A Eulogy of Home: On Nostalgia and Memory

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. 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.

[The full article is available at the Collegeville Institute’s web publication Bearings Online]



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