Remember me

Coming Home

June 20, 2017
When I was a kid I lived for a while in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The house I lived in was my grandfather’s childhood home, a place that was split into an upstairs and a downstairs apartment with a shared front porch. We lived in the downstairs because it was slightly bigger; a sequence of tenants lived over our heads, paying rent to my grandfather. This was in the 1980’s, and the neighborhood was mostly working class. There were a lot of ‘Beware of Dogs’ signs that meant exactly what it said. We had a bully a few houses down whose last name was 'Hood', as if the work was his destiny. I have a scar on my head from a rock he threw at me: he had a good arm for a fat kid. 
The house was close to the beach, though I’m using the word ‘beach’ loosely: we lived near a stretch of rocky foreshore that was forever littered with washed up trash and old engines rusting with the ebb of the tide. The water had a briny toxicity, and on calm days you could see a slick of oil covering it. I remember finding a dead string ray once: we were so surprised that something had actually lived in that water that we brought it home in a bucket, leaving it to rot in the alley beside to our house until the neighbors complained about the smell.
That is how the beach was when I knew it: polluted and ugly. But it has changed now. The water is cleaner, and someone cleared away the engines. There is sandy now, and while the old concrete storm wall is still there, the neighborhood has gotten nicer. The less cared for houses have been torn down or refinished. The houses along the water boast views of the Boston skyline and sell for seven figures. 
And it was a different place when my grandfather grew up there. He’d take us to the beach and tell us stories about swimming with his brothers in the channel. There was an island across the way and they’d swim out to it and play at being Tarzan, swinging out over the water on vines and then letting go. They fished in that channel. They watched big naval ships pass on their way to the Quincy shipyards.
When I come home, I usually drive out to that beach at some point. There is no real reason I do this: my grandfather sold the house decades ago, and no one in my family lives in Weymouth anymore. Sometimes I go by myself and sometimes I’ve taken other people. I remember, once, going to see it on the way to Nantasket Beach: I was with my future wife and her best friend, and a friend of mine. I pulled off to make the small detour and pointed out the house where I had lived, and then drove down to the beach. My memory is that Kelli was annoyed by the detour, but my friend reacted with a kind of reverence that surprised me: "This is Dave’s history," he said, as if my history mattered in any way. "These are his roots."
Which was the point, I realized later: I was with friends, and I wanted to show them some part of my life that they hadn’t known, some fragment of the years that they hadn’t seen. My friend intuited this, and had the grace to say aloud what I could not bring myself to say, which is that the place, anonymous as it was, mattered to me.
But why does it matter?
I think that it matters, at least in part, because I have known it past the years of my own memory. I have never gone swimming in that water, but I have imagined my grandfather and his brothers swimming out into it, crossing a channel deep enough to float a destroyer through. I walked down to that beach to see the high tide when Hurricane Gloria hit the east coast: I remember the windows of our porch X’ed with masking tape. I knew that beach from the earliest years of my memory:  it was where my brother and I inevitably went when we left the house, always hoping to find something alive in that dirty water. It is one of the places I keep coming back to, though there is nothing that calls me back to it except that it is there, still, when other things aren’t.  
*             *             *
We’ve come home.
If you have been wondering about my silence in recent months, that is the cause of it. After seven years in New Zealand, we’ve up and moved back to the US. The process has taken months of work: we had to sell our house and get rid of everything that wouldn’t fit in the suitcases that the airlines allowed us. We said goodbyes to a geography that never failed to impress us, and to the many people who welcomed and cared for us in New Zealand. We had to buy tickets and sell cars and buy cars and figure out coverage for healthcare. We had to prep our kids for thirty-six hours of plane travel, and then adjust to a different time zone. We went from winter to summer in a day. It's been a lot. 
