Both literary giants — Thomas Wolfe and Thornton Wilder — reached the same conclusion about the same time during the Great Depression. You can’t go home again! Not really. Not safely.
In “Look Homeward Angel” Wolfe captured for all time how the reality of Then is unachievable ever again. In “Our Town,” Wilder’s Emily tries from her grave in the third act, only to taste the bitter ashes re-captured time can mean. Seems the sentimentalists and memorialists among us should take heed.
But I didn’t.
More correctly, I couldn’t as I drove through my old neighborhood on the far west side of Chicago. Where searching for your best memories is a hunt that can only take place with your heart, not your eyes. The sights you lived are long gone. The canopy of elms caressing quiet side streets…the cozy red brick bungalows and white frame houses…the within-a-walk mom & pop stores…the churches, the schools, the movie houses, the big parks and little prairies…the lilac and peony bushes at every corner…the aproned mothers putting out laundry in their back yards…the milkman and iceman easing down the alleys in his horse drawn wagon…the unlocked front doors and over-the-fence gossiping …and yes the morning and afternoon newspaper and mail deliveries from folks you knew by name.
And yet as I parked for a silent while in front of my old home, I thought I could still hear the clink of teacups Grandma would fill along with her blueberry muffins whenever she visited. I could still smell the zing of Mom’s pasta dishes waiting for Dad every night at 6 when he came home from his office. I could — I’m sure of it! — feel the cushion of love and protection that swaddled my younger brother and me during the bite of the Depression and later the wounds of the War.
Home here was safety. Security. A gentle castle-fortress against the slings and arrows of a cruel time in America to which I would flee to in a moment. Wolfe’s hero couldn’t. Wilder’s heroine failed. But as I sat there in the 2012 gray reality of aging homes and locked doors, somehow I could experience everything in the sepia tones of my youth. When inside this shuttered home there was still a fantasy of fun…laughter…homework…bills…and lives that time has tried its best to fade out.
But has failed magnificently.
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