When I revisited my childhood home, everything was different
“The ache for home lives in all of us,” Maya Angelou once wrote. It’s a universal truth, and indeed, over a million American adults return to visit their childhood homes every year. I was about to become one of the many who embarked on this emotional pilgrimage, from my parents’ current home in Chicago, to our family’s first home in Canada, and then back again.
For the first time in many years, my siblings and I were all living together with our parents at our house in Chicago, which hadn’t happened since my older sister first went off to college. We were like birds returning to their nest, and on certain days, it did feel like we were children again. Then, on the cusp of summer, my mother died.
In the summer weeks following — the warm and sunny days, bright and beautiful — seemed to suspend time itself. We moved around the house like zombies, unsure of what to say, what to do. Everything felt at once familiar and foreign, and we were trapped in an endless period of uncertainty and disbelief. But autumn was quickly approaching, and with it the realization that the world was, in fact, still spinning, calling each of us away to work and school and separate apartments. Our bubble of grief was about to burst.
In perhaps a moment of desperation, we decided to take a short trip to Canada together. Calgary, Alberta is where we grew up as children for about 10 years before moving to Chicago. We hadn’t been back since we moved, and for all this time we’d remained nostalgic about our childhood home, which had remained hidden away from us in a corner of the world we hadn’t returned to since.
Psychology Professor Jerry Burger from Santa Clara University found that one third of American adults over the age of 30 had revisited their childhood homes (houses they lived in from ages 5 to 12). Through his research, Burger concluded that the journey was made usually for one of three reasons: a desire to reconnect with childhood, a need to reflect on the past during a current crisis, or the hope for closure resulting from unfinished business.
For me, it made a weird kind of sense to go back to Canada. We had left our innocence there, somewhere between dappled trees and rocky mountains. I’m not sure what we expected to find; I guess we were trying to travel back through time.
Maybe, just maybe, there was some part of me that believed we would drive up to our old house, and it would be painted sunshine yellow, just like I always pictured in idle daydreams. The screen door would be embossed with sunflowers, and on either side would be two bleeding heart bushes, crying pink tears onto the porch. The kitchen would be covered in wallpaper with cartoon chefs, and the basement, where I used to spend hours playing with toy horses and watching Xena after piano lessons, would have red shag carpet. And in the garden in the backyard, picking strawberries and rhubarb and humming in her beautiful voice, would be my mother.
But reality begged to differ. Reality was that as we rounded the bend into our old neighborhood, searching eagerly for those four familiar house numbers, we drove right past our house without even realizing it.
The house was smaller than I remembered — the colors, faded; the screen door, replaced. The big evergreen tree I used to hide under during Halloween was still there, thankfully. The patio in the backyard was newly renovated. There was no garden. Nervously, we knocked on the door, and spoke briefly to the elderly man living in the house now. He claims he remembered us from when we had moved out. He didn’t invite us in. As we drove away, I regretted not asking him whether they had kept the red shag carpet in the basement.
Continuing on our perhaps ill-advised tour of nostalgia, my dad suggested that we should try and find Licks, an old ice cream store we used to frequent. He asked me if I remembered it, and I must have mumbled something about finding somewhere to eat lunch in reply.
The truth was, I did remember Licks. It was a small ice cream parlor by a park that had a glistening river running through the middle. We used to go there in the evenings, just as the sun was setting and the darkened sky was aglow with reds and oranges. Inside the brightly lit parlor was a player piano, and ghosts’s hands would dance on the keys as we perused the ice cream flavors. As dusk settled and the sky blanketed us in a deep, dark blue, we’d eat our ice cream and watch as little white stars became just barely visible.
After visiting our beloved house and seeing nothing but a pale, strange, shadow, I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t kill all of my childhood memories in one weekend. I don’t need to find out that Licks was more rundown than I remembered, or not even there at all. I don’t need to see the river more discolored, or the twilight sky overtaken in smog. I didn’t want anything to replace my memories of my happy little family, eating ice cream under the stars.
My disappointing experience isn’t unique, according to Burger’s research. Although visiting homes is cathartic for the majority of those who make the trip, many who visit their childhood homes experience a shattering of expectations, upset that their beloved house has changed, or realizing that they cannot return to that place of childhood happiness. I found myself going through those same feelings of disillusionment.
We came back to Chicago from our trip, and everything was the same, yet somehow different, as well. We soon scattered to different corners of the city, to our separate apartments and college dorms. Routine consumed us, and whether we liked it or not, a new normal settled into our lives.
A few months later, we sold our house in Chicago.
Although this house wasn’t where I grew up as a small child, it was the one where I spent my formative years, from middle school all the way to high school, and then for many weekend visits during college. It’s where I have the clearest memories of my mother. The house became a memory box, storing moments of her life in each crevice and corner. Everywhere I turned in that house, I saw an old scene play out in front of me, fuzzy and transparent, like images on an old projector. That sofa, where we used to watch the Food Network together. That kitchen table, where we stood side-by-side making dumplings. That bedroom, where we shared quiet conversations. After-images flicker like ghosts, on the staircase, in the hallway.
It was home.
So after losing two houses during a span of 25 years, houses full of both memory and heartache, what exactly have I learned about the transient and fragile nature of a home?
That someday, maybe 10, 20 years from now, my siblings and I will come back to that house in Chicago. We’ll walk up hesitantly to the front door, giggling nervously, and knock. A stranger will open it, and we’ll explain that we used to live here, in this very house, a long time ago. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll let us in.
Elena Zhang is a freelance writer based in Chicago. When she’s not writing about food or television, she can be found selling cupcakes at her local farmer’s market. Follow her on Twitter.