Until this year, the phrase “You can’t go home again” held little real meaning for me because I always could. Until just a few months ago, my family still owned the house where I’d been raised.
I walked out of that door for my first day of kindergarten, my first day of grade school, my first day of high school and my first day of college. It was the door I burst through when I got my driver’s license and the door I left through the day I became gainfully employed.
But we sold the property and now, on my family visit East, walking to the White House Sub Shop to get my obligatory sandwich was different because when I walked past that building, it was not mine.
I passed the church next door. It was the only Catholic Church in which I ever wore a white wedding gown. I wasn’t getting married. I’d been chosen 8th grade May Queen. If there is any doubt how important this day was, the fact that my mother went out and bought me a second hand wedding gown to wear says it all.
I thought I’d go into the church to see if there was anything of those childhood memories left there. I reached for the door and realized with a shock that it was locked. The church was never locked when I was a kid.
Every Saturday all of St. Michael’s school children would find their way there to make sure they were free of sin in order to be able to receive communion the next day. I remember coming out of confession on those Saturdays and happily thinking that if I was hit by a car or died in some other tragic fashion, I was guaranteed a one-way ticket to heaven. No purgatory for the freshly confessed!
I continued down the street past the site that had once been our favorite bakery. Every night before dinner, as dad closed the store and mom headed upstairs, one of us kids ran there to get a fresh, hot loaf of crusty Italian bread. Any bread left over after dinner was laid out in the oven to dry for breadcrumbs. In my childhood, being allowed to have a sandwich on Wonder Bread was considered a special treat.
Katy’s store was across the alley from the bakery. She had one of about five Italian grocery stores that thrived in our square block. Katy’s store was the smallest and poorest. She was always sitting on a bench out front dressed in black, the only color I thought old Italian women were allowed to wear. She lived in a small space behind the store. It wasn’t until I was much older that my mother was willing to tell me that Katy wasn’t a widow. In a hushed and hesitant voice, she told me that Katy’s husband had left her and would come back periodically and take what little money she’d manage to acquire and then, after “being mean” to her, would leave again.
Well, that finally explained the bruises that had puzzled me for so long.
Finally I crossed the street and came to the one thing that hadn’t changed since my childhood – the White House Sub Shop. Cosby used to mention it in his show as though it was in Brooklyn. But it wasn’t. It was always here.
So I went in and ordered my half regular sub with the works and then walked up to the Boardwalk and sat on a bench and munched on it thoughtfully while thinking about how much of my life was tied up in this city and that neighborhood.
Then I got up and went into a hotel gift shop and spent an inordinate amount of money on a small bottle of antacids because you not only can’t go home again but, as you age, you find the memories of an Italian sub are much more enjoyable that actually trying to digest one. And memories of home are probably colored to make them more wonderful than they were when they were actually being lived.
If in fact that’s so, I can only say thanks to whoever or whatever is responsible for that disconnect. The sub may give me agita, but the memories give me comfort.