Sometimes You Can Go Back Home

Winter Greenlake

Saturday afternoon, I venture out to Trader Joe’s. There are two, about equidistant from our new house by Greenlake, but honestly neither is terribly convenient. I know this, because I’ve had this problem before. This EXACT problem. Because I grew up about a mile from where we live now. So I remember thinking, should I go to the Roosevelt one that’s maybe technically a little closer, but has no parking except a tiny garage? Or the Ballard one? Where traffic is the worst and it will be so jammed with people on a Saturday afternoon that I may lose the will to live (or at least shop)? The other day I picked Roosevelt, and was pleased to park in the mostly empty Monday-morning garage. Knowing I’ll have no such luck today, I head west to Ballard.

It’s a sunny day in March, a rare moment alone, and the serendipity of the moment draws me back, as I drive streets where I learned to drive, passing my high school and the houses of my friends and neighbors growing up. I know these streets well, can still remember the side streets that were best for biking when I lived in this neighborhood in college, or the route we jogged on September 11, 2001, when I was a high school senior on the cross country team. I’ve mapped this place by foot, car and bicycle, so much that almost every street and block recalls some other time. They’re haunted, these roads, mostly in friendly ways, by memories a decade or two old.

I think about those people who would come back to our village in Germany after moving away, and the stories they would tell about “going home.” So many of them folded home in quotations, reminding themselves and warning us that this place they’d left behind as aspiring missionaries, a few years or decades ago, had changed beyond recognition. I don’t know if anyone ever said it directly, but the tone was almost universally cautious, the message a generally unspoken, “You can’t really go home again.”

So I expected as much, to be honest, when we left Germany, eight months ago, and so some extent I agree that the transition to America, and this particular corner of it, is far from easy. I knew that this wouldn’t be the Seattle of my childhood, that the time I was away had brought changes in architecture, population, traffic, affordability and even attitude. I expected that some places, like the Ballard that I’m driving through now, would feel a little foreign, and I foreign in them. Other challenges were more surprising, like the difficulty of finding an entry-level counseling job, or the honest-to-goodness exorbitant price tag of any kind of child care. I knew we’d miss Germany, but I didn’t know that it was grocery stores and preschool that would make us miss it.

People change, too, both the ones we left behind and ourselves, shifting the landscape of relationship in ways that can be disorienting, though not terribly surprising. I was never going to experience Seattle as I did when I was twenty-five, because I’m just not anymore. I’m a wife and mother, I’ve lived overseas for a while, and all of that adds up to a different Seattle resident than the girl who spent her childhood trudging up Phinney Ridge to the zoo.

So fine, I thought, you can’t go back home. Except sometimes you do anyway.

Like when my daughter’s favorite little friends are the children of my old friends, their mothers women I used to stay up late with, watching Friends and drinking wine and tiptoeing together through the first steps of careers and relationships. Like when I push my two daughters in a stroller around Greenlake, for the millionth time, passing the library where I used to rollerblade on sunny days to check out deep cuts of L.M. Montgomery’s writing. Or when, through the latest in a series of strange and beautiful circumstances, we end up living a few houses down from the church I’ve attended since I was eleven.

Saturday evening, I bring the drinks I bought at Trader Joe’s to our small group at the home of friends. We haven’t met often, this group, mostly because we’ve added two babies to an existing collection of five children under age five. Though they’re new to Timmy, the other parents here have been my friends for a while, long before marriage or children. I remember them all in other seasons, some as long ago as childhood. It’s enormously special to see our kids playing with Legos together. 

We crowd into the living room, children playing upstairs until yells and thumps draw an adult up to supervise. We order teriyaki and trade parenting tips. It’s loud and lovely, an evening so perfectly emblematic of this season. Yes, it’s a different home than the one I left behind, but it’s still home, as I learn to recognize the sweet and simple grace of new views of old places, new seasons with old friends.

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