There are places we all go to that seem to defy nostalgia. As much as we want to remember them fondly, it seems like the rose-tinted glasses just keep falling off when we really look back. We remember the good things, we miss them, but there’s just too many memories that make us sad or angry wrapped up in the place that keep us from ever really feeling a part of there again.
I spent the past week in such a place- my hometown on the South Jersey Shore.
The first morning I woke up in my family’s house- the house I lived in from ages 4 to almost 24- I looked out of the window and just tried to process it before breakfast.
I quickly realized this was a mistake, and that I needed to eat first.
Down in the kitchen, as I was whipping up the simple breakfast of scrambled eggs, cheese, sausage, and tea, I got back to thinking.
I don’t believe I ever truly belonged in this community. School days around here were not the happiest- I had few to no friends, I was picked on regularly, and our neighborhood had no kids my age anyway. We lived close to a beach block, so most of the houses around us were vacation homes, standing like hollow shells for most of the year.
The town is small enough that you could bike or walk virtually anywhere in about 30 minutes, but I don’t really remember it having the “small town” vibe, where everyone knows everyone else. Part of that might be the aforementioned vacation homes (half the city’s residence not being present most of the year), and partly the demographic- if you were to imagine a gated community without fences or gates, and the size of a city, that would be a pretty good idea of the people.
That night, when I came home to the big, empty house after work, I had an urge to go for a beer and write. I asked local friends where a good walking distance bar was (alas, another sad fact- this is my hometown, but I didn’t start drinking here, so I had no “local.”) Many of them suggested places a ways outside the city, insisting there were no really decent bars in the town itself.
All the same, I needed a walk, followed by beer, followed by a quietish place to write. So I picked a bar at random and walked to it.
Here I got my first slight hint that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something homey left for me in my hometown.
I walked into the small bar by the bay, clearly full of a history I had no part in, and much of which is likely no longer talked about. I sat down, ordered a beer, and was just about to start writing when I heard my name called out and a hand on my shoulder. They belonged to Peggy, an old friend of mine from grade school whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 5 years. This bar was apparently her favorite hangout when she was home. The evening lasted several hours longer than I had expected as we chatted, caught up, and had a good time. I won’t say the years seemed to melt away- we are both very different people than we were when we were kids, but it was good to know that the two people we had become could enjoy each other’s friendship and company.
The next day, I remembered something else I had missed about living in this town- the presence of the beach. Before work one morning, I woke up early, ate breakfast, and took a long walk- first along the street, but for the way back, I pulled off my socks and shoes and walked home along the beach.
God, I had missed the feel of sand and saltwater on my skin. The sea was frigid cold (as it IS still early April), but the sand was cold, wet, and firm. I didn’t mind that I knew no faces on the walk, or that few people even acknowledged each other, or said “good morning.” For that morning, the sea, sand, and the smell of the beach was all I required.
In an hour or so, I’ll have my car loaded and I’ll be returning back to my current home in the Pine Barrens- where I’ve made new friends, have a “spot” at the local bar I love where I sit and write, and where people are increasingly learning my name and face.
For one week, though, I was here- the home before I was home. Where all the formative years happened that I’ve bounced between trying to forget, and trying to cling to.
There are many places and stages in our lives that we enjoy that strange, complicated dance with. You know what? That’s alright. No one needs to have “glory days”, or fond remembrances of their “old stomping grounds.” They weren’t always good, but they are roots, and like it or not, we left footprints there- no matter how many layers of dust sit in them.
Perhaps you can go home again, but bear in mind places change too.