In his posthumous novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, author Thomas Wolfe tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book about his hometown of Libya Hill. The book is a best seller but the town is unhappy with Webber’s critical depiction of them. He receives many menacing letters and some death threats.
Wolfe took the title from a conversation he had with writer Ella Winter, who remarked to Wolfe: Don’t you know you can’t go home again! Wolfe had already addressed a similar theme in his autobiographical first novel Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life in 1929. It was Wolfe’s first novel, and is considered an autobiographical American Bildungsroman.
You Can’t’s title is reinforced in the denouement of the novel in which Webber realizes You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…
Similarly the phrase you can’t go home again has entered the American lexicon to mean that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you cannot return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life. More generally any attempt to relive youthful memories will always fail.
For the last number of years I have tried to give lie to Wolfe’s theme by exploring the memories of my past life with the renewal of some old acquaintances, who have been most influential in my life. In throwing caution to the wind, I was aware that I could suffer emotional rejection, withdrawal and the knowledge of some painful truths.
But as Socrates warned, the unexplored life is not worth living and at my age I needed to bathe in the sweetened waters of my memories in order to energize my present before cognizance fades from my mind. I am running, not from my life but for it.
Reunions are harbingers of our eternal homecoming. In the month of June of 2015 my wife and I attended, not one, but two of my 50-year reunions. The first one was more familiar to us since it was at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where we have attended all their five-year reunions since the 25th in 1990.
Consequently it was simple to trace the subtle changes of each half-decade so that seeing many of my friends from those years was no great shock to me. The big disappointment was the fact that many could not or did not attend. This was a lost opportunity that I regret a great deal. Sixty-eight had perished over the years, including my dear roommate, Peter L. Lawrence, who has been gone for nine years now. I still grieve over his loss
The Class published its 50th Anniversary yearbook that had a special section eulogizing the deceased in truth and dignity. It was a fine addition to one’s memory bank. The biggest disappointment was many of the living had not submitted any record of their lives this past half century, cheating us of contexting their memories with theirs.
On the other side of the equation, at least a half-dozen friends came back whom I had not seen since graduation. There were only four other members of my high school class there. Sixteen of us had motored up from New York’s Xavier High School. One of them brought his wife whom I had known at a Summer Sodality that we had both joined at Chaminade High School on Long Island during our college years. There was one high school friend whom I did not remember seeing since Xavier. His wife laughed at that thought. But I countered if she had any proof that he actually attended. Perhaps Jesuits had sequestered him for those four years.
Like most reunions the pace was frenetic but well oiled and things moved very smoothly. I especially enjoyed the class Mass on Saturday, officiated by our Father Paul Sughrue. His acolyte was his twin brother, Peter. Seeing them on the same altar gave me a warm glow that I will always treasure.
The refrain from one of the hymns provided me with a new prayer: Day by Day:Lord let me know you more clearly…love you more dearly…and follow you more nearly…I did not miss the last statement’s Jesuitical nuance. It is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s prayer: Lord make me chaste…just not now!
In looking back I was touched by the changes that have happened to most us. While only two or three present seem to be bearing the evidence of serious disease or handicap, most just seemed weathered and aged like polished wood or fine wine. Life had happened to us all and now as we approached our individual sunsets, quiet reflection seemed to be more present in our feelings and discussions.
The higher significance of such a reunion is that it is an attempt to embrace the eschaton of our lives. It strives to match the past with our present and our prospects to our future lives on earth and in the afterlife. That is the only homecoming that counts.