Home and away
Leaving home does not always mean losing it
“He went to places of lost happiness, and increased his misery by beholding the old faces no more, and the old days vanished.” That was Edgar Lee Masters, writing in Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America about the return to Springfield of his friend and fellow poet.
Coming home has long occupied the minds of American writers, partly because so many of them had to leave where they were from to become who they were, and partly because we are a rootless people to whom the idea of home looms large. I suspect that most Europeans would reply to Thomas Wolfe, “Of course you can’t go home again,” but you really can’t in this country, because home won’t be there anymore.
The book critic James Wood – a Brit long living in our Northeast – recently wrote about his hometown, “The few occasions I have returned to Durham have been strangely disappointing. My parents no longer live there; I no longer live in the country. The city has become a dream.” I’ve moved around a bit, and I wonder if it isn’t the childhood home that was the dream, insofar as it was never real, but merely concocted out of feelings and wishes and fears that fade with time. So do memories, which are merely our dreams of the real, and memories are the magic that illuminates a place.
When I was a boy, I thought Washington Park was a magical place. It was partly an effect of the terrain, the classical grove, the setting for many a midsummer nights’ dreams for me. Also, magical things happened there, insofar as everything seems like magic the first time it happens to you. The first few times I came back to town, I made a point of going to the park, but of course it was no longer magical, no longer even the nicest park I’d ever seen (which meant “nicer than Lincoln”). It’s just a nice, and very real park.
Most of my grownup friends left Springfield years ago. Many had raised kids here, but while they knew they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives here once the kids were gone, they shrank from the prospect of leaving their family house. All these people left town in the end – and quickly realized that the house was so hard to leave only because it held memories of family and friends. The meanest house is a mansion when filled that way, and the grandest mansion small and ordinary when it isn’t.
Affection for place is affection for the people and things of that place. Those who love Springfield and stay (those who have choices about leaving, anyway) have friends, work, family here; their Springfield was and remains a lively place. I was in San Francisco not long ago, and went to a show of new works by the English painter David Hockney, much of which were large landscapes and videographs of the Yorkshire landscape of his youth. After 27 years in the U.S., Hockney had moved back in 2005, into his mother’s house. He told an interviewer, “People have asked me, ‘Isn’t it boring in Bridlington, a little isolated seaside town?’ And I say: ‘Not for us. We all think it’s very exciting, because it is in my studio and it is in my house.’”
At this point every writer on this topic is faced with the need to find a new way to say, “Home is where the heart is.” But what if your heart is not where your home is? Or worse, what if your heart is where your home no longer is? When I made my first move from Springfield in the late 1980s, I was often asked why. My usual reply was, “I didn’t leave Springfield, Springfield left me.” In fact, it didn’t just leave, it disappeared right before my eyes. House after house I’d lived in was torn down to make parking lots, downtown was decimated by business closings and demolitions. As young Thom Yorke used to sing about a very different place, it had become a town full of plans to get rid of itself. By becoming more up to date, the city didn’t just cease to be the old Springfield, it ceased to be Springfield at all, at least to me.
Much else changed, at the human and the institutional levels. Sangamon State ceased to exist, childhood friends grew up into incomprehensible adults, friends left town. One doesn’t have to leave home to experience this; most Springfieldians old enough to not get carded at the boozer know what I’m talking about. But I was most attached to the least permanent parts of the city.
When I left Springfield in the late ’80s I went to Oak Park, across the street from and a world away from Chicago’s West Side. Oak Park was what the Springfield I had loved used to be. I hadn’t left home when I moved there; I was going back home.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.