It was actually journalist Ella Winter — not native North Carolina son Thomas Wolfe — who said we can’t go home again. Wolfe, it has been written, was so enamored with Winter’s turn of the …
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It was actually journalist Ella Winter — not native North Carolina son Thomas Wolfe — who said we can’t go home again. Wolfe, it has been written, was so enamored with Winter’s turn of the phrase in a conversation the two had that he asked Winter, a British-Australian author and activist, for permission to use it as the title of a book he was writing.
“You Can’t Go Home Again,” that book, was published posthumously in 1940, nearly two years after Wolfe died from tuberculosis and after heavy editing by Wolfe’s editor from a longer, unpublished manuscript. I’ve not read it, but like me, if you’ve lived in more than one place, you’re probably familiar with the words and likely explored what Wolfe may have meant when he wrote them.
That was on my mind during a quick two-night visit to Kansas this past weekend. My wife Lee Ann and I flew to spend time with Darrell Spain, one of my best friends, and go to a concert (Riders in the Sky, performing with the Quebe Sisters in a beautifully-restored old theater in downtown Salina) with him and visit other friends in Darrell’s hometown of Waterville and my old hometown of Blue Rapids, four miles down the road, in northeast Kansas.
By my count, this was my eighth trip back to Kansas in the last 40 months. I’m no stranger to “going home.” Each visit, though, there are the curious simultaneous sensations of the old and the unfamiliar. It really is like déjà vu all over again — driving past the vacant lot where the mobile home in which we lived once stood, the old house we subsequently moved into, my high school, the golf course where I learned the game I came to love, my first girlfriend’s house, our unusual round “town square,” the mill, the abandoned “Daisy Cream” burger joint where entertainer Red Skelton once ate, and more.
The best word I can think of to describe the feeling of being “back home” is surreal. And even surreal doesn’t come close to capturing it.
My life is delineated by two major events: first, my parents’ divorce and our (my mom, my older sister Belinda and me) subsequent move from Sanford to Kansas when I was an 8-year-old in 1972; and second, my graduation from college in Kansas and my move back to Sanford when I was 21. It was during those 13 in-between years in Kansas that I grew up, and since I remember curiously little about my life before that first move, the memories from those days in the Sunflower State are at the same time brilliantly intense and foggily dreamlike —like scenes from a movie I saw a long time ago, and liked, but not real life.
Ultimately, when I go, I always ask myself: Did I really live here, in this tiny farming community where there’s just a single stoplight within a 30-mile radius? Did those thousand vivid recollections really happen, or did I imagine it all?
The flood of memories isn’t so overwhelming, nor are the emotions. What’s so palpable is the weird nostalgia and the disbelief, the odd connection/disconnection that tugs unsatisfyingly on my psyche when I’m there. There’s the elation of being back home and a strange sadness that emanates from a source I can’t quite pinpoint.
Ours was a whirlwind trip, about 50 “feet on the ground” hours in total. And in those hours, I had only about 30 minutes to myself. On Friday afternoon, we’d returned to our dear friends Terre and Bev Carter’s house, where we always stay in Blue Rapids (they live across the street from the elementary school I attended for three years) from short visits in two nearby towns. While Lee Ann was napping, I drove our rental car out to Irving, a ghost town whose 101-year history came to a close with a forced government relocation of its inhabitants back in 1960. It’s famous — and I’ve written here about it before — for being struck by two tornadoes hours apart on May 30, 1879.
There’s not much there now except a large stone marker on a small grassy lot with “IRVING” emblazoned on it and a mailbox with a spiral notebook inside where tornado chasers, the curious and other visitors come to scrawl their names and impressions. A six-mile drive down a gravel road got me there. It was sunny and gorgeous out, and after arriving I stood there, just listening.
Six miles out in the country, under a yawning blue sky in rural post-harvest Kansas, there’s a deeper level of quiet than you can imagine. You have to not hear it to believe it.
For a minute or two, I drank in the beauty and the solitude. Earlier in our visit, Darrell had kidded me about my yearly summer trips from Kansas to North Carolina back in those days, visits which allowed me to see my dad, work at The Sanford Herald and, in Darrell’s words, “recharge your Southern accent.” Now I stood in old Irving and got another kind of charge, a refilling of crisp Kansas air mixed with familiar melancholy.
Suddenly, in the midst of my existential processing, my cellphone rang. It was my daughter, Karis, calling just to chat.
We talked all the way back to town, her call reminding me where my heart is.
Dorothy, who was whisked from Kansas to Oz by a tornado, said it: There’s no place like home.
Some of us are lucky enough to have two of them.