Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Look Homeward, Angel

Thomas Wolfe stated ... "You can never go home again ..."

But this past weekend, I tried to do just that. I went home. In other words, I traveled to my hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana. I'd moved away almost 25 years ago now. Strange to think that I've spent less time in the place where I was born and raised -- the place that I still refer to as Home -- then the place where I settled.

Why then do I still find myself calling it "Home?" 

My parents moved away from Valpo (its nickname) many years ago so I had no reason to go back. My last time there was my 20th High School Class Reunion. I spent the weekend with my best friend Tiffany but didn't explore old hangouts or places. We slumber partied at her parents' house -- just like we used to do -- and her dad cooked us breakfast -- just like he used to do. But this past weekend, I traveled to Valpo to attend a Memorial Service for a long-time family friend. And in doing so, found myself in a town that I didn't know anymore.

Driving down I-94 was fun. Returning to my roots was exciting. But Valpo has changed. It's grown. There are new suburbs, new buildings, new businesses, new homes. In some cases, businesses are bigger or have new names.  And people and places which I knew are scattered and missing. It's not bad ... just ... different.

There's a bypass into the town now so I missed seeing some of the familiar sites --  like Lakewood Park where I learned to ice skate, Mink Lake where I golfed and the 49er Drive In. The town has a roundabout at Vale Park instead of a 5-way stoplight. The County Seat Mall where I shopped and hung out at Dairy Queen and Shakey's Pizza with my friends is pretty much abandoned. The Downtown area looks similar ... I like that. But Lowensteins and the Court restaurant are long gone. 

Over time Valpo and the things and people in it have changed. Of course, I've changed too. And when my brother and I pulled into a Starbucks on a street that was once a field, I acknowledged the truth of Wolfe's statement. I mean, there were NO Starbucks when I was growing up anyway. And to find one in a part of town that wasn't even a part of town when I was a kid provided a poignant reminder that life has momentum -- that you can't return to the confines of your previous way of life. It's a flashing sign saying that reliving youthful memories is alright for a time but it can never sustain you. You must keep moving forward and avoid dwelling too much on the past.

Wolfe wrote a book entitled You Can't Go Home Again after a conversation with writer Ella Winter, who had said to him: "Don't you know you can't go home again." He asked permission to use her phrase as the title of his book, a title that reinforced the conclusion of the novel when the main character realizes: 

 "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time -- back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."

Not everything in Valpo has changed. And I confess that I'm glad that the town is thriving. I enjoyed a glimpse of the new blended in with the old. One of my favorite childhood haunts -- Brown's Ice Cream -- still stands next to Von Tobels Hardware Store. It's been altered over time and when I walked in it didn't look as I expected. But once I found my way beyond the surprise, I settled in and celebrated the moment. Sitting there in that ice cream parlor was a homecoming for me. A celebration of the joys of my childhood that have led me to where I am now. And I was just glad a piece of that puzzle was still there and available to both me and other families and kids.

Oh I am sentimental. I get nostalgic for the Premiere Theatre and Perkins Restaurant. I was happy though to see Binder's Jewelers and the courthouse on the downtown square. And I smiled when I caught a glimpse of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School (sure it's a middle school now but I ignored that!), Valparaiso University and Tony's Pizzeria. 

My purpose of visiting led me to my family's church. It wasn't really My Church. See, my church was condemned and torn down in the late 80s. But, it bears the same name and holds many faces I remember from my growing up years. It was neat to talk to people I still refer to as Mr and Mrs. Plus, as a bonus, I even had a few moments to talk and catch up to an old friend ... Tammy.  And, it was neat to sit around a breakfast table with my parents and brother ... catching up like we used to at the kitchen table at 304 PowderHorn Drive. 

Despite all that is different, there are joys to be found in the change and wonderful memories to be honored.

Valpo was my first home. It's my childhood home. And the people and places there retain a special, glowing image in my mind and heart. 

Perhaps Dorothy in the musical The Wiz expresses my feelings best ... the reason Valpo will always hold a special place in my heart ... in the song Home: "When I think of home, I think of a place where there's love overflowing." And there was. Oh sure, there were growing-up challenges, but that was just part of Valpo's charm as it shaped me into the person I grew up to be ... and then sent me on my way.
                                                                                             -- Jenni