They say you can’t go home again.

I guess that can mean a variety of things. But I think going home means going back to a place in your childhood.

A faraway place that you see through glasses that don’t fit your eyes anymore. So that what you see is opaque. Hard to make out. Blurry around the edges.

Do you remember how it felt as a child when you got on the swing at the playground and went really, really high? 

You wondered if you might fall. When you leaned back everything was upside down. And yet you couldn’t stop tucking your legs underneath you and reaching even higher.

Do you remember what it was like to sit in the grass and pull dandelions, then take a deep breath and blow on them? How the feather-like wisps separated and floated off into the air? It seemed a magical. 

Do you recall climbing a tree? How you’d manage to get to one limb, holding on for dear life as you got your balance. Then you’d look up and scrutinize just how far that next limb was. 

Could you reach up and grasp it and heft yourself up another few feet? Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. 

But then you’d never know unless you tried.

I never fell that I can remember. It was an amazing feeling to be perched high up in a tree and look down at a somewhat miniaturized world. Though in reality it really wasn’t all that far up at all. 

When you’re young, everything seems higher, brighter, farther. And should you go back home as an adult, you find that the town wasn’t so very big. The houses were just ordinary in size, and the trees did not begin to touch the sky.

Through a child’s eyes, the truth was the whole truth or it was a lie. There was no in between. Gray did not exist. Just black and white. 

They say you can’t go back home again. Where does that phrase come from anyway?

You Can’t Go Home Again is a novel by Thomas Wolfe published posthumously in 1940, from the contents of his unpublished manuscript The October Fair.

The novel tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book that makes frequent references to his hometown. The book is a success, but the residents of the town are resentful.

Wolfe took the title from a conversation with the writer Ella Winter, who remarked to Wolfe: “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?” Wolfe asked her for permission to use the phrase as the title of his book. 

The phrase has entered American speech to mean that once you have left your town of origin, you cannot return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life. 

You cannot again feel how you felt on that swing or up in that tree or sitting in a mound of dandelions. You cannot replicate that feeling because you left that child behind.

And the world is not merely black and white. Gray has entered into your vision. And once that happens, there are question marks about most everything. 

To be a child means that you see things just as they are. It means that you defined everything by how it looked through your eyes at that very moment. And it is stuck in your brain, in just that form, forevermore.

In that child’s mind.

To me, the idea that you can’t go home again means that you will never feel the innocence you once felt. It disappeared when you deigned, when somewhat older, to reach down on a whim and pluck a dandelion.

Just for the heck of it you blew the fuzzy remnants into the air. And somehow the magic was gone. A thing of the past.

In recent memory I have not leaned down to pick a dandelion. I left that behind in childhood. But I will admit, I still sometimes wish upon a star.

And keep it to myself.

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21 Comments

  1. Such lovely memories (author and posts) and yes I too have precious few of those shimmering glimmers of days past, but, apologies in advance, may I cast a darker but no less relevant note to “going home.” As my hospitalized mother fought her 3rd and final battle with cancer, I (who by then lived out of state) roamed the old familiar haunts, the mean streets of my youth in a rental car, thinking through what had happened long before (including warding off two kidnappers who jumped out of a car to grab me as I walked home alone from 8th grade): my uncaring US army veteran father’s mental ills after surviving the worst of World War II and his sudden shocking suicide in the basement below our rented flat), the gender-biased high school teacher who put me down for achieving higher grades than a male classmate, the run-down apartment, all we could afford, lacking heat and hot water, surviving there numerous frigid New England winters . . . As I drove, my heart swelled with gladness as I with blinding speed relived all this and what came later, I who always looked up to the stars and to the sparrows for comfort, achieving wonders in college and graduate school, finding long-lasting love and marriage, world travels, all founded in unshakeable faith. In an earth-shaking moment, in that rental car, as I drove back to the hospital to comfort my dying mother, I saw myself fully grown as an acorn become a mighty oak. I could never go back into that childhood for I had, as St Paul said, put away my childish things.

  2. Hi, Brenda. I really enjoyed your article on “going home.” It’s odd that I’ve been curious to think of my positive memories of family times in houses growing up. Each move reflected changes in my parents’ life and career expectations primarily, with us 3 children following and adjusting. So I suppose “home” to me meant the family unit sticking together and growing through good and not-so-good. I am one of those people who has been cursed with a memory of every year of my life starting at age 1 (I’m 72 and work for the railroad most of my life). My thoughts of home are rooted in specific instances, and I always ask myself what I would have done differently. As we moved from California to Colorado, my primary regret is the friendships I left behind. I knew even as a young boy we’d all change over time, so faced it as maturely as I was able to. All except one: my little girlfriend Sally. As young as we both were (1st and 2nd grade), we knew what love and commitment were. We’d be together today if circumstances had been different. Saying goodbye was brutal. My mother frequently said “Home is where the heart is.” In that regard the places in our hearts are the building blocks of our souls. Going home for me is thoughts of holding hands with Sally and her sweet smile reassuring me life was perfect. God bless.

  3. I can remember sitting in my Grandmother's front yard making bracelets out of Dandelion stems, sliding the ends into each other, and then slipping them on our wrist. Such great memories. Our childhood is never dead as long as we can remember some of the moments.

