Home again, twice in a summer
Of course Thomas Wolfe was right–you can’t go home again because it has never stayed the same.
Wolfe notwithstanding, this past summer I was able to revisit, within a few weeks’ time, both the place of my memories in England until age eight, and the small Ohio town where I finished growing up. At my age I’m far enough removed that it’s moving to revisit these old place, without distress. Sometimes the changes are so vast as to render them unrecognizable anyway.
I was born in Newmarket, Suffolk, England, just as World War II was ending. Life was very difficult for my family: my mother was diagnosed with TB when I was six months old and was hospitalized until I was two. During that time my caretakers were my father, brother, sister, grandmother, aunt, uncle and two cousins, in an old cottage in Exning with no central heat or decent plumbing. (I think it had electricity but I’m not sure.) When I was four we moved into council housing in Newmarket, where we lived until leaving for American in 1953.
When my husband and I went to England in July, I wanted to visit Newmarket, but our itinerary worked out to get us there on a race weekend. Newmarket being a major thoroughbred racing town, accommodations were difficult, so we stayed in Cambridge and took the train to Newmarket on a Sunday morning. I was pleased to see High Street bustling and many shops and cafes open. The old clock tower still stands, and (strangely) is bigger than I remember it being. My mother told stories of German planes, after bombing London, using High Street for target practice with their remaining load of bombs, so it’s a miracle the clock tower still stands. I learned that it honors Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897.
Of course we walked past my old house. Very few working class people had vehicles 60 years ago, and everyone had a pretty front garden. Now front yards are used for parking. Our old house was even more shocking:
We also walked past my family’s church, St. Mary’s (Anglican).
I tried to find the old swimming pool on High Street. Last time I was there, in the early ’90s, it had been turned into an indoor pool, but now the local swimming facility has apparently been relocated.
We had Sunday lunch on High Street. Gary had the customary roast beef, Yorkshire-pudding, gravy, mashed potatoes and a veg; I don’t remember what I had, but this typical British fare was prepared and served by non-Brits. As small as Newmarket is, its central place in horseracing culture makes it more diverse than perhaps other small English towns. I remember as a child seeing Queen Elizabeth when she came to the races, and even Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Less than a week after returning from the UK, I once again boarded a plane, this time for my 50-year high school reunion in Norwalk, Ohio. It was mostly dumb luck that we landed in a small Midwestern Main Street city, clean, pleasant, very walkable. Some things have not changed at all. The Huron County courthouse still dominates the main downtown intersection. Berry’s restaurant, our teenage hangout, remains in business, though a little more upscale. But there is not one other establishment on Main Street that was there when I left. No W.T. Grant’s, J.C. Penney, Woolworth’s. Walmart, on the outskirts of town, has sucked retail away.
One good change is that a 50-year-reunion is nothing like high school.
Sixty-eight year-olds have lived a lot of life and have had egos brought down to earth. I enjoyed conversations with people I hardly knew, some I wouldn’t have dreamed of talking to in high school, and established some new Facebook contacts.
Our old school still stands, although it’s no longer the high school. The “new” high school, on the edge of town, is ultra-modern and state-of-the-art. Each year it hosts an “all-class” reunion for anyone who ever graduated from NHS.
It’s something my sister and I both attend (I spent a couple of days with my sister and brother-in-law). The high school band played and there were speeches. Then I drove to Cleveland to visit my brother’s widow, closing out a beautiful reunion visit.
This wraps up reflections on the summer’s travel. I had intended to rail about how hot and dirty London was, with trash everywhere and a homeless camp on the Thames embankment, but I’ll leave it at that. English people are still mostly friendly, helpful, and funny. Especially my cousin Kay, her husband Phil, their daughter Jill and her husband Darren, who trade slams and not-too-sharp barbs endlessly and hilariously. And I loved seeing my other cousin Denise and her family, and the many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Kay and Phil’s beautiful garden provided peaceful moments:
Now I’m ready for the holidays. Merry Christmas!