Just as we choose our friends but not our family members, as children we don’t choose where we live. Only as adults can we make that decision, even if our options are limited. And just as we might love family members we don’t much like, along with those we like very much, we look back on the places of our childhood, whatever our feelings at the time, with nostalgia. They stay with us the rest of our days.
On our trip to Britain this past July, Laura and I stopped at the house in Sheffield where I lived between 1964 and 1967. The setting is all hills, whether the valley I used to gaze out to from our dining room windows or the elevation of the street’s houses in relation to the roadway.
That stretch of the street is equally distinguished by what I called the “islands”: a long line of rectangular mounds of vegetation and trees in front of the houses. Between the islands, driveways rise sharply to the houses’ garages. Sidewalks (“pavements” in England) border both long sides of each island, one along the roadway and the other between the islands and the houses’ walled front gardens. Through each island, a mud path has been cut on which I used to ride my bicycle. In those days, I had vision.
That sunny afternoon this past July, I explored with the tip of my white cane the spot where the path of the island in front of my old house begins. How steep it is! Could I possibly have ridden my bike up it? Certainly not from a standing start. I must have peddled like mad along the interior sidewalk to gain the necessary momentum. Or maybe I carried my bike to the top of the mound and cycled on from there.
At that same spot is a beech tree. Barely a hindrance in my childhood, today, fifty years older and bigger, it’s a formidable obstacle. I’m glad no one chopped it down.
A few people and cars passed by. It’s a neighborhood. Yet in my imagination, all those trees and vegetation in a hilly setting, combined with the distance of half a century, has lent it an aura of bucolic remoteness.
Remoteness fit my child’s state of mind. We lived miles away from my school, so I had no schoolfriends near home. But the distance also meant I was safe from school’s terrors, including an unhappy term at boarding school. Home and these islands were my retreat.
* * *
Built in the thirties, each of these houses is actually a semi-detached, meaning half a building, with a garage attached at the side. (A bungalow is the single exception.) Each has a front door and a bay window to its left or right, and windows for two bedrooms upstairs. The interior is spacious, with a large wood-paneled foyer, two large rooms and a kitchen, a winding staircase, and four bedrooms above. The one time a friend from school saw inside our house, he told people afterwards it was “a boarding house,” by which I eventually understood he meant it was huge. We weren’t by any means rich, as our lowly status in Darien, Connecticut, was to confirm, but his remark made me aware we were better off than many of my Sheffield schoolfriends’ families.
On the exterior, some things had changed. I was shocked to learn from Laura that our front garden lawn is now bricked over, apparently used for parking cars. True, the lawn was small: at most three or four strides in each direction. Still, a lawn is a lawn, and a parking lot a nightmare out of Joni Mitchell’s songbook. I wonder if they still use the garage for its intended purpose. If so, more than one member of the family must have a car.
Another change is that our front door was set in from the arched entrance. I’d forgotten, but remembered when Laura pointed out that there’s now an exterior glass front door. You have to go through two doors in order to enter the house. Shelter from the rain? Greater privacy? As a boy, I wouldn’t have liked that last barrier to arriving safely home. Not even as an adult. Entering a small space between doors would feel like going into a decompression chamber or, reminiscent of my lawyering days, the room in a prison where guards interrogate you through a microphone from behind bulletproof glass.
As I pulled all these details into my visual imagination, I told myself to banish negativity. The front door was only a detail, the asphalt replacement a jarring factor, yes, but still tiny in a setting whose essential character hasn’t changed.
I’d have liked to have rung the doorbell and asked to look around, but I didn’t feel comfortable imposing without having alerted the owners ahead of time. Besides, there was no sign of anyone at home.
But our staying outside on the sidewalk might well have caused anyone watching to wonder what that guy with a white cane and the woman with him were up to. Why were they walking to and fro in front of that house? Thinking about buying it? Then why not knock on the door? Casing the joint, like in those American gangster movies?
* * *
Just around the corner from my old house is the entrance to a large property that, in my day, belonged to a convent. That property is huge, running along the backs of all the houses on that stretch of the street. However, it gradually angles away, making the back gardens near the corner relatively small while those further down the street get longer and longer.
The street’s lone bungalow, on the corner, has the shortest property, but it’s wide. The man who used to live there, an elderly, soft-spoken Yorkshireman named Mr. Law, cultivated a garden that extended all around his single-story home.
Our house, next door to Mr. Law’s bungalow, had the second shortest back garden, but unlike his, ours was the width only of our semi-detached house. Still, it was modestly charming, with two levels of flower beds on either side of stone steps that led to a lawn bordered by more flowers. Like Mr. Law, Dad lovingly tended his garden.
