were all suppose to join him, but the communists won and tore it all down as well.

    Was your grandmother’s house close to Pomeroy or more toward Cincinnati?  Just curious…

    • #21
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