(Continued) August 18th, 1980: “I can’t wait to be gone. Gone from this place; gone from this town where everyone knows everything about everyone. In this place nothing ever changes; people only die.”
I read the words of that teenage girl now from the distance of many years, and I can’t help but shudder. How could I have so thoughtlessly wished my life, and all that would ever hold any real meaning in it, away like that?
Teenagers are a funny species; they crave change while hating change. At the time I wrote those words change was happening to everyone but me. Old friendships were abandoned for new ones; friends moved away because their parents sold their houses to cash in on the real estate boom; being offered $150,000 for a triple lot seemed a once in a lifetime opportunity. As ties began to unbind, I was beginning to feel lost at home. Finally, I was the only one still here. Leaving is always easy when you’re the last one to go.
Eventually, I took a job in Manhattan and lost myself to the gritty intensity of midtown in the days before Mickey Mouse evicted O. Henry from Times Square. The city streets were filled with unfamiliar faces and people who knew nothing about me. Everyone came from somewhere else. And for awhile, that was intoxicating.
Then something remarkable happened. I realized that in my quest to flee everything familiar, I had surrendered all that was really meaningful. Suddenly I began to look upon my past with increasing fondness. The memories I had of growing up in that little part of town creviced themselves into a significant place in my history and became the stories I would tell. It seems so important now—all the people and places that populated my small world back then. Sixth Street Park; Jim’s; Stanley’s candy in the back of the laundromat; Monsignor Reilly; Holy Trinity; the Palisades…all of it wished away by a young girl whose firm opinion of time was that it moved too slow.
Had I known in the summer of 1980 that my father would die in six years, I would have never left his side. Had I known that so many of the friends with whom I spent every waking moment with in the summer of 1980 would lose their lives to drugs, car accidents, cancer, murder…I would have never let the distance of time and place consign our friendships to the yearly distribution of Christmas greeting cards.
There is a tremendous power in the past; meaning that we can only discover about ourselves through the passage of time and the loss of those we love, or once loved, most. It’s only when so much has been taken away that we realize how much we really had to begin with.
I’ve returned to roam the streets I knew so well in an attempt to stir the trace remains of memory; not for the big events, but for those small subtle moments that now seem anything but ordinary. What I find instead are monstrous duplexes on tree-less streets where small shingled houses once stood; stillness where children once ran boisterously through fenceless backyards every hot summer evening while the music of ice cubes mingling in our parents gin and tonics chimed in the background; office buildings where hand-made forts and tree houses were once built.
Looking back to those days, those sacred days, as I so often do now, I confess that I carry within me homesickness for those days, that place, all those people, and I remember events that may not, in fact, have happened as eloquently as I now remember them. I realize with great regret that I spent the first half of my life counting down the days until I could shed my little corner of the earth from my skin only to spend the rest of my life trying to find my way back home again.
I'd like to think that somewhere in the distance between memory and truth those days were really as special as I remember. That in the midst of memory all those people who came of age in that place called Coytesville, are still living and breathing somewhere in time.