There was a time in my life – not lately – when I used to enjoy re-visiting places where I had previously lived. There were quite a few of them – towns, neighborhoods, even countries, going back to my childhood. Nowadays, when people in general are much more mobile, it’s not unusual for your family to be moved and transplanted several times while you are growing up. But as a child, when this happened, I had no choice but to go with them, even if that meant leaving behind all my friends, and practically everything else that was familiar.
For me, probably the biggest change came right at the beginning of my teenage years. It was just after the end of World War II. Having left England before its beginning, when I was five years old, and then spent the entire war years on this side of the Atlantic – two years in Canada, and the next five in the U.S. – I had become thoroughly Americanized, although England (which I could hardly remember) was still supposed to be my “Home.” But changing countries in 1946 (because my father’s job took us back) meant going from what, even in wartime, had been a land of plenty, to a land of shortages and “austerity.” England, though never invaded, had suffered severely in the war, including bombing raids, of which the scars, such as ruined buildings, or empty spaces where they used to be, were visible for years afterwards.
Another enduring vestige of the war was the system of rationing, which persisted for most of a decade. I well remember how, when the rationing of candy was finally lifted, there was such a rush to buy “sweets” that rationing actually had to be re-imposed.
Meanwhile, I spent my entire teenage years, and on, up to the age of 21, going through the equivalent of High School and College in the British education system. At first, it was hard to readjust, and I was teased about being a “little Yank.” In order to communicate, I had to acquire something of an English accent, at least to the extent of pronouncing words like “can’t” and “dance” the English way, with a broad “a.”
Nevertheless, we had “come home,” and our house was still there – but alas! we couldn’t live in it again, because, being empty, it had been “requisitioned” for a bombed-out family, who were still legally in possession. We had to buy another house in a strange new district.
But my sister and I could never forget the country we had left behind, and, as soon as we were able to, we both “emigrated” back to the U.S.
Over the years since then, having acquired strong new roots in California, I returned occasionally on visits, seeing again my old school and college, and some of the family and friends who still remembered me, and whom I still remembered.
It was the same in Washington, D.C. – not the famous parts, but my old neighborhood – where the building in which we’d had an apartment for five years of my childhood was still there, seeming, at least from the outside, unchanged. Other spots evoked both happy and sad memories, such as the house converted to a synagogue where I had attended Hebrew School, but been unable to have my Bar Mitzvah, because we left a few months before my thirteenth birthday.
But, apart from my own experience, history and literature are full of famous returns. One that comes immediately to mind is that of Homer’s Ulysses, coming back from the Trojan War, after twenty years of wandering, to his home island of Ithaca, where his wife, Penelope, is besieged by suitors (everyone, of course, assuming, by this time, that he is dead) and, touchingly, not recognized by anyone but his dog.
Much more recently, we have Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind, returning to her family’s home plantation of Tara, after the enemy army has swept through, to find her mother dead, her father demented, and all the slaves freed and gone, except for her faithful old housemaid, Mammy.
It does seem to take wartime and post-war situations to create the most experiences of returning home – as indeed it was in my own case. And, although I came back, to live most of my life in America, something in me is still English. And I will always feel a very personal resonance, when I hear the expression, “You can’t go home again.”