The old saying, ‘you can’t go home again’ has some truth to it, as we know. However we choose to define home, the place where we ‘grew up’ – whether physically or metaphorically – we all know that we can’t go back and expect things to be the same, just as they were. Our mind plays tricks on us ; we often remember things as larger than they really were, selectively omit certain details and attach specific feelings to smells and sights. But, perhaps, we can go home if we understand that we will find a new version, with new layers that add to our memory and the richness of all that we have received from that zip code specifically imprinted upon us.
I grew up in a small town and even as a kid, knew that I would need to stretch my wings in a locale not edged with orchards and one little main street. I’m convinced that came from my parents, who had lived and experienced so much of the world before settling in what became our home town. Dad had left home at the age of 13, putting himself through school, jobs; ultimately serving as an Army Colonel in the South Pacific during WWII. The cabinets in our family home contain boxes upon boxes of his military photos, many of which capture him in uniform, touring Sydney, AU and out in the bush of aboriginal New Guinea seated with the natives – and their lack of attire. Post-war, he became a self-made man as the only optometrist in our small town.
Having grown up in Seattle and then San Francisco, Mom was a city girl. And though barely 5 feet tall, she could finagle the worst traffic in San Francisco with the grace of a ballerina and the mouth of a locker-room jock. She could bully her way into just about any parking spot she had her eye on and then stroll into I. Magnin with no one the wiser; she had exquisite taste in shopping and a culinary gift that clearly has not carried on with me. And a heart softer and kinder than I can explain in words.
McDonald Manhattan: 2 parts bourbon, 1 part sweet vermouth, splash of bitters. On the rocks.
In our home, dinners were often a formal affair, with the table set beautifully with all elements of the proper stemware, silverware and dinnerware. Our mother took great pride in presenting a meal that not only earned her the chops as wonderful chef, but her presentation was always perfect. In her mind, it had to look as tantalizing as it would taste. She would undoubtedly agonize over the details, often wearing herself out and then serving herself last; a true hostess. Ours was a home where napkins were placed on our laps, cocktails were often served during the 5 – o – clock hour, with hors d’ oeuvres in actual serving dishes, in the formal living room. Ours was a home with a set of every day dishes, a set of ‘nice dishes’, and a set of china. Ours was a home where people were always welcome, but by golly the house better be clean, all the way down to the baseboards.
We said goodbye to mom nearly 16 years ago, and my father, now 92, still lives in our family home along with my brother, who is beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the most patient men I have ever known. He cares for our dad, with the assistance of a part-time care provider, Gloria. Last week was John’s birthday and my son and I hit the road and made the three-hour trek south for the celebration. The childhood teasing he subjected me to does not merit my mercy, but I will conveniently omit his age [you are welcome John]. But, let it be known that he is my OLDER brother!
Arriving at my childhood home, and walking into the kitchen, I could not help but notice that the table – the very same dining room table – was set impeccably. The decor, though decidedly a departure from what my mother would choose, was so well thought out, down to the last detail, and so perfectly created with my brother in mind. Gloria – the mastermind behind this party – had brought items from her home to create a setting fit for the celebration. For family celebrations, my mother would prepare a leg of lamb that as a 12 yr old I knew was special; and Cornish game hens that still make my mouth water when I remember them; and countless other dishes made to perfection. To the same height, Gloria prepared a feast true to her family; two recipes of fantastically homemade enchiladas, beans, rice, salad and more. “Juan” made the salsa and guacamole. On tap were beer, wine, tequila and drinks for the kids.
My nephew, now 21 and soon to graduate from college, played soccer with my 9 yr old in the backyard, the way that I used to entertain my nephew when he was the only little kid in the room. Friends from our childhood joined us for the evening and stories ranged from reminiscing of the old days, to forging new ground with sharing about the loss of our parents, and a spouse far too early in life, family dramas and old secrets, our parents’ marriages and world travels. We exchanged these stories with a fluency only spoken by those who have come up through the same ranks, inexplicably knowing we belong to each other, because our parents had forged the the bonds for us an entire generation ago. Photos were posted to Facebook and viewed on our phones while sitting 3 feet away from each other, in a living room where as kids we played and hung out, and would never fathom the advent of social networking or smart phones. Shots of tequila were consumed, and with my mother’s every day dishes put aside, we continued to drink and play Mexican Bingo. I quickly became unpopular as I called out “el lotteria’ over and over again. The cards were somehow stacked in my favor; which meant, that everyone else had to drink. While others could walk home, or were home, I had an early drive back the next morning. I needed those wins!
I sat and marveled at this new version of home, my home. My brother’s home. My mother’s dishes serving a beautiful meal that was never part of her repertoire, raucous laughter and banter from an unlikely group that spanned the ages from 9 to 92 and everything in between. Our childhood friends, and folks I had never met, but hope I see again, all sharing the same dining room table where I had sat as a child. English, Spanish, and probably some Spanglish mixed in. At one point, I looked over and my dad was mixing a martini; 10 minutes later in the same spot, my brother was attempting to learn to dance the Salsa, in spite of a knee refusing to let him forget his age, in the same kitchen where so many of our memories are safely held. And before I know it, my father has produced his trusty harmonica and proves that though his mind is a bit fuzzy most days, his lungs work just fine.
Report from the home front as I write is that the party may have been too much for our Dad; yesterday he had a martini at 3:30 and a bowl of cereal at 5:30. Who needs rules when you are 92!?
It seems plausible to say that it’s true, you can’t really go home again. Everything changes. We change. Physically and otherwise. The streets change, the landscape changes. It will never be the same as it was, and it really shouldn’t be.
But, after this last visit, I find myself realizing that maybe we can go home, if we can accept that things have changed, that we are different, and when we understand that what we remember will always be with us, a part of who we are. Perhaps the key is letting ourselves allow our memories to welcome new ones – new stories, new people, new recipes – in layers, like the perfect birthday cake?
Happy Birthday John…you are Juan in a Million!
So that, combined, with each layer resting upon the next, as if held together by the most perfect frosting – all the delicious life we savor during the years; the joys, losses, comforts, people, perspectives – is the “home” that we can return to whenever we need to.