The Road Taken
The Road Taken... Again
The sun moves south in late August. The shadows cast in morning and late afternoon by the descending orb throw into sharper relief the entire landscape.
Sort of like being eighty going toward eighty-one. I mean the "sharper relief" bit. I find myself irresistibly attracted to returns to old haunts and those with whom they once were shared. The returns are rarely reassuring. Things change. Trees grow taller. Buildings are demolished. Streets are renamed. Hair falls out. Bellies burgeon. Talk about sharp relief!
At an Italian restaurant in my hometown the evening of July 29th, I savored veal parmigiana while casually surveying the room and its other diners. Straight ahead sat a fellow of my vintage earnestly engaged in conversation with three people of a younger generation. After that party had left I discovered the "fellow of my vintage" was none other than my friend from the neighborhood, when he was fourteen and I was twelve, a lawyer still and he never left town. His father connected me with the Williams College alumnus who arranged an interview with the dean of admissions in mid-March of 1949 that eventuated in my entering the class of 1953... and, not so incidentally, initiating a lifelong devotion to the school in the purple valley in northwestern Massachusetts. To make up for our passing like ships in the night at Pellicci's I rendezvoused with Joe Tooher, balder and plumper than I remembered him, at Simon Pearce's in Quechee VT last Sunday.
"You can't go home again," the original Tom Wolfe tells us in the title of his book. He's right, of course; but I do try nonetheless. In the spring of 2002, searching for a home in retirement, we drove past 17 Hillside Avenue, Stamford CT where I lived until I went to college. The house was for sale, all 1,300 square feet of it, for a paltry $799,000. Well, after all, it did have a cedar-lined walk-in closet and a single car garage. I had obviously forgotten that I had been brought up in a rich man's mansion. It would have been nice to close the life circle by buying the house, but available financial resources argued otherwise.
Things change. Boy, do they ever! Perhaps the most sobering consequence of going home again has been my inability, except at high school reunions, to find anyone who can remember with me back to the 1940's and 1950's. The most frequent venue, aside from Pellicci's, where we sit beneath a signed photograph of my classmate and movie star, Michael Dante (go ahead, Google the name), is a church coffee hour. Typically I'll saunter up to a likely gray hair and ask, "Have you been a member here for many years?" Typically they smile and proudly announce, "Yes, forever, at least fifty years." How dismayed they are when I suggest that length of time is insufficient, that I was hoping for sixty or seventy.
Reminders of how easily forgettable I am are not limited to my hometown. A few Junes ago I attended worship at the Newtown United Methodist Church. I was its pastor in 1955 and saved it, barely, from extinction, simply by being there and preaching each Sunday for the princely sum of $10.00. In subsequent years the church building was moved across the street and the congregation now thrives with suburban commuters of the metropolis of Bridgeport. At the service I announced I had once been the church's pastor, fifty years earlier. The congregation's reaction was not applause, but a curious silence I suspect was disbelief... especially since no one seemed interested in engaging me at coffee hour. So... a couple of years later I bought a brick for the church's "walk of faith" inscribed, "Pastor Robert Howard - 1955."
Yeah, Tom, maybe you also can't go to church again.
Or to the Vermont country store. Our hillside meadow community celebrated its 75th anniversary this summer. Barbara, who only once or twice missed one of those summers in the green hills, arranged the party and distributed mementoes. Not that long ago, or so it seems, we joked about the Vermonter's easy assumption that if your family does not go back on the land a couple of generations then you are a "flatlander." Ben and Jerry, and a lot of others who emigrated during the Age of Aquarius, changed all that. I have yet to hear someone in town "aks" me a question, but the number of "ay-yah's" has greatly diminished. The once reliably Republican state has turned deep blue. Once dinner out meant meatloaf and mashed potatoes; now we dine at Sarducci's on shrimp and scallops scampi.
We shall return to our cabin in a couple of weeks, to oversee the restaining of the front of the house. The hired hand is a 57 year old whose son works for Price Waterhouse in D. C. and whose daughter is a medical technician in Arizona. Vermont's best export, other than maple syrup, is its people. When arranging for the paint job, Steve and I reminisced about the "old days." In several ways he complained that "it just isn't the same" in Chelsea. Frankly it doesn't look that much different, but the local bank does have an ATM and has its headquarters in New Hampshire. The country store has closed. The harness shop now serves lunch. The dairy become mozzarella factory is dormant. The church has an elevator. But the town is a cell phone dead zone. The townsfolk celebrated Old Home Day on August 25th, but we didn't participate: we were preparing for another party full of reminiscences, with classmates from college.
Time marches relentlessly forward. But there's still fun to be mined in returning to where you were and who you were with. not just to feel nostalgic but to realize how very lucky you have been, seen in sharper relief as life's sun moves toward the equator and beyond.
Some would name it the grace of God.