Going Home: Retracing My Steps

Thomas Wolfe famously said: “You can’t go home again.”

The house I grew up in.

The house I grew up in.

And yet, I have a recurring daydream where not only do I go home again, but I stay for a few months. Three months, to be exact.

I don’t know why, but three months seems like the perfect amount of time. I plucked it from the air, without much thought, when this particular reverie started.

Something just feels right about it. And in my daydream I set out on a quest to revisit several of my past homes.

In other words, I retrace my steps.

As you read this you might be wondering, “Why? What’s she looking for?” I’ve certainly asked myself those questions.

Is it about unfinished business? Getting closure? And what meaning could I possibly make from this?

I don’t have firm answers to these questions, but something has revealed itself to me about what would happen if I put my musings into action.

It would make a good story.

There’s a universality about it. I know this because when I talk about it in workshops, people perk up. They sit up straighter. Join the conversation. And they do so no matter if their memories of home are agreeable or unpleasant.

And if people are in a time of transition in their lives, then the idea of going home is particularly poignant.

So, if I was queen of the world I would give everyone who wanted to the chance to go back for at least one night to the place that most fully represents their original home.

I actually did this. Well, okay, I didn’t go for three months. I didn’t even get to spend the night.

But I did go back. I walked the streets of the neighborhood and was amazed at how close everything was: the park, the school, the corner grocery.

And I was struck by how small the house was, tiny by today’s standards. But that didn’t seem to matter back then, and somehow we managed to fit everyone in. As I recall, there were a lot of people around. And many comings and goings.

When I stood in front of the house, entranced, rooted in place, the people who live there got a little suspicious. But they relaxed when I told them who I was, and very graciously invited me inside.

As I crossed the threshold, I felt equal parts familiarity and strangeness.

In some ways I still knew that house, in other ways I didn’t. And walking through it, I found myself looking at the rooms from a misty, far-off place. 

The living room where I practiced my first dance steps. The dining room where we all squeezed in on holidays.The kitchen where I did my homework. The bedroom where I plotted my escape.

And that’s exactly what I did when I was 17. I got out of there.

But years later, going back seemed important. And as I retraced my steps through that house that I grew up in, I realized that the past changes. There’s not one set version of it. It depends on what we bring to it and the perspective from which we view it.

Which puts me in mind of a quote from John Ed Pearce: Home is the place you grow up wanting to leave and grow old wanting to get back to.

I’m not sure that’s actually true, though.

Yet, I do think we all have some sort of homing instinct.

I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but maybe it does show up more when we’re in midlife. My hunch is it’s there to help us rejuvenate some essential part of ourselves that got interrupted by the rush and routine of adult life.

So how about you?

If I was suddenly anointed queen of the world, and offered you the chance to go back to your original home for one night, would you take me up on it?

18 thoughts on “Going Home: Retracing My Steps

  1. Hi Patty
    Interesting musings and ‘no’ I would not take you up on it.
    I have come too far, I moved to a totally other reality and I have no desire to go ‘home’.
    I love where I live, I always love where I am and I carry my loving memories within me, unattached to a place.
    Maybe I am lucky as I have made big changes with every move and I feel that every move has taken me to a progressive place.
    I have never been homesick ever and I feel blessed for that.

    • Hi Wilma – What great, forward moving energy I hear in your words. Sounds like you’ve already had the insights that the going home process often gives to people, and that you are moving ahead on all cylinders. I admire that, and appreciate your wise comments.

  2. Hi Patty, I would definitely take you up on it. While I love where I am and I’d like to think I’m forward-thinking, I’m not averse to revisiting. I agree with you — it would make a good story. And I’ve experienced that certain parts of me open up when I go back to a once-familiar place. Certain memories and people I’ve forgotten about, perhaps a simplicity I’d like to recapture, maybe even an insight to why I’m the way I am. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    • Hi Belinda – I’m glad you reminded me of the story angle. I wrote that part and meant to come back to it but just ended up posting. I forgot to add that this coming home/revisiting story surrounds us – movies, books, paintings, etc. It’s everywhere. It makes a good story because we understand it. And I think you articulate the reason wonderfully: it opens up parts of us, brings insights, helps us see what we might recapture. So thank you for pointing this out.

