You can try to avoid leaving home, but it doesn’t matter. Eventually, home will leave you.
I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago on Bill’s sixty-second birthday. I had what I thought of as a fun day planned: A Japanese anime movie (he’s a fan) followed by a meal in a nice French restaurant and perhaps a one-man show by a comedian friend of his performed in, of all places, a nearby Zen monastery.
But Bill had a different idea. He wanted to visit his brother near Middletown, the city where they grew up, about 90 minutes south and west of Woodstock. Was that OK? he asked.
“It’s your birthday,” I told him.
Middletown, in Orange County, “Downstate” New York, was a homey little city to be a child in, by Bill’s description. Especially Hanford Street, where Bill’s relations all had lived in various houses up and down the block. Bill’s grandmother, who’d arrived from Ireland raised her eight children on Hanford Street. Two of them, Bill’s mother and his uncle Charlie, spent their lives there and raised their own children there. Bill’s paternal grandmother, “Nana” also settled there.
Down a generation, Bill’s brother Tom started his family in a house across the street from Bill’s widowed mother who spent almost her entire life on Hanford street and lived there till the very last months of her life. She had cared for an elderly man across the street who had no children; unexpectedly when he died he left her his house. Caring for neighbors was the sort of thing that family did.
For me, it’s beyond imagining–growing up surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, three or four generations in the same town, on the same street. None of my family members has lived his or her entire life in one country, let alone one city. Not even me. What would that be like, I wonder, to have someone nearby nearly always who knew you, cared about you, and would report your transgressions. Comforting? Stifling? Both?
Home isn’t home anymore.
But time has caught up. We’d seen the slow transition of the city, even when much of his family was still there, and it’s accelerated since. It’s rougher, more down-at-heels, more dominated by low-end chain stores and restaurants along what used to be called the “Miracle Mile.” Bill’s old neighborhood is a sad sight, with his ex-family houses in various states of disrepair. Because by now, none of Bill’s family members is left on Hanford Street or even in Middletown. Two of his siblings moved to California. His brother Tom moved away too, but stayed nearby, in the small town of Otisville. Everyone else has dispersed or died.
On a drive down the old street, Bill sighed and shook his head over the trees and picket fences that had been removed, the state of his grandfather’s old porch. When we were done, we took a ride into the grounds of Middletown Psychiatric Hospital, the graceful, 19th-century assembly of buildings surrounded by park. Many family members, including both Bill and his grandfather, had held jobs there.
“What are those Xes?” he asked. Building after building had a red square posted on its doors, with a white X across it. I looked closer. “Abandoned building, no sprinkler system” I read.
“Wow,” said Bill, as we drove up and down the winding roads through the campus looking at boarded up and broken windows, piled up leaves, empty parking lots. This one was where the most extremely mentally ill had been housed, he remembered. That one was where, newly divorced, he’d shared a dormitory with a bunch of student nurses.
At the bottom of a hill we came upon a large herd of deer. One group was calmly grazing, another simply sitting on the lawn, enjoying the late afternoon sun. They didn’t seem especially troubled by our car, or by the fact that they were actually living inside a city.
The last time?
On the way to his brother’s we passed by the old country cemetary where both Bill’s parents are buried. In honor of my Jewish roots, we set pebbles on their headstone. Bill’s brother and sister-in-law fed us pork chops and birthday cake and the two brothers traded news of all their family members. It was midnight before we got home.
We are moving in a few months, so things are beginning to take on a will-this-be-the-last-time-we-do-this? character. Would this be Bill’s last visit to Middletown?
“I’m fine with that,” he said. He could try to go home, but it wasn’t there anymore.
One more reason not to regret leaving, one less tie holding either of us here. We can try to stay where we are, we can hope everything remains the same. But likely as not, one day we’ll return to find our old workplaces abandoned, neglected, and overrun by deer.