You Can’t Go Home Again

As a kid, I lived in northern New Jersey. I tell people that, and they assume that I mean the New Jersey shown on television, where life is an endless series of turnpike exits, Bada-Bing clubs, and Bruce Springsteen videos. My New Jersey was a small town in the mountains, full of Revolutionary War-era homes, old mines, rocky caves, clear lakes and tall pine trees. The backdrop of my childhood looked more like the scenery in Last of the Mohicans than The Sopranos.

We lived less than an hour from Manhattan, and my friends were kids whose immigrant parents had fled the city for quieter pastures. Second-generation Italian, Jewish and Irish families had made their way to New Jersey. Many had grandparents who had escaped Europe just in time –and I had more than one classmate whose family had Lost Someone. Dinner at a friend’s house nearly always included someone with an accent.
In the summer, we were outside all day long. We ran through the woods, played in caves, explored the abandoned clubhouse up on the hilltop – which I later realized looked a bit like the hotel in The Shining – and built tree forts. We went swimming in Cupsaw Lake, the same place we’d go ice skating six months later. During the winter, we had to get about three feet of snow for schools to close. On days like that, full-size igloos and snow forts dotted yards all over the neighborhood.
School field trips included annual sojourns to Tarrytown, New York, to visit the birthplace of Washington Irving. This was always done in the fall, so the trip included a hayride over the notorious bridge where Ichabod Crane encountered the Headless Horsemen. Let me tell you, there was a whole lot of pants-wetting going on when the hay cart stopped on the bridge under a gray November sky, because we could all hear those hoof beats if we listened hard enough.
It was a great place to be a kid. We moved away when I was twelve. Three years ago, on the way back from a trip to Maine, we decided to detour through northern New Jersey so I could show my kids the house I grew up in. It looked so very, very small. It was hard to believe that a house that held so many memories could be so tiny. Other than the house, though, the scenery hadn’t changed much. Cupsaw Lake is still invaded by swimmers every summer, the hilltop clubhouse is still there, although it’s been renovated and the secret entrance long since boarded up. The little Jewish and Italian grandmas are long gone.
Stephen King said, in his novella The Body (which later went on to be the movie Stand By Me) that you never have friends again like the ones you had when you were twelve. It’s true, and of more than friends. The place you live your childhood, your formative years, is the one you take with you for the rest of your life. No matter where else you live, there’s nothing quite like the town where you were happy to be a kid.


  1. Yes ma'am. Mr. Vagabond can't relate, but I, too, have a 12-year old snapshot memory of a really awesome life.

  2. Patti:
    Last summer, my hubby and I were driving down the street I had lived on when I was a child. We moved away when I was 15 1/2. Every other time I was on that street, I found comfort seeing the house I grew up in. But that day I noticed someone had torn down "my house". I definitely had mixed emotions.
    I liked your story.

  3. I was really afraid that I wouldn't be able to find it, or that it would have been replaced by something new and shiny and huge -- lots in that town now run pretty high-dollar -- so I was thrilled to see that it was still there. They'd painted it a chocolate brown (instead of the redwood and white it had been when I lived there as a child) but color was just trappings. I don't know what I would have done if it had been completely gone.

    Wait, I lied. I would have sobbed like a child :)


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