A trip back to my place of birth and home for a few decades leads to ruminations on home – what it has been for deep thinkers and poets, and what it is for me.
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Robert Frost
Forget Robert Frost. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, you can’t remember the one-way streets.
Heading to a meeting, I struggle to visualize the address and plan my path to it. It’s been a long while since I navigated downtown Edmonton: which roads are one way, again? Trying to keep it simple, I turn onto Jasper Avenue — the original main drag and still blessedly bidirectional — intending to make my way east to where I’ll turn north to the parkade that’s been recommended. Instead, I find one side of the avenue all dug up with road or subway tunnel reconstruction of some sort: left-hand turns are prohibited for several blocks. With the river valley cutting in from the south, I’m also about to run out of right-hand-turn options.
Muttering, I take the last possible right turn where a short jog south will allow me to skirt the edge of the river valley, wiggling my way back west to the cross-street I need. It ain’t elegant, but it works. A few hours later, after my meeting, I surface from the underground parking lot and retrace my steps out of the downtown, lacking the confidence to extemporize in this city that was once my home.
Heading south across the High Level Bridge, I enter more-familiar territory. There’s the coffee shop where I met friends from university; the theatre where I saw Love Story and Klute; the pizza parlour the extended family has been eating at for 40 years. The restaurant where I used to eat with an old-lady friend and the drive-through ATM I took her to before our meals. The church I attended as a pre-schooler. The Boston Pizza where we celebrated some win or other in high school.
Continuing south, I pass the first house I owned. The first house my parents owned; the first house I remember. The corner with the ESSO station where we went to see Santa Claus on Christmas Eve afternoon (he’d already gone back to the North Pole), and the hair salon where they cut my bangs too short when I was five. The merge lane that provoked my only car accident when I was twenty-five.
You can’t go home again. Thomas Wolfe
Through my first fifty years I made my home in four cities in a free-form rotation: Edmonton, Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Calgary. Since moving to Ottawa, I’ve gone back West any number of times but it isn’t, you know, the same.
The places aren’t the same: in Edmonton alone, the theatre and the restaurant I remember have changed hands and names, more than once; the ESSO station and the hair salon are gone completely. I’m not the same: new experiences, attitudes and perspectives overlay the old. The situation isn’t the same: ‘visiting’ is not ‘living in’.
I’m hardly the first to discover Thomas Wolfe was right. Yearning for home, making sacrifices to pay for the trip, immigrants tell of finally going back to their homelands only to find that it isn’t, you know, the same. The place isn’t the same. They aren’t the same. Being a visitor isn’t the same.
That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. William Shakespeare
Do Edmonton and my other first-fifty-years cities still qualify as ‘home’? I dunno.
I do know they’re the places where people speak with no accent to my ear. Where the angle of the light is right for the time of year. Where I know when the crocuses will appear in the spring, and when the leaves will turn colour in the fall. Where the snow is as crunchy and squeaky as I expect. Where I trip over single memories — or bump into knee-deep stacks of them — on every corner, because I know what used to be on that corner, whether it’s a decade or a lifetime ago.
Maybe Robert Frost had it right, after all: ‘Home is the place where’. Where what? Frost had his answer; I have mine. And in any home of mine, it’s OK that they’re not the same.