But what mattered to me was that he and I could play cricket on the lawn, albeit a compressed, tennis-ball version. We had to steer the ball more or less straight ahead, which meant it sometimes flew over the fence into Mr. Law’s. Going over to retrieve it, Dad would take ages talking horticulture with him. Hitting the ball too far to the right risked breaking a window, while too far to the left would send the ball flying into the convent’s grounds. In that case, terror of nuns dissuaded us from climbing over the back fence, and so the ball was lost.
Once in a great while I saw those nuns, invariably in pairs and dressed in their long habits and face-concealing cowls, gliding past our back garden or through the convent’s gateway around the corner. I never spoke to them, nor they to me, or anyone else I knew. Their conspicuous withdrawal from the world meant total separation from us.
Then again, judging by my habit of hiding under auditorium tables during Christmas play selections and never volunteering in class, I also sought concealment and withdrawal.
* * *
Laura and I walked to the corner, past what had been Mr. Law’s bungalow, and to what used to be the convent’s entrance. Judging by its name, the property now belongs to a school that in my childhood I’d have ridiculed as “posh.” Today the word might be “poncey,” which the English began saying after I moved to America. In the old days, stepping across that threshold had been inconceivable. Today? People were going in and out, and there was no such thing as a “Keep Out” sign.
So we ventured into the once hallowed grounds in the hope of getting a view of my old back garden. But along the left side of the driveway there’s now a dense hedge that’s taller than either of us, and though we walked to where we estimated my old house must be, it was completely blocked from view.
* * *
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That first sentence of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, his 1953 novel about guilt for past transgressions and weakness, sounds defensive. Whatever regrets I have from my years in Sheffield, I was so young that they no longer arouse guilt. Instead, what brought Hartley’s line to mind was how the past had me feeling emotions of familiarity and strangeness, that stimulating disorientation we experience in a foreign country. On the one hand, people both here and there go for walks, take buses and drive cars, attach themselves to sports teams and live vicariously through television melodramas; on the other, English people back then rarely flew abroad, the Berlin Wall still stood, and they knew nothing about cell phones, texting or the Internet.
In front of my old house, I was aware of thinking this was the last home I knew by sight. The morning of September 23, 1967, a Saturday, I left home for the emergency room with what would be diagnosed as a detached retina in my one good eye, and I never returned. When I was released four months later from a London hospital, it was to emigrate to the United States, where Dad had been transferred by his American employer. But while those events will always have a pull on me, I long ago absorbed their impact.
Another thought I had while standing there was that despite the passing years, something essential in me hasn’t changed. That’s the recognition that has stayed most insistently since my return to Brooklyn. The part of me that can be happy or anguished, that finds peace at the center but can also be restless, is intact: that veiled constant—the subjective self, my consciousness.
Emmanuel Kant distinguished between things we know without need of the senses from what we know only with their aid. Something similar could be said about feelings. So much of what we feel is reactive to sensory experience: a work of art, a day at the beach, a rainy evening, remorse over something done or not done, delight at making someone happy. With such an onslaught of stimulation, how much of my emotional life could possibly be generated solely from within? Yet in front of my old home, I felt that the decades’ joys and setbacks had all been processed by the same subliminal, changeless core.
* * *
If this were a ghost story, instead of staying politely outside, I would have shimmered through into my old home and passed from room to room, memories upon memories in each. In the dining room at the front would be the formal dining table that Mum waxed and polished till it gleamed, the upholstered green chairs and, over there, Dad’s impressive gramophone on a shelf and, below it on the floor, mine, its low-power volume sparing the rest of the house from sound blasts. Drifting through to the back “living” room, I’d find the television set, the couch opposite, our informal family meals table, and along the far wall the French doors opening out onto the back garden. And so on, into the kitchen, the cupboard under the stairs, up those winding stairs and through the bedrooms—the one for Mum and Dad and another for my brother, both at the back, and the front guest bedroom and mine at the front corner.
Except the furniture would all be different, along with the photographs, artwork and wallpaper. The gramophones would be gone. Maybe there’s a fancy entertainment center in their place, and a wine cabinet next to it. Maybe the back room has a dining table fit for all occasions.
Even with its current residents absent, I would notice their traces: a note on the refrigerator door, that morning’s remnants in a rubbish bin, a bookmarked paperback.
And if they were home? I’d be a sudden swish of air, a brief shadow against the wall, a barely-heard sigh. Would they feel my presence? Would they credit their senses? If so, where could I hide?