Bad directions lead to nostalgia — as in, turn left where the gas station used to be.
A family day trip was filled with memory-tugging used-to-be’s. It was a mix of warmth, sadness and somberness to go where things were many years ago and see how they’ve changed or disappeared.
Behind the house where we grew up, we stopped to look around to see where the train station used to be. The area has pretty much grown shut, leaving no trace of the depot and freight house the railroad workers removed years ago.
We could see our old place pretty well from the tracks, which we could not do when growing up because of all the trees that used to be there.
Opposite our home when we grew up, a six-acre field was vacant except for tall weeds that sometimes got mowed. Back in the 1940s, a chemical factory burned down there. When our parents bought our house shortly after they got married, the bricks on the side facing the lot were still singed orange from the fire.
On second thought …
A neighbor who built houses thought that empty lot had potential and placed a half dozen new homes there. That made the neighborhood look better.
It also turned out that developing land where a chemical factory once stood wasn’t such a good idea. Apparently, soil laced with arsenic is incompatible with family dwellings. One Superfund environmental cleanup later, all but one of the homes are gone. The rest of the lot has returned to the unkemptness we remembered.
Up the hill is a building next to a playground. The structure that previously stood there was the school where I went to first through third grades. We had recess on that playground. The swings are certainly newer. The monkey bars are gone along with the merry-go-round. The seesaws have also disappeared, leaving behind a center bar with four empty attachments.
In town, we stopped by the pizza place that didn’t exist when we grew up. Down the block is what appeared to be an empty building where the family drugstore with soda shop used to be — a couple doors away from where the firehouse used to be.
The last farm our aunt and uncle owned is gone. Well, the house and barn are still there, looking better but obviously it’s not a working barn. The rest of the 80 acres surrounding them is a housing development. The dirt lane we used to drive on to get to the barnyard would now pass through someone’s living room.
Going to the first farm we ever knew — where I spent much of my summers and weekends — the house and barn still stand — sort of. The house is spruced up. The outhouse we knew well — because an indoor commode was only installed after many years — is gone.
A clean break
The barn and milk house had to be spray painted white every year and kept pristine to pass inspections. We never let the inspectors know we took sponge baths in the milk house after a dirty day in the fields or on Saturday nights — whether we needed to soap up or not.
Both buildings have fallen into neglect. The shed where we shoveled many trailer loads of hand-husked corn into cribs is gone. The once-white barn seems never to have been painted. Now used for storage, the splintering barn and dingy milk house show no signs of their better days.
The last stop on the tour was the cemetery to see our parents and sister. That was as I remembered things. As long as they’re kept up, cemeteries don’t change much — or with luck, not often. As we left, I said to Mom as she often said to us, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
The afternoon almost done, there was one more stop — the main reason for the trip — a small annual meeting of my high-school class. It wasn’t a grand reunion. The next milestone gathering is a couple of years away.
Less than a dozen of us simply got together to plan for the upcoming extravaganza and shoot the breeze. There was talk of school days, but back then, broken bones and sleep studies would never have crossed our lips as they do today.
More classmates might have attended. Some had family obligations, schedule conflicts or moved hundreds of miles away. In the last year, four of them came up with the ultimate excuse never to attend class reunions or anything else ever again.
The good news is that there are still many more of us among the contact list than on the in-memoriam ledger.
Despite the wistful nostalgia of the day, it’s good to remember that the memorial roster is another place you don’t want to be.
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