November 15, 2014 § 5 Comments
When my brother-in-law’s father died a few years ago, I traveled with my wife from Philadelphia to the town where I spent the first 22 years of my life, Flushing, New York, to attend his wake. We arrived early, and the funeral home was still closed, so I decided to take my wife for a drive to see two houses I had lived in as a child.
I hadn’t seen the outside of those houses in 40 years, and was immediately struck by the memories that flooded me. The streets didn’t look as they did when I was young. As expected, the trees had grown much larger, but there had been other changes too. Many of the houses I recalled in those neighborhoods had completely disappeared, while others had aged almost beyond recognition. Both of the houses that I had lived in as a child appeared even uglier than I remembered. Flushing was never a lovely town, and even after all these years, the place had not failed to disappoint me.
Returning to my old neighborhood reminded me of an old Twilight Zone episode called Walking Distance, where a man travels back in time to the town where he grew up, and meets his 11 year old self. He is given the opportunity to see himself having a wonderful time, enjoying one of the many carefree summers of his youth. There, he meets his father, who reminds him that he’s already had his chance to be young. His father warns him that he cannot stay there, remaining lost in the past. Because he longs to be a carefree child again, so he asks his father why. “I guess,” his father tells him, “because we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer.”
My experience of returning to the past was eerily similar that day, except that my childhood was very different. When I was a child, I never had that kind of summer.
In my childhood, I never experienced carefree days at the park or weeks away at camp. I don’t remember playing with friends outside in the warm weather, or spending lazy days at the ballpark. I cannot remember a single pleasant summer; not with the simple, safe kind of summer days that every kid should have. It simply never happened. It’s not that it was a bad childhood; it was just not a good one.
Still, even as I recalled the overcast days of my youth, I realized something wonderful: I have been blessed with an endless number of those lovely summer days ever since leaving my hometown. I have known many warm, sunny days, and the freedom of doing what I truly wanted to do. I have known how it feels to smile and laugh, to feel safe, and to eat an ice cream cone in the sun. There have been so many wonderful friends to enjoy, so many baseball games to watch, and the kind of days that have made me feel lucky. I have come to know and appreciate the simplicity of doing nothing but look at the sunset. Summer days like these have surprised me on the coldest of February mornings, the most temperate days of April, and the hottest days of August. I have experienced them in different cities, in different countries, and with different people. My childhood summer days never came in three-month increments, but since leaving home, I’ve undoubtedly had more than my childhood share. And on that day in my old hometown, I realized that my life had somehow found its summer.
I cannot tell you why I have been so fortunate. Maybe the Universe chose to compensate me because I never got to have my carefree, youthful summer. Maybe because the world loves balance, the equation that is my life simply had to catch up. Maybe I’ve been rewarded for working so hard to change my life. Maybe it’s just been plain, dumb luck. I can only tell you that in going back home, I realized that it’s best never to think that the worst of today will be the framework of your tomorrow. It reminded me that it’s best never to give up hope.
And after revisiting my yesterdays, we attended the wake, tried to comfort my brother-in-law, and said our goodbyes. As we headed back toward the highway, I looked back, once again, at the streets I used to walk as a child. I saw new stores that I had never seen before, kids I had never met walking out of the high school, and houses that had not existed when I lived there all those years ago. The hometown of my memory did not exist anymore. New people lived there now, and they were having great summers. On the streets where I lived, children were playing stickball and having fun. It made me smile to see them living in a happy Flushing, not the city without summers that I knew in my childhood. I wished them well as I drove away.
As for me, I knew I would never come back again. I was going to places where another summer day awaited me.