  3. What a nice story. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, so I go back quite often. It’s funny how much smaller things seem now when we are grown up. I recently visited my grandmother’s house, which I hadn’t been to in years, and it seemed so much smaller now than I remember. Truly a different perspective.

    I wonder if part of our yearning to go back has to do with memories of a simpler time. A time without worries and a time of living in the moment. That’s what it would be to me. Even though I try to live in this manner now, memories always seem to be less troublesome.

    • Yes, I agree Eric. That yearning to simplify is part of the homing instinct. Wasn’t it so much easier to just be then? Your words bring me back to that place. Thank you for that!

  4. Hi Patty!
    I did go back – about twenty years ago – to where I grew up. I went out of a curiosity more than a longing though. My childhood was far from a pleasant memory. No buildings remained – the entire farm is several “developments” , the quaint small town transformed into a boutique-filled “hip and cool” atmosphere. I was struck that my childhood had been erased, I was without photos except in my head. It was a very odd emotional experience I had not anticipated. It took some time and processing to be at peace about it and realize I had survived demolition in more ways than one.

    • Wow, SuZen, that is powerful. I study depth psychology, and one of its basic tenets is that there is gold in the shadow, meaning that our challenges uncover some of the deepest gifts within us. When you say you survived demolition in more ways than one, that’s what I hear in your words. Thank you.

  5. Hi Patty – I just bought a house a few months ago around where I grew up. I never thought I’d be back. 🙂 Just like you mentioned in this post, I couldn’t wait to get out when I was going off to college. And to be fair, i think I needed to get away. But when I thought about where i wanted to live as I was buying a house, the thought of “home” grasped onto me and wouldn’t let go. I’m happy to be back, but I wonder if I would feel this way if I had never left in the first place. 🙂

    • Oh, that is so cool, Amanda. That metaphor – home grasping you – doesn’t it sound like the archetype of the lover? Something that takes hold of us that we can’t shake. A deep abiding love. And I fully agree with you, we have to leave in order to return home. It’s the hero’s journey, the completion of the cycle. Thank you for this.

  6. Patty — I have gone home many times in my imagination, but unfortunately my original home doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s now a park.

    However, I still remember special things about my birth home. I remember the tree that I would climb it and stay in for hours. I remember swimming in the lake and running wild and free through the nearby orange grove.

    I remember eating oranges and tangerines right off the tree, as well rotten orange fights. My mother really struggled with this when we’d come home covered in orange pulp:~)

    So, I go home occasionally in my memories and you’re absolutely right about the homing instinct. I do enjoy my memories of my birth home. Thanks for reminding me of this:~)

    • That is beautiful, Sara. You painted a word picture that took me back there too, in my imagination. There’s such an abundance of play and release in your story, living life with the joy and abandon of a child. Those memories sound both comforting and enriching, like they have the power to bring you back to what’s important in the present day. Thank you for sharing them.

  7. Hi Patty,

    Going “home” isn’t possible for me. Not only does someone else live in the house, but for me, it would be the people I’d want to “go home” to – not the building. And that, too, is not possible as my parents have sadly passed on.

    But, I do know what you’re saying. That which we can remember so vividly, is so different when we go back.

    I love how you worded that, “…the past changes. There’s not one set version of it. It depends on what we bring to it and the perspective from which we view it.”. Very true.

  8. Hi Barbara – Thanks much for this comment. I’m very interested in what you say, because home is often about the people, not the structure. I think one of the reasons I did want to revisit home is because my mom died unexpectedly, when I was 20. But going back ten years later didn’t exactly reconnect me to her, although in retrospect it gave me a lot of other insights. And if I went home again now, I would go for other reasons. More about me than her.

  9. In a perfect world I’d like to back with my six sisters and play on the farm.

    What I’d do in a heartbeat is go back to the home we raised my girls in. I had so much fun and have so many memories.After they left for college we moved because I couldn’t stand the emptiness and quiet. Our new home represented our new transition and we did a lot of entertaining there.

    • Hey Tess – You’ve written about the farm before, and I can see all of you going back there and how amazing it would be. And that’s neat that you’d go back to that house full of life, where you raised your children. One of the places I’d go back to is a brownstone I lived in as an adult, where all of the tenants were friends and the place was full of fun and laughter.

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