My office desk for 20 years
Is it true that you cannot go back home again and find the reality you remembered or created in your mind as a child or as a young adult? Would you be disappointed? I have embarked twice on such a journey, most recently on Easter Sunday 2014. I wanted to find the town and life I left behind six years ago in Columbus.
As I drove through the streets, it seemed like time stood still. A few stores were shuttered or demolished and new restaurants built. Some very wealthy local families who owned prime commercial real estate have controlled the building on the main thoroughfare, hwy. 45, for such a long time, I did not think many national chains would ever be able to come to an area where prime commercial land is not sold but leased, and those leasing must build on land that is not theirs.
The roads appeared more decrepit, pot holes rattled my rental car; the bad economy of the last seven years had caught up with the tax base from the federal and state government that maintained the city. My old street was empty, with a couple of “For sale” signs, cheered by a balmy sunny day and chirping birds. Our old house, although inhabited, was overwhelmed by weeds and kudzu. Long gone were my beautiful flowers, my rose bushes, azaleas, and well-manicured lawn. Renters never take good care of someone else’s property. I can still hear the laughter of my girls running up and down the stairs, playing outside, building their first and only snowman, and riding bikes up and down the steep incline.
Located not far from our house, the university campus was deserted, save for the gate guard who waved me on through with a smile. The trees that escaped the frequent tornadoes were in full bloom, shading the ground with luscious and vibrant green leaves. For twenty years I made the five minute drive from home to this bastion of academic liberalism. It was a job that kept my family fed and sheltered. After a while, the feelings of alienation and loneliness subsided, replaced by my life-long curiosity and love of discovery which I imparted to my eager-to-learn students.
As a conservative who loathed liberalism, my students made life at work a lot more bearable. I never adjusted to the asinine weekly and very wasteful meetings during which times, the favorite liberals of the administration heard themselves talk nonsense for an average of one hour every week. I tried to make mental notes of the meetings that could have been dispatched with a one-paragraph email. Then I made lesson plans or graded papers.
It was hard to take these people seriously who forced the faculty and students to listen to an imam extol the virtues of Islam and of their respect for women. It was hard to ignore some of the faculty who had serious drinking problems, serious psychological episodes, or disturbing psychotic outbursts. The darling of academia was the teacher who pretended to be sick, walking around with a cancer chemo pump for weeks at a time in order to gain sympathy from the rest of her liberal cohorts.
I walked around the campus and stopped at the water fountain where my husband proposed on a romantic evening. The soothing water waves sparkled like a huge aquamarine. A few cool droplets sprayed my face. I sat on the fountain’s edge for a while, taking in the greenery and the gazebo where I sat reading often between classes. Although dignified, it looked like it needed a fresh coat of paint.
Perhaps it was the intense sun but tears filled my eyes retracing memories of years past. This university that stood for little that I believed in was my home away from home, taking me away from my children, while I mentored someone else’s liberal children. The resentment still aches in a corner of my heart.
Chef Fidel’s fragrant garden is gone, replaced by carefully arranged, color-coded flowers. I left with a feeling of relief, giving the huge magnolia on the corner one last look. It’s the oldest tree on campus that survived the test of time and hurricanes. My footsteps still echo in its generous shade where I often graded papers and day dreamed after my walks with Maribel.
Driving down the street, I spied my daughter’s old college days apartment building. Bogart walked a few times on the window ledges, escaping her apartment and meowing to get attention and gain access into someone else’s apartment through the closed windows.
On the corner of Main Street, a restaurant was filled to capacity and laughter was spilling out the door. Church goers in their colorful Sunday Easter best were lunching on Southern fare while a local Jazz musician was entertaining them with his saxophone.
I remembered this building from the early 1980s when it was the most elegant dress shop in town called Ruth’s Department Store. The three stories catered to the most sophisticated ladies in town and the basement dressed their babies. From furs, to shoes, to hats, fine jewelry, purses, wedding dresses, and ballroom gowns, southern ladies were well catered to and elegantly attired. A preacher’s wife, a Ruth’s frequent customer, bought a new and flamboyant hat each week of the year. While shopping, ladies sipped on sodas or champagne.
Mimi still remembers the horror of riding up alone in the elevator to the third floor, frightened by the army of mannequins when the doors opened. She never forgot the moment when the doors closed too fast and I had to let go of her hand or else our arms would have gotten crushed in the old style lift. It was so long ago but it seems like yesterday.
The streets are so empty that you can hear the buzzing of bees. The welcoming silence is broken occasionally by a passing car. I am far, far away from northern Virginia, an area suffocated by overcrowded humanity.
It’s Good for the Soul to Go Back Home Again
My office desk for 20 years
I am all too familiar with the scenes that you describe. Tom Wolf was right in his admonition, you can never go home. I was raised in a Chesapeake Bay community and came of age in a time of great promise for the future. While I still have a home there that I visit often, the character of the place has changed so dramatically that it barely resembles that delightfully busy and prosperous community that I once knew. The once bountiful Chesapeake Bay fishery is no more. The people who followed that trade, like the fishery itself is long gone as are the many beautiful and well maintained vessels that plied that trade.
I especially miss the Crabbers who plied their fishery amongst the many creeks and harbors of this part of the bay. I could set my clock by their departure and arrival in the creek not far from the home of my parents.
As a youngster growing up on the Chesapeake Bay I aspired to another calling. I was fascinated by the ships that passed our locality heading up the bay to the ports of Baltimore. Those majestic ships and their many flags of foreign nations caught the eye and imagination of a young boy. As I grew into manhood and graduated from the local high school, I promptly enlisted into the Navy. As it turned out this became a love affair for well over 20 years. While I returned home many times during that career and witnessed the slow but inexorable changes occurring in my home community, I was always comforted by the consistent character of the people. When I finally retired from the Navy and approaching middle age, I could not return home but went to sea again in the Merchant Marine, and yes, on more than one occasion passed just off of the Bay Community where I was raised, passing Wolf Trap Light heading up the bay to Baltimore. Each time I passed that small community my heart ached to be home with friends and family. How I would gaze through a pair of 7×50 binoculars looking for some signs of home.
Well that time too, has passed. Now in the waning years of my life I reflect on the changes that I have witnessed and experienced. Gone is the lightship at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, replaced by a tower and that too now in disuse having become near irrelevant in use as an aide to navigation. Like so many other light houses all have been consigned to the fate of the lightships, outmoded and irrelevant.
While I still keep my home on a shallow cove just off Winter Harbor and a short run to the Chesapeake Bay, the place no longer has the character or the people that I loved so well. The harbors and creeks no longer are home to the craft native to the area, but have been replaced by an odd collection of watercraft intended for amusement and recreation. Rarely do I see a crabber out in the harbor, as they too are becoming a dying breed.
Much has changed, so much so that I often think of finding a new place and a fresh start, yes, even at 72 years such thoughts occur. While I spend most of my time in Norfolk with my wife of 30 plus years, and keep a boat in Little Creek, not far from our home in Norfolk. I still visit my home in Mathews County and often spend a night or two there, never without reminiscing and missing all of those who have gone on before me. The last family member of my youth recently passed away at 94 years of age. With her passing not a one of the family of my youth remain. My family have all gone on, such is a certainty if one lives long enough.
Yes, I understand perfectly your melancholy of the rite of passage. One can never go home. Thank you for expressing your sentiment so well.
Amazing how so many years of dedication, sacrifice and loneliness can fit on one page. You are a good egg or as one generation would say “a goody two shoes.” However, without you life would be less bearable for so many.
Thank you, Andy, for sharing your story.
Thank you, Janice, for your kind comment.