It’s a strange thing, returning to a place where you spent a significant portion of not only your childhood but also your adolescence, only to find its become a weird amalgam of things that were and things that weren’t. In some ways, we’re all little microcosms of that ourselves. We change, but we carry the past with us, too.
The last time I was in Joplin, Mo., was in 2009, for my last grandparent’s funeral. Technically, he was my step-grandfather, but he was the one I’d always known as Grandpa, even though he’d become estranged in the half-decade since my grandmother’s passing. It is also a strange thing saying goodbye to someone who said goodbye to you long ago. But heartbreak does terrible things to a person. I understand. I felt weirdly distant that day, like I was watching the proceedings from behind a one-way window. Old acquaintances kept asking my mother if she had grandchildren yet, which had the unintentional side effect of making me feel a little guilty for every half-joking response of, “No, just grandpuppies so far.”
So yesterday I returned, two years and a lifetime later, to a town that is half-gone, ravaged by tornadoes. Most of the day I pointed out memories rather than artifacts.
- To a patch of overgrown ground cover: “There used to be an amazing garden here, and every year my grandpa would gather up all the leaves from the trees and put them in this big hole he dug in the ground over there to make compost.”
- “I used to climb that tree,” though the branches I used to climb it are gone.
- A parking lot: “The playground used to be here, and they had this amazing fire truck monkey bars thing.”
Perhaps the strangest incident was trying to track down my grandmother’s house, the one she lived in when I was growing up. I knew it was gone, but there’s some part of my brain that still doesn’t really believe it. We drove past a set of stairs leading up to a lot, and remarked at how weird that was. It wasn’t until we reached some houses down the street and backtracked using the addresses that I realized those stairs had once belonged to the house I was searching for.
We got out and walked around, and I tried to remember where things had been. The porch with the windchimes, the sidewalk leading to the deck, the trees I’d helped my grandmother plant. The evidence that lives had been lived here.
I wasn’t sure what to feel. My boyfriend didn’t say anything, let me ramble on, pointing out little wisps of memories, or half-memories. When I stopped talking, having run out of things to say, he simply hugged me. It was the only and perfect response to the silence.
I think a lot about that old adage, “You can’t go home again.” Recently I read something about how it’s not home that changes, but us. We are the ones who leave and experience and come back with new sight. But the world is not fixed in cement either. Sometimes it changes, too, no matter how much we’d have liked it to remain as pristine and golden-lit as it is in our memories.
It’s that whole Buddhist insistence on impermanence, that true joy and peace can only be found in present moments. But again, there’s more to it than that. The past is our present in some ways, because it provides a fair portion of the building blocks that make us who we are. And when those things disappear in the physical realm, it creates a strange cognitive dissonance. To share who we are, we’re left with ineffective tools to try to rebuild the images dancing about in our minds.
So, can we go home again? Yes and no, I think. We change, and the world changes, and there’s no way of stopping it — nor should we want to. Progress, growth, ashes and rebirth — these are all dependent on change.
But we can define a home within ourselves, too. We can acknowledge and remember our past, and we can honor the past by sharing it, by telling our stories, and by living new ones. Humans are the only species that have the ability and desire to create our own narratives. It’s our burden and our gift. The key, I think, is in remembering that old chapters are not erased by new ones.