Where the heart is

Jul 12, 2000 at 12:00 am

They say you can't go home again, but I think that's a lie.

I have no idea where that saying originated, or who was the first person to try returning to the vacant lot where home used to be, but the phrase essentially says that once you have grown up and flown the coop, you won't ever be able to return to the 'home' of your childhood memories ... as if you would ever want to.

The reasoning behind this rather gloomy sentiment seems to be that nothing stands still with the passage of time. Everything changes, therefore it is impossible to return home once you have left it because time will ultimately erase it, just like waves do to a sand castle on the beach.

Yeah, well. I'm home.

Ever since I stepped out on my own more than 20 years ago, I have always made a point of returning to that solid, red-brick structure on Dahlia Street in Denver at least twice a year, if not more often. So far, it's been there every single time. Well, the huge birch tree that used to be in the front yard is long gone, and so are two of the three evergreen trees, but other than that ...

To be honest, so long as my mother remains alive, I'm not much worried about home disappearing; at least not the part of home that matters most.

Sure, an awful lot has changed in the neighborhood where I grew up. For one thing, Mom doesn't move quite as fast as she used to, although she's still one heck of a lot quicker than a lot of folks two decades younger – and looks better too. I know you're thinking I'm biased, but I swear I'm telling the truth. I keep waiting for her to get old, and she keeps refusing. I'm beginning to understand where I get my stubbornness from.

The neighborhood itself has changed considerably in the way it looks. Except for the family at the end of the block and the next-door neighbors, everyone else on the street is new – relatively speaking – and I don't know them at all. They seem nice enough, and we wave and speak, but we're still strangers. When I watch them drift into their homes, my mind inevitably drifts back to who was living there nearly 35 years ago when we first moved in. At that time, there were quite a few kids around. Later, after I'd gotten older, most of the kids had left and the street grew silent. Then families moved away, and other families moved in, and there were more kids. Kids who grew older, whose families moved away, and on and on it goes.

Throughout all those years, my mother has calmly watched the changes come and go to the point where she can just about predict what will happen next. Some of them she likes, others she's not so crazy about. Whenever I come home, she's quick to fill me in on all that has happened – as well as what should happen and what should never have happened. Talking and listening to my mother – who would erase me from her will if I said how old she is – is what makes each trip home so special. It is also what lets me know that, contrary to the saying, you can go home again anytime you want to. You just can't go back in time. Just because home may have changed doesn't mean it is no longer your home.

The biggest change that I am still adjusting to all these 25 years later is the absence of my father, who died in 1975 from cancer. There are no words to adequately describe how much I miss him, or how much I would like to be able to sit and talk with him just as I am able to sit and talk with my mother. Perhaps it is his death that makes me appreciate my conversations with Mom as much as I do. I was 17 years old when Dad died, and ever since that time I have been developing an ever-lengthening list of questions that only he will be able to answer when I see him again. And I will see him again.

During this visit, which will be over in just a few days, my assigned chore is to start getting rid of some of the stuff that has accumulated during 35 years of living in one place. Anyone who has ever lived in one place for anywhere near that long knows how that can happen. Stuff is a fact of life, maybe even the essence of life.

So as I begin to carefully sort my way through the stacks of Owens family stuff, each piece of which sparks a flashback to yet another one of so many memories, I come upon something which, at first, is hard to believe. It is my mother's college diploma from Langston University. Then I find her diploma from her high school in Dewey, Okla., where she grew up. Then there is the eighth-grade diploma certifying her readiness to pass on to high school. That diploma is signed by my grandfather, Henry Wardell McNamee, who was principal of the school.

Later, I find an envelope full of photographs taken during the 1930s and '40s. There is the picture of my father in his Army uniform, smiling like the luckiest man on earth to have my mother on his arm. There is a picture of their wedding day, with Dad once again in his uniform, and the Army chaplain that performed the ceremony. There are beautiful pictures of Mom posing as a model, of Dad laughing with his buddies, of my grandfather with his arm around grandma waving good-bye at a train station. There are several great shots of my Uncle 'Snooks' as a young man, dressed sharp as a tack in every single photograph, looking every bit the ex-football star and lady-killer that he was. And then there's ...

"Hey, Mom. You've got to see this ..."

This may take several more visits to finish.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]