Walking Between the Past and the Present
On the Street Where I've Lived
Our house is two blocks from the town center, on the same street as our bank. It’s a street that underwent beautification about twenty-five years ago, with the addition of decorative street lights, trees, and sidewalks with a center strip of red honeycomb pavers. The pavers are crumbling and shoddy now, but the lamps are still cool.
Whenever I walk back home from the bank I can still picture my six-year-old son on this very same sidewalk, walking and talking with a friend just ahead of me. He’s clutching a huge box containing a pirate ship play set that he’d won in a drawing at the local toy store (which was next to the bank, I think). I know I took a snapshot of them, but haven’t seen that photo in many years. The memory is still vivid, though.
It’s an unusual situation, my living on this street again these past five years. Back then I lived six blocks from the town center, in a rather grand Greek Revival house I’d worked hard to restore. It was the house of my dreams at the time, tall and white with clean symmetrical lines, authentic six over six windows, a big back yard, and it was three blocks from the best schools for my son. It also had an upper-level studio that I could not have designed better if I had all the money in the world, with banks of floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows and soulful hardwood floors.
I didn’t live there long. The marriage fell apart, I sold my share to my ex, and moved to a beachfront community a half an hour and a planet away. I actually hugged my house goodbye. Fifteen and a half years later I moved back to the same street, but this time to a little fixed-up bungalow that was an eyesore back when I lived here before.
In the past five years I’ve taken many walks around the neighborhood and downtown. My old house is now on its second set of owners since my ex moved away. The first set of new owners, whom I knew, completely redid the interior after there was a fire. I got to see it once; the experience was difficult and fascinating at the same time, because my mind couldn’t stop visualizing what I did here, what I did there, and sitting in the window seat with my son on my lap, laughing while the dog ran around in the yard.
The second set of owners completely redid the exterior, adding a columned porch that curves out into a carport, light tan siding, and all new replacement windows. “My” house is pretty much gone. My son’s old playhouse is still there. I once caught sight of the refabricated lab light I’d installed in the kitchen, surprised that it survived so many owners and remodels. That’s about it, though.
Once upon a time I knew who lived in most of the houses on this street, but these days I know hardly anyone. Oddly, only my old house and my current house have undergone major changes–the other houses look very much the same as they did twenty years ago. Except for the one occasion when I saw the inside of my old house, I have not been inside any others. It may be a small town, but people keep to themselves, and it is difficult to escape the impression that it is better if we do, too.
When we first moved here, my memory would play tricks on me. I’d see someone familiar walking by and would swear that it was so-and-so, and then suddenly realize that it couldn’t be so-and-so because I haven’t seen her in twenty years, and that person I’m seeing is not twenty years older. For all I know it could be her daughter. Or I know so-and-so is dead. My memory wanted to recreate reality within the relatively unchanged visual and physical context.
This happened all the time for the first year or two. Everywhere I looked there were people, places, details–flashbacks all. My memories of the place hadn’t aged. On the rare occasion I actually did meet someone I once knew, it was usually awkward. My natural inclination was to greet them with enthusiasm, but I was lucky if they even remembered me at all. Their lives in this place had continued, had evolved, and there was no longer any context into which I fit. I was under the illusion that I had come back–but beneath the unchanged facades, there was no longer any back to come to.