It starts with a picture.
An old-fashioned amusement park, complete with a casino, rollercoaster, and a small lake. It was called White City. And it was my backyard.
Of course, when I was young, the amusement park was gone; the lake had shrunk to a small pond, only the legend of the rollercoaster remained, and on the small rise where the Grand Casino had stood, a brick high school was built(my parents graduated from that school and by the time I came to be, the high school building mainly sat empty, only occasionally used as an extra community space, until a private Christian school took over the grounds).
But the echoes of granduer were there. The bathroom door of our house, which in one incarnation had been administrative offices for the park, retained the word "women" beneath layers and layers of paint.
From my house, it was a simple trek behind the bakery, past the lumber yard, and through a break in the chainlink fence to reach this expanse of childhood freedom. My friends and I would make forts in the bushes, catch crayfish and swim in the crick, dig in the old pole-jump pit, climb the baseball backstops, and swing from the ropes that hung from the lonely flagpole. Once, I was bet fifty cents to swim from one edge of the pond to the other. I loved to swim, so I raced across the murky water, emerging proud and smug. Then I found out that the very people who instigated my folly, had run and told my father. He was angry, but the rash I got from the dirty water had been punishment enough.
Now, the pond is dedicated to the grandfather and namesake of one of my oldest friends. It is more manicured and less wild. There are playgrounds and gravel paths. The break in the fence has been repaired and reinforced. The pond seems smaller. Never, growing up, did I think I would leave. I fought moving tooth and nail, but I did. And when I go back so much is different, but like the bathroom door, there is an echo of the past.
An echo I crave every so often.
But what if going home was more than a sentimental journey filled with the evidence of passing time?
For my boyfriend, going back to the place of his childhood is fraught with complications. And nastier memories. If part of your youth was spent beneath the specter of a civil war, would it mean the same to go back?
He has never wanted to. The memories of hunkering down in a basement while gunfire echoed outside, of children scarcely older than him brandishing automatic weapons in the road, or of fleeing the country with only a suitcase containing a single change of clothes- which, unfortunately, was mangled by the baggage carousel-left scars. (Now, he only takes a carry-on when he flies.)
But there are good memories. There is a look he gets when he sees those pictures. When he describes their family house in the mountains, his voice changes.
"On a clear day you could see all the way to Cyprus."
It's not the words, it's the tone in which they are uttered that tell me of a deep-rooted, not necessarily longing, but something close, for what was. To reconnect with that view; a desire to hold that moment again.
Many in his family have gone back, a few have returned and stayed. They don't understand his reluctance. He argues that the country he knew no longer exists. And, he's right, it has been destroyed and rebuilt. He reasons that the family no longer owns the mountain house, there is nothing there for him, it's too volatile, the airport could close...but they still pressure him to go.
And beneath all the reasoning, he fights only with himself. His arguments lack conviction; they are roadblocks he throws out to keep himself from confronting the bad memories, even at the expense of the fond ones.
In the end, it is not for buildings, ponds, or stunning views that we return to where we came from. It is more complicated than that. We all seem to have a basic, primitive connection to the land of our birth-our Fatherland, our earthly mother- a bond to the places of our youth.
It is for the people, the sounds, the smells, the light, the very air, that brings our memories to life, allows us, however briefly to feel them again.
Otherwise, a simple picture would be enough.