Going Home Again

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(Host) Commentator Caleb Daniloff recently combined those two summer staples – the trip and the reunion – with results that managed to be both predictable and surprising at the same time.

(Daniloff) Not long ago, I went back to my childhood home: Washington, D.C. It had been almost two decades. The occasion was a memorial service. A central figure from my childhood had died after a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s. She was a dynamic woman, and mourners came from all over. As a child, I played with her daughters but hadn’t seen them in years.

I flew into Dulles. The last time I’d seen that airport, I’d been 11 years old, and headed in the other direction – to Moscow, where my journalist father had been assigned as a correspondent. My sister had stayed behind to attend college outside Chicago. None of us moved back.

As soon as I boarded the boxy old transport shuttle that thrilled me endlessly as a child, that old familiar saying leapt into my head: You can never go home again.

Still, I saw symbolism everywhere in my trip: that my parents and I flew into the same airport, and my sister into another; that a tropical storm had cancelled most Burlington-to-D.C. flights but not mine; that we flew through dark, heavy clouds that lifted upon landing, the tarmac washed clean by a fresh rain.

In my memory, Washington D.C. was many things: honeysuckle in the air, street football, the smell of chemicals from my parents darkroom, lightning bugs, cold fried chicken at swimming pool picnics, the hum of Kryptonite roller-skate wheels.

There had been bogeymen, too. Instead of Osama and Al-Zarqawri, there was the Ayatollah Khomeini, an Atlanta child killer, and anyone offering schoolkids something to smoke. It was a long time ago. Yet the terror warning issued for Washington the day before brought back those faces. Terror has always had too many heads.

Before the memorial service, my parents and I visited our old house. A tree my father planted was still growing and the house-number sign the same. We walked back to the alley. Our old backyard was filled with plastic climbing stations, another childhood unfolding. Life hadn’t missed a beat.

I had expected Starbucks and Gaps on every corner, houses demolished, businesses gone. But plenty of the same storefront neon was lit up, the taxi cabs and bus stops unchanged. Even the noises a distant jackhammer, the rumble of traffic on Wisconsin Avenue sounded the same, only smaller, like I could put them in a jar.

After the service, we gathered for a reception. It had been a long time since us kids had laid eyes on one another. Some of us had tattoos, some had kids of our own, some had gone prematurely grey, some had battled heroin. It was great to see them. Life had divided us, death had brought us back together.

I was quickly reminded that life is not broken down into clean chapters with symbolism and foreshadowing. It is usually random and chaotic, the often mundane patterns and connections visible only decades later. Still, it was nice to be back, despite the ominous barricades around the White House and other government installations.

On the flight back to Vermont, as I watched the Potomac shrink down to a squiggle then disappear, I realized that you can indeed go home again. You just can’t go all the way.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter and freelance journalist.

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