Saturday, October 1, 2011

Look Homeward Angel

You can’t go home again, but you can take a stroll down Memory Lane .

I was going to Maryland to have dinner with my godfather which was going to take me right past my childhood home.

Even knowing that, I didn’t plan to stop. Except that of course I did.

Turning into the community where I’d spent ages four to eighteen, I was struck by the architecture: pure mid-century modern.

Not a Colonial in sight; no porches, no columns. Clean and simple and oh-so-forward-looking  post-WW II.

Driving up the street (actually 84th Avenue) where I lived, I looked for the paths that led to the school and my friends’ houses.

And they were there, but not like they had lived in my memory since leaving during college.

I grew up in a neighborhood of small houses in a time when people had more than two kids.

When we moved into that three-bedroom house, I already had three sisters. My parents added two bedrooms in the basement and two more sisters arrived.

And yet when we lived there, the house never felt as small as it looked yesterday.

Idling outside like a stalker, I looked at it like it was a stranger’s house. Where was the willow tree, my mother’s flower beds and my favorite lilac bush?

Probably long gone, now replaced by a massive driveway that held multiple cars.

When I looked at the nearby houses, I saw that the trees and gardens I remembered were mostly gone.

Glancing across the street, I saw an older couple in front of a house. Could they be our former neighbors?

I had to know. Walking up the driveway, I heard them talking to each other in that way that my parents do.

He was telling her how to do something and she was reminding him that she already knew perfectly well what she was doing.

I said hello. I told them who I was.

Their faces lit up like their own daughter Karen had shown up (she now lives in Arlington, they told me).

Turns out they are the last holdouts in the neighborhood and the keepers of the 84th Avenue history.

They shared which neighbors had stayed, when people had left, and who had died.

Unbeknownst to me, they still exchange Christmas cards with my parents.

And their yard, unlike the others on the block, looked like I remembered, better even because everything was more mature.

Bottom line: the trees got bigger and the houses got smaller.

Still, I was glad I’d come.

Driving back down the street,  I was just as tempted by the elementary school on the next block.

I grew up in a community where everyone walked to school. In fact, with a note from your mom, you could walk home for lunch.

Different world, no question.

But as I pulled up in front of the building, not a lot looked changed.

I was pleased to see open windows on a classroom as I went to the main entrance. They don’t build schools with functional windows much anymore.

It was locked so I headed over to the windows to look for a person.

Sticking my head in, there was a teacher working away at her desk.

“Hi,” I said, startling her. “I went to this school decades ago and I wanted to come inside and see it again. May I?”

Her grin was every bit as wide as my former neighbors and she instructed me to return to the front and ring the bell to get in.

Mr. Knott, who informed me he was the Senior Custodian (having taken over from Mr. Mitchell, his idol, and the man in charge when I went there), welcomed me in.

He couldn’t believe I’d come back to see my school and insisted on taking me on a full tour.

My first surprise came when we went in the main office.

No longer was the dreaded Principal’s office in the back of it. It was now the Health Room. What?

“The new principal wanted a bigger office,” he explained with obvious disdain.

Which meant that when we went in old Health Room, I saw the Principal’s new digs.

“I threw up in here a few times,” I told Mr. Knott, suggesting he tell the new Principal that.

Thankfully, the multi-purpose room looked exactly the same, including the stage on which I had been student director for the sixth grade play.

There was a new wing which I didn’t care about but there were also  two main changes  I did note.

Now there are exit doors in each room for safety reasons. Okay, I could accept that.

And air conditioning units had been put in all the rooms, despite functional windows.

I have fond, fond memories of warm classrooms necessitating outdoor lessons when I went to that school.

With the right teacher, even a beautiful Fall day sent us outside under the trees to do our work. Open windows on a breezy or rainy day were one of the great pleasures of those classrooms.

And our music teacher Miss Farrell always insisted on open windows to “let the music out.”

Le sigh.

Kids gotta have conditioned air to learn these days, I guess.

As Mr. Knott walked me out, he insisted that I plan a return visit to my alma mater.

I can’t say I won’t, but I think I saw everything I needed to see yesterday.

And less. 


  1. Before I left Maryland for Florida I drove around to some of the old places responsible for many a fond memory. I found myself in your old neighborhood and drove past your house. The only thing I remember about it was the kitchen. Why didn't you knock on the door and ask to look around? Next time you're up there you have to stop in at the grocery store that replaced the Safeway. The fresh fruit and vegetables at insanely reasonable prices will have you salivating.

  2. You're right, I should have knocked although they'd have no reason to let a stranger in.

    As it was, both the sisters I saw in New Orleans afterwards told me I was incredibly nervy to go talk to the neighbors that day.

    I did stop in that Safeway shopping center and go to Bojangles for fried chicken and a biscuit before driving home, if that counts.