Our return is a homecoming for me, but that puts me in the minority among my family. My wife grew up overseas, first in Bangladesh and Nepal and then in India, and though she convincingly passes as an American, her concept of ‘home’ isn’t based in geography. As for our sons, New Zealand is the only place they’ve ever lived: they are strangers in a strange land.
Everyone asks us why. We have lots of answers. We say that we miss our families; that we want to get to know the nephews and nieces and cousins that have arrived in the years we’ve been gone. We say that the ‘time seemed right’, that we felt ready for a change. We’ve talked about schooling: our older will start school in the fall, so we came back for that. We’re out of the early years of parenthood, the years of sleep deprivation and intense focus on raising babies. Our kids aren’t babies anymore: they’re kids. They sleep through the night, mostly. We’re ready to start having lives again. We miss all our old friends.
We say all those things, and all of them are true.
But I think that a part of it, at least for me, is that stuff about memory and time. In New Zealand, I could not give them a time in that place that extended past my own years. I have no ancestral home to show them. I have no ritual or tradition to offer them that connect their lives to lives that happened before mine. All my memories and stories of New Zealand are in my own time, in my own life. That was all I could give them: seven years. After a while it didn’t seem like it was enough.
*             *             *
I don’t know how many times we’ve talked about coming back. We moved to New Zealand so that I could do a PhD, and then we stuck around because we wanted to start a family, and New Zealand is a great place to have kids. But the conversation feels like it was always happening.
Some of our friends and family in the US didn’t believe we’d ever come back. My brother-in-law was a particular skeptic: when we’d hash out our arguments for-and-against returning, he’d shake his head and tell us that we weren’t ever coming back. Other friends wondered why we would come back: life in New Zealand was comfortable and happy, and America has felt, in the years of our absence, like a country approaching a kind of fracture. What would we come back for?
The truth is I don’t think I ever considered staying. In that steady cycle of conversation, the question was always phrased as a ‘when’, and never as an ‘if.’ As much as I loved living in New Zealand, I couldn’t imagine it as a permanent choice. Sometimes I would try to imagine my way into that...sometimes I would try to feel what it would be like to be fifty or sixty, with my kids having lived their lives there. And the truth is I could never imagine it without feeling some pang of sorrow to what I would be giving up.
*             *             *
I’m envious of people who have had one ‘home’ that they can return to, year after year. Envious and a little bitter about them, because it has always seemed that the people fortunate enough to have familial homes to return to are never capable of appreciating that fact. They take their homes for granted, which is, I recognize, the whole point of the endeavor. Home is the place that you can take for granted. It is a place that you can return to and know that the door will open in a predictable way.  
In the absence of a true home, I have made mine up. My homes are an ugly beach in Weymouth and a jetty of rocks on Cape Cod. My home is the balcony of a college library in Vermont, and the back yard of a coffee shop near Porter Square, and a bar with a taxidermized fox looking out over the liquor bottles in Iowa. My home, for the last seven years, was a hilly ridge path over Mount Victoria and a stretch of beach facing out to Kapiti Island. Those are the places I return to in my mind. Those are the places I am always missing.
I don’t know what notions of ‘home’ our boys will carry through their lives, though I am reasonably sure that it won’t be a permanent place. We’ve moved around a fair amount in our years together, and I imagine that trend will continue. If I had to wager, I’d bet on them having a variety of places to return to, all of them important and none of them quite sufficient to the word. And maybe they will end up calling wherever we are ‘home’, until they start trying to answer the question for themselves.
So we’re back now. I’m home, and I’m getting up on my feet. I don’t think I’ve watched a baseball game all the way through in months, but my life is finally getting to a place where that is a possibility again. I see that Chris Sale is taking the mound tonight in Kansas City…maybe I’ll watch that. Maybe I’ll write something about it. Certainly, I’ll be writing about baseball again, very soon.