  4. For me, the innocence of childhood had pretty much evaporated by the time I reached elementary school age. I remember ducking under my desk during atomic bomb drills; watching President Kennedy's funeral procession, and standing on the playground talking with some other kids as we tried to figure out what the War on Poverty was, since it was coming to our region. War sounded scary. I hadn't even reached fourth grade!

    But there were some other very sweet, innocent moments. I remember being in second grade and just loving my pretty teacher, Mrs. Jenkins. She had a pen with pearls around the top that contained perfumed ink. We girls were fascinated with it. The Beverly Hillbillies was a big hit that year, and she waited patiently when some other girls and I stood up in front of the class and sang the words to the theme song. I finally learned to read that year too. I got to see Mrs. Jenkins a couple of years ago, over 50 years after second grade, when we both attended the same event back in my hometown. (It was a funeral — that's what you go back home for, unfortunately.) Mrs. Jenkins was as pretty and kind as ever, and seemed to carry the innocence of the old days with her. I was glad I got to remember a few of those good memories with her.

  5. I so relate with this Brenda!
    I sometimes will wish that just for one day I could go back and be a child. Have those innocent thoughts and purely joyous reactions to things. That I'm in my old house, my mom is making the dinner for us and I don't have to. That my biggest worry is if I did my homework and if my boy crush likes me too. And this time of year especially I want to go back. I want to be the one with no stress, few responsibilities and those precious loved ones I miss so much are still here sharing their wisdom with me.

    I think the magic can still be where we look for it sometimes, though, too. So keep looking and wishing on stars. 😉

  6. I had a wonderful, carefree childhood, and for that, I am so grateful. We didn't have much, but how we ran and played and explored the world on our bikes and roller skates. I wish all children could have a magical childhood. It is something to carry in one's heart forever. Thanks for sharing this, Brenda.

  7. This was written straight from the heart and I love it, Brenda. I don't like to look back, at least not too far back, but you've made me realize that I still have a lot of the little girl in me that believed in the truth and ignored the lies.

    Jane x

  8. A very sweet post.

    We were gathered together as a family over the past weekend to celebrate my aunt's 90th birthday. What struck me most is how each of the cousins had a different take on a past event. I discovered that I had dates and years wrong for things or maybe the others were wrong. One cousin had just visited our grandmother's house and been so disappointed to see the house run down and remodeled (poorly).

  9. I think our memories are precious and while it's true we can't go back to our innocence, we can still see beauty in the little things that surround us. I am blessed to see the innocence in my Grandchild's eyes and it inspires me. Hope you are healing well and feeling better these cold Nov days.
    hugs,
    Linda

  10. Thinking about my childhood the other day brought tears to my eyes. I do remember blowing the dandelion. We played ball in a back yard of the projects that were behind my house. I was the only girl in a neighborhood of boys. Once in a while I went alone and I remember one day exactly where I was when I blew the dandelion. I also remember climbing trees-everyday! I loved it! I even dreamed out climbing a tree the other night. Thanks for the memories. BTW, I climbed pine trees. There was always another limb highter. I climbed on a rusty trash can to get up and it was easy to get down. Fun memories. Cherish them.

  11. I enjoyed this post very much. It stirred up a memory I hadn't had in a very long time. My little white playhouse with pink shutters and the swing set, both tucked up under a persimmon tree. I can remember the feel of those pesky persimmons squishing between my toes. Good times!

  12. I absolutely remember going back to my old childhood vacation cabin as an adult and thinking "this is the smallest bedroom I've ever seen!" It was HUGE when I was a kid. Isn't it funny how that works? xo, Laura

  13. Hi Brenda,

    Boy, are WE on the same wavelength, today!!

    But, I still whisper windy breezes on dandelions, wishing their wispy petals well, for their journey will most likely not differ so much from my own, as they try to stay airborne, amid the turbulence of time.

    Yes, you can't go home, unless you've never left, at least in the nooks and crannies of your heart and soul.

    Thanks for this most intriguing 'review' of life; a continuous work in progress.

    Poppy

  14. Ahhhh….wish upon a star but don't keep it to yourself! Always keep part of you child like! I feel a lot like what you described when we hike in the wilderness. There's excitement and a sense of escape from the real world. You walk out on a trail and live your 'normal' life behind. It's amazing! Have a good week my friend! I hope you are healing and feeling better every day. Hugs, Diane

  15. Thank you for this post Brenda, it's funny how we all have some of the same memories as children even though our pasts were so different. For me I lived in a world of books, it was my escape from a sad and lonely childhood. Through the books I could become anything and be anywhere, for me that was magical. I also remember the most wonderful dreams, dreams where I could fly, so real that I was't sure that it was a dream. I remember the dandelions, the swings, the trees, but mostly the stories.

  16. Brenda, It is the innocence of youth . The hunger . The want. I never feel the same excitement I ever felt as a child. That does not mean I am not grateful , or that I do not count my blessings. It's just different from when I was young. I remember buildings and room from my childhood, once in them now they seem smaller. I wish while growing up, that someone would have told me to cling to my young days and make the most of them. Blessings, xoxo,Susie

  17. This is a sweet post, Brenda. It's funny how things seem different, bigger somehow, when we are children. I have gone back to the neighborhood I grew up in a couple times and everything seems so much smaller now.

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