April 2008 Issue
Visiting a childhood home proves to be a bittersweet experience.
This past summer, heavy rains overwhelmed the Blanchard River and flooded large sections of Findlay, where I grew up. I now live in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and as I followed the story, it was hard to imagine such a catastrophe happening in a place where, as I remembered it, nothing much ever happened. From the Web site of the Findlay Courier I learned that the impassable streets included an intersection at the heart of my old neighborhood.
Even though our family left Findlay decades ago, I knew that I had to go back to see the damage. I felt this need because we all carry, deep in our psyches, a place that we associate with comfort and security. This is the place where our minds go when we’re trying to relax, often when we’re drifting off to sleep. Think of the specific scene that comes to mind whenever you hear the word “home,” and you’ll know where this place exists for you. For me, “home” is a bungalow on East Sandusky Street in Findlay, just past the fairgrounds. From when I was 2 until I was 13, this house was my home. After four decades and countless moves, it still is.
When I finally made it to Findlay, about a month after the water receded, the town looked in far better shape than I expected, though there were still some boarded-up businesses downtown and a few piles of debris here and there in the residential areas. When I drove out past the fairgrounds, there it stood: the house of my earliest memories and, quite often, of my dreams. Although two evergreens in the front yard were gone, I still had a place in the real world that corresponded to “home” in my inner world. I drove by slowly, relieved that I had not become a geographical orphan.
The persistent presence of this house in my imagination has often made me wonder how it would feel to go inside it again. Although I’ve visited Findlay and driven by the house many times in the 40-some years since we moved out, I’ve never found the courage to stop and knock on the door. This time, however, the flood made my memories seem more fragile, more in need of shoring up, and the old urge to see the place again was nearly overwhelming.
At least this time I wouldn’t have to knock, because two men around my age were out on the front porch. I drove around the block several times, summoning my courage. What could I say to make myself seem as sane and unthreatening as possible? For all they knew, I was a criminal wanting to case the joint, maybe even a madman. I parked down the street, hoping that during the short walk something would occur to me. But as I walked up the driveway and waved, all I could think of saying was the obvious: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I grew up in this house.”
The owner and the other man, who turned out to be his brother-in-law, looked me over, and as we talked I learned that he and his wife had moved in seven years after we left. As we established this chronology and discussed what had become of the neighboring families, I wondered whether he would let a complete stranger enter his house. What convinced him that it was all right, I think, was when I asked about the missing evergreens. After telling me that they had been victims of the power company, he broke the ice. “Do you want to come in and take a look?” I was at the door before he finished the question.
He had recently done some renovations — enlarging some windows, re-cutting an interior door and raising the ceilings upstairs — and was justifiably proud of the work. The rooms seemed smaller, of course, a reflection of how small I once was when I knew every inch of them, but everything else was the same: their relative sizes and locations, the direction and slant of the light, the grain of the refinished hardwood floors, the positions of the heating grates. The big difference was that everything looked cleaner and brighter than I remembered. For a second I thought that this might not be the actual house but a slightly smaller replica, as if I had stumbled across a private Greenfield Village with only one exhibit for a single tourist.
But this was the real thing, and the moment I went inside, the house began to fill up with friendly ghosts. In the front room I could almost see my father, who died last year at the age of 89, sitting in his recliner and reading the Toledo Blade. The old player piano that our family had left behind in the dining room was gone, but in my mind’s eye it still sat in its old place. At that instant, my older brother might have been mowing his lawn in South Carolina, but to me he was still here, practicing his lessons. My mother was here, too, even though she now lives in Columbus: As I walked into my parents’ bedroom, I imagined her making the bed and reminding me to make mine.
The kitchen, which had not yet been redone, looked exactly as I remembered it, as did the bathroom, but the basement had been radically improved: the owner had installed shelving and opened up the space by tearing out a utility room. The coal room was still there, though, and so was the bumpy concrete floor. I could almost visualize the chalk-drawn streets of the little towns I used to create there.
As I headed up to the second floor, I remembered tumbling all the way down these stairs when I was 5 or 6: suddenly my grandparents once again materialized to see if I was all right. My sister’s bedroom was on the left. She also lives in Columbus, but here she was again, sitting on her bed surrounded by stuffed animals and chatting on a Princess phone. To the right was the bedroom that my brother and I shared until I was 8 and he left for Ohio State. As I entered our old room, he popped up again, deep in concentration as he assembled an HO-scale locomotive.
My home within this home was the north side of this room, where my bed was cozily wedged beneath the slant of an eave; my desk, stacked with dinosaur books, marked the boundary between my turf and my brother’s. This was the locale of my earliest dreams until it became itself a dream, private space that I would end up revisiting for the rest of my life. The bedroom closet had been my favorite hiding place when I was sad or angry. As I peered into it now, I almost felt guilty for invading my own privacy. Before leaving I gazed out at the first window view that I remember, though the vista was very different. In the old days, cornfields, interrupted only by the Hancock Hybrids building, stretched to the flat horizon. The building was still there, but the horizon was now filled with houses.
The emotional intensity of all this took me by surprise, and it was almost a relief to go back outside. There I noticed that the neighborhood looked much nicer than in my day, less scruffy and overgrown. Several shack-like garages had been torn down, the sapling that my brother once planted was now a towering maple, and the neighboring houses were closer than I remembered. The back yards seemed too small to hold all the memories that filled them.
The owner could not have been friendlier, and I was delighted to see that our old house was in such good hands. But as I thanked him for the tour and my eyes welled up, he seemed to grow a little uncomfortable — and I think I know why.
It’s a good thing that the people who once occupied our places rarely appear to us. If all of them, living and dead, kept popping up and hanging around, we would have no room to move. To the man who now lived in this house, I was a ghost — a restless spirit that didn’t belong here anymore. And although this had been his house for many years, my unexpected appearance may have reminded him that he would someday join me and be a ghost here, too.
During the remodeling he discovered, in a wall encasing the stairway, a bundle of letters written to a young woman who had lived in the house during the 1930s. An unknown presence while our family lived there, she was a well-behaved ghost who never showed herself to us. But even though my sudden appearance may have made the current resident a little uncomfortable, he needn’t worry. The visit brought a strange sense of closure, as if a spell had been broken and “home” could now exist solely in my mind. It felt as if I had exorcized the ghost of my younger self from the place, and that I won’t need to haunt this man’s house any longer.
Jeffrey Hammond is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He is the author of Small Comforts: Essays at Middle Age, to be published soon by Kent State University Press.