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

Excellent piece, Dave. I have this fascination with places I've lived and also with ballparks where I've played. I often look them up on Google Maps. I drive by them, as you drove to Weymouth those many times. I'm trying to make my memories more vivid in my mind. That's the place where we built the tree fort. That's where the vacant lot was where we played. Wow those trees are bigger now. The 7-11 at the end of the street is now a Mexican restaurant. Isn't that something? That's the field where my American Legion team played, only it's a whole lot nicer than it was back then. They even have grass in the infield! My wife, children, and grandchildren are politely indifferent to these side trips. So I now just go when I'm alone. It's better that way.
9:39 AM Jun 23rd
Welcome home... We should bring the kids to that beach on the 4th... create some new memories....
10:36 PM Jun 22nd
Welcome home, Dave.
6:35 PM Jun 22nd
One minor comment. America is not fractured. Our elites are. Our young people who happen to be going through the dumbest part of their lives are. The great rable defined as "the rest of us", are perfectly fine. Looking forward to summer, playing outside with our children, enjoying the return of Zima, and watching the sunlight filter through the oak tree leaves as it cascades on the marble cafe table purchased at a bargain from IKEA in the backyard, while we grill the evening meal and thank God we are where we are right now, the greatest country humanity has ever created, the last best hope of earth, doing our best and sometimes succeeding in holding the mirror up to nature, the greatest artwork of all. Welcome home.
5:35 PM Jun 22nd
Great writing, Dave. You are now an ex-expatriate--or maybe I was wrong and you were never an expatriate in the first place. I hope your home-of the-past quickly becomes your home-of-the-present and -future.

I, on the other hand, after 40 years in Munich am definitely an expatriate. I've just spent 3-1/2 weeks in my old home town, Los Angeles, and I can tell you that, if I didn't have friends and family there, I'd never set foot in LA again.
11:14 AM Jun 22nd
Fireball Wenz
The SOUTH Shore? We have nothing further to say to each other.

Only kidding, Dave. Welcome back!
11:02 AM Jun 22nd
I never put a finger on it until now, and this article came at the exact right time. We moved to New Hampshire to further my baseball career back in 2009 and I left the team I'd gone to work for not long after.

As transient as I am, and as much as I can say I love to move and explore new places, I miss the concept of home. I miss being able to show my kids where I sailed in the summer, where I played baseball on long summer days, what Dodger Stadium was like when the O'Malleys owned the team, what the town I lived in was like before it was developed. Like you, Dave, the place I grew up in isn't the place I go back to. I wish it was, but that place is long gone, swept away by the tides of income and progress.

I live in a smallish town in New Hampshire now and I find myself jealous of my old friends who can point to places and say "I used to walk up the hill there and look out over Manchester before there were houses," but their history has been paved over too.

I am not really sure how to describe it any further, but like I put it to an old friend in a text a few weeks back: "I can go back to that place geographically, but I can't really go back there."

Or like Holden Caulfield said, "The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and they're pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody's be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all. You'd have an overcoat this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you'd have a new partner. Or you'd have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you'd heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you'd be different in some way—I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it."
8:59 PM Jun 21st
I find my self envious. I have lived in several places, all in the US (Indianapolis, until I left for college; Madison, WI, and Morgantown, WV, for grad school; 3 one-year jobs; 4 years back in Indy, living less than a mile from my old family home, which, in those 4 years I don't thing I even saw more than once or twice; 7 years in Normal, IL; more than 20 in & near Chicago; and I am now back, in my retirement, in Indianapolis). Yet nowhere have I ever had that sense of "being home" that you have had, Dave. It's always been "the place I'm living now." I don't ever want to move again, not so much because where I am now is "home," but simply because I don't want the hassle of moving.

You are, I think, a lucky man.
8:35 PM Jun 21st
Beautiful piece, Dave. Welcome back.
9:53 AM Jun 21st
Someone once wrote of Bill James that he uses baseball as a lens through which to examine man and the universe. Myself, I use everything I write about as a lens through which I examine myself.

So it is no surprise that I loved this partly bittersweet, mostly introspective, but also hopeful written work. Thanks.
9:32 PM Jun 20th
As an ex-pat for the last nine years, the answer to the question 'why?' is easy.

Those who understand don't need an explanation, and those who need an explanation will never understand.

Fortunately for me, I have that 'home'. A place where I haven't been in four years, but when I go back this summer, people will say, 'what have you been up to, I have seen you for a few weeks'.

Welcome home.

5:51 PM Jun 20th
Beautiful, beautiful piece, Dave.
And welcome home.
3:23 PM Jun 20th
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