Over ten years ago, during the most difficult part of my career as a parish pastor, I took a quick summer trip back East with my two young children to visit my family. We flew in, and my parents picked us up from the airport. Toward the end of that visit, I coerced my parents into taking the 100 mile trip from their home to the town of my childhood. Though we had talked about it weeks before on the telephone (and what seemed at the time, promises were made), it took several tries before I could get at least one of them to agree to go along.
I’d love to see Fairfield again, I said. I haven’t been back since high school, over 30 years ago. As I talked, I could see from their faces that my desire struck them as odd. Though my grandparents on my mother’s side had continued to live there long after we left, and lived in their home until their deaths many, many years later, the relatively close town of my childhood held little interest for my parents. I pushed. Finally we agree to go on the Friday before our departure home. No, don’t take our car, my father decided; I’ll drive us all.
In the flurry of that morning, I explained again to my children where we were going, and why. How I had spent the first 12 years or so of my life in a quiet town on the shore of Long Island Sound. That I remember long, humid days of summer spent on the beach. How I learned to swim in those salty waters, and how I watched the yearly fireworks in the growing dark, wrapped in a heavy sweatshirt with my feet in the still-warm sand. They weren’t all that interested, of course.
How long will it take to get there? What are we going to do once we’re there? How long do we have to stay? I knew the moment my father started the car that I was surrounded by obliging parents and resigned children. With my husband back in Minnesota, I was on this return journey more or less alone.
The miles clipped by with my lead-footed father at the wheel, dodging in and out of traffic as if he had a plane to catch. Time and again I closed my eyes in prayer as I saw how closely he cut some of his lane changes. I told him a couple of times that there was no rush; he snapped back that he was trying to get ahead of the traffic. My mother looked relaxed as she sat up front watching the miles go by. I smiled at my children, who were doing their very best just to fit into their mom’s plan ; we looked out the back seat windows at the passing towns.
When we arrived in town, I did my level best to Pay Attention and Remember. We drove by the post office, the high school, the railroad underpass near downtown. We had lunch at our family’s old favorite hot dog restaurant, still grilling dogs after 40 years. I shared greasy french fries with my children who hate relish, onion and mustard. We left there to find our old neighborhood. A place of sweeping mental vistas shrank down to a portion of town with tight, old roads and tiny Cape Cod houses. As we drove down a street, I was startled to realize my father, the man who was certain of everything, didn’t remember our old address. I did. We slowed, and looked.
We got out and even found our former neighbor at home, home bound, in a wheelchair. When she saw me, she called me by my mother’s name. I was amazed at her memory. We smiled together for a few minutes, marveling at the years that had passed.
Back into the car, the kids were asking me about the beach. The beach. We headed that way, passing by one of my elementary schools, and the site of the life-altering car accident my parents and their children survived. When we drove by it, I glanced at my parents whose jaws seem set against the memory. I took a deep breath. Here it was. And here I am again.
The beach road took us to a small, pot-holed blacktop parking lot in front of a old, but well-loved town beach house. The afternoon had heated up, and we climbed out of the car ready to just relax for a while. I had come prepared with my bathing suit under my clothes, and offered my children their suits. They declined. Suit yourself, I said with a smile. My mother, who had spent those countless days hauling her three children to and from this beach for years on summer breaks seemed unfazed. I was excited, and began to walk with our small group up the steps and through the sand-polished, gritty open deck to the stairs down to the beach.
Perhaps it was the trick of memory, or the natural erosion of water upon the land, but the beach was quite narrow, and comprised of more pebbles than sand. We joined a dozen or so families of small children on the beach as I turned to look at the horizon, the view I had seen countless times before. A wide expanse of moving blue-gray water. Seagulls. A cargo ship. I walked down to the water’s edge and stepped in; it was warm. I stood still, and thanked God for the moment: touching home base.
My father stayed on a bench by the beach house with my first-born who refused to come onto the sand. My daughter and mother walked the shoreline for awhile, picking up shells and talking together as they looked at me out of the corner of their eyes. I dropped my hand into the water, and licked my fingers, tasting the old, familiar salt of the Sound. The moment was passing. I looked for the blurry brown of horizon where five miles out was another beach front on Long Island, New York. I breathed the salty, warm air. I could feel my family waiting me out behind me. I turned to take in the Connecticut shoreline, the houses, piers, boats and bathers I could see. I walked slowly out of the water, and turned once more toward the Sound. I liked what I saw. And it was time to leave.
We shuttled back to the car, ready for a couple more hours of driving back to the other side of the state. We’d be home before dinner time. As the conversation in the car turned toward other things, and what we saw and would see as we drove, I thought about what it means to go home again, to return to a favorite place in early memory. It’s not that you can’t go home again, I think. You just have to want to go and be able to see your memories, and the present, as two separate visions of the very same thing.