The most constant domicile over the first 14 years of my life was a one-story brick house in the bedroom community of Cleveland, Tennessee, the home of my maternal grandparents. While my family moved no fewer than seven times over this period — my mother called us "academic gypsies" in light of my parents' pursuit of advanced degrees — that home was always there. It was always mine. Last March – on the first day of spring, actually — I visited my grandparents' former home for the first time since Grandmom died in 1983. Got to show this house bursting with so many memories to my wife and daughters for the first time. But it's not mine anymore.
Granddaddy died in 1979, shortly after my family moved to Southern California. When our first summer on the West Coast arrived, my parents sent my sister and me back east, to spend the best summer of our lives with Grandmom. For an 11-year-old boy (to say nothing of his 6-year-old sister), Orange County had nothing on the freedom and possibilities we found in Cleveland, with our grandmother.
Since we didn't know other children in the neighborhood, Grandmom's house was our neighborhood. Rainy days meant playing cards inside with her and visiting family from nearby Chattanooga. More often, on the days splashed with sunshine and heavy with the kind of humidity that would choke a native Californian, I played my own brand of baseball — solo — in Grandmom's backyard. Using a rubber ball, I'd pitch nine innings (both teams), fielding every grounder that bounced off Grandmom's patio deck, a tree to my left as my second baseman, a tree to my right manning the hot corner. Over the course of the three summers I spent in Cleveland, I wore a patch in Grandmom's yard that was its own pitcher's mound . . . minus the actual mound. Grass ceased growing there as the spot became my calling card, a signature of sorts I'd leave for my grandmother to watch over through the winter months.
I read my first Spider-Man comic book in Cleveland. I opened a pack of football cards — one of only two left at the convenience store near my grandparents' home — with a 1978 Topps Roger Staubach, still the most exciting treasure I've had the joy to unwrap. I watched my first "Breakfast at Wimbledon" broadcast from Grandmom's den, siding with her against "that filthy McEnroe." That home in Cleveland was a three-bedroom, two-bath repository of smiles, laughter, and love.
When I returned a few weeks ago — after a quarter-century of reflecting on all those smiles — I expected a surge of memories that I might be able to rub off on the three people I hold dearest today. What I discovered, though, was the jarring reduction of what had been a palace to merely the brick house it has always been, now almost entirely hidden from the street by a magnolia tree at least double the height I remembered. I showed my daughters the famous baseball diamond behind the house . . . but there was no patch of dirt. While the two trees stand tall to this day — my infielders, remember — the rear deck has been converted into a covered sun room. I can only imagine the clatter a rubber ball would cause if hurled against one of its walls.
I didn't acknowledge to my family the lump in my throat as I posed for a picture in front of what I remembered to be a much longer driveway. I chose not to knock on the door, as one person's home of 25 years ago is another's sanctuary today. And I drove away from my grandparents' house for the last time no more than 15 minutes after I'd arrived.
How can something so familiar seem so distant? How can so much joy — even if merely symbolic — become so painful, and so fast? I found my answer in the car with me as we found our way back to the interstate, back to Chattanooga to extend our vacation. The memories I was making during that trip to East Tennessee had much to do with where we were going: the Tennessee Aquarium, Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls. But the memories I was making had everything to do with the people alongside me. Just as the memories I associate with that little house in Cleveland had everything to do with Granddaddy and Grandmom. Without them . . . yes, it's just a brick house.
I've never liked the five words Thomas Wolfe made famous: "You can't go home again." I don't like them because the older I get, the more I recognize their brutal honesty. We make the places we call home, not the other way around. Remove a loved one from the most comfortable of settings and a nest can become twigs and grass all too soon. My childhood memories of Cleveland are hardly ruined by the pilgrimage I made as a father and husband. But I have a clearer picture of who made those memories for me, and how very much I miss them.