Nostalgia makes my skin crawl. I’ve seen the damage it does, the exclusivity it masks, and the lies it tells. So it is strange for me to wonder now if what I carry in my heart is that pernicious thing.
Several months ago my parents sold the home in Pennsylvania where I grew up. The house itself was simple. It was one of those split-level models popular in the 1980s, with vinyl siding and fake shutters. Half of the basement was a “family room” and half a garage, a division that trades on the assumption that families receive their identity by watching TV. When I was young the house did not have an automatic garage-door opener. I remember stepping into the humid night air, bathed in the car’s headlights, and heaving the door up high enough for the springs to do their work. My parents installed a powered opener after my brother and I went off to college. Around the same time they bought a riding lawn mower and a snow blower. Before mechanization my brother and I mowed the sloping, root-infested lawn with a push mower. We worked together with grain shovels to clear drifts from the driveway after snowstorms.
The house stood on a far corner of what was once my grandfather’s farm. The story I’ve been told is that before my father left home he sold his car and bought a few hilly acres from his father. For years the property was home to rabbits and woodchucks. But when my parents decided it was time to move back east, owning that little plot made the decision of where to settle easy.
My father had worked as a carpenter when he wasn’t teaching school, so he only hired a contractor to put up the building’s shell. He, my mother, and some friends would do the rest. I remember climbing the vines that clung to a wild cherry tree on the property to watch the masons lay the block for the basement. I was impressed by their precision. Several days later my grandparents’ doctor had to write me a prescription and give me a quick lesson on poison ivy. Later that summer the same man treated my younger brother’s broken arm after he failed to complete an impossible jump I must have encouraged him to try. The same man would care for my grandparents when they died more than a decade later.
My parents had a wood-burning stove installed in the house. The electric baseboards were only for “backup.” This meant that my brother and I grew up like pioneer children, splitting wood and carrying it to the house. My parents did not have air-conditioning. They got a unit after my brother and I moved out. We grew up spending summer nights beside wide-open windows.
When the horses weren’t running I heard the monastic hum of crickets and cicadas and the high-pitched bark of foxes.
The sound of an oscillating fan was the only thing to muffle the hoof beats of the neighbor’s horses. The thump and thud of their galloping was so loud I often woke up sure that they were grazing on our lawn or playing tag behind our basketball hoop. When the horses weren’t running I heard the monastic hum of crickets and cicadas and the high-pitched bark of foxes. A strange and periodic scream cut the humid air from the planted pines at the far side of the open field. When the bars closed the rumble of motorcycles would echo through our valley and the next. Nights were never silent.
Above the hill from the house, near the road, was enough space for a large garden. Each fall the house’s canning shelves were full of beans, peaches, applesauce, and pulverized tomatoes. The freezer had quart containers of frozen corn and peas. My brother and I made baseball-card money selling vegetables we grew. He, the cute younger brother, manned the roadside cashbox. I did most of the fieldwork, with enough parental assistance to convince me to split the profits evenly with him.
A three-sided shed on the lower corner of the property always had at least one resident farm animal. The horse (my idea) only stayed a few months until I realized that owning a horse was not as fun as books made it seem. The sheep, chickens, turkeys and goats lasted longer. Some died of natural causes and their bodies were buried wherever I could dig without having to chop through too many roots. The chickens and turkeys we ate—when the foxes didn’t get them first. As a boy I would sit on baled hay inside the doorway of the shed and watch the rain. If there is anything in the world more calming than the divine concursus of rain drumming on a steel roof, the rustle of feeding animals and the smell of hay, I have no idea what it might be. I can hardly imagine why anyone would need anything more powerful.
The greatest charm of any house, unless you happen to live in a leftover castle, is the setting. That was certainly true of the place where I grew up. As a boy, whenever I wanted, I could roam over 100 acres without seeing a “NO TRESPASSING” sign or crossing a road. If I chose to believe the signs were intended for someone else, I had access to twice as much territory. It was all a mix of fields and woods bisected by a gigantic power line.
The year my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I regularly sat with my back to the smooth bark of a beech, arrow nocked, watching the sun melt mist and frost.
In a gully not far from what had been my grandparents’ barn, I occasionally dug through layers of leaves and dirt to find the old cans and broken farm tools dumped decades earlier. I stalked the fallow field under a massive oak looking for deer. Initially I was armed only with my imagination, but eventually I carried a compound bow and steel broadheads. The year my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I regularly sat with my back to the smooth bark of a beech, arrow nocked, watching the sun melt mist and frost. I drew the bow back once that fall, but with the underbrush I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t gutshoot the doe.
I left home, in the vague, yo-yo style of modern kids, just after I turned 18. School, volunteering, more school, wilderness guiding, more school—Trinidad, Montana, Minnesota, Virginia, Alberta, Ontario, Israel, Palestine, New York. Sometimes I would return home only in my imagination, remembering what the horizon looked like as my brother and I sat on the trunks of our cars on a dark Saturday night. One night, sleepless and stifling in a tent in Montana, I realized that the reason I always fell asleep on Sunday afternoons while watching football must have been the lack of fresh air in a room with a woodstove. I thought about home more often than I would have ever admitted. Periodically I would return to drink in the familiar sounds and the view my eyes could trace without effort.
And then, as if only requiring a change of scene and costume, I was bringing my own family to the home place. That was when I started to realize it was much smaller than I had remembered and certainly more fragile. The neighbors had, as the Bible says, pulled down their barns and built greater, and in those barns bestowed their fruits and their goods. Several miles away a motel was torn down and replaced by a large senior’s residence complete with both a pharmacy and indoor gun range. What had seemed like forests in my childhood, relics of the native landscape, were now revealed to be little woodlots pinched between agribusiness investments. The house my parents built had a cabin-like quality I had never noticed before. May parents asked if I wanted to buy it. It was impossible. I was a college professor nearer to the west coast than the east. However, I grew concerned that they might not be able to keep the place up.
My father tells me wistfully that he has moved from a place where he had roots to “just a place.”
Now, some years later, it is gone: sold to a young Amish couple who will, not doubt, appreciate the space and the stacked firewood my father left behind. My father tells me wistfully that he has moved from a place where he had roots to “just a place.” He says that even though the elementary school near the little place they purchased bears the name of one of our ancestors, an immigrant who arrived well before the writing of the Declaration of Independence. But I understand. My brother has moved to a city on the other side of the state and I to a city on the other side of a national border. We have left the family property. The horses are still there, the cicadas, the crickets and the foxes too, but their sounds now echo off new houses and inhabit other people’s nights. It saddens me.
Are memories like these the seeds of a fixation with the way things were or the way things could have been? I like to think not. I like to think, when love is coupled with sadness, that memory is immune to nostalgia’s deception. But this is naive. The problem for me, and I think for others, is that the sense of loss remains. And in the grip of that sense the choice between gratitude and bitterness is not as easy as